Here’s What You Need to Know About Website Page Speed Best Practices
We’ve been fielding a lot of questions about website page speed, and for good reason:
- Slow page speed can negatively impact search rankings.
- People have short attention spans and crave performance. Pages that load slowly have more bounces and cart abandonment issues.
- Visitors that remain on a site can have a poor experience and lose confidence in the company.
- Slow sites generally consuming more resources, and in the age of the cloud, more resource consumption means higher costs.
- Mobile devices play a huge role in website discovery (first visits) and mobile bandwidth has a larger variance. Generally, it accounts for 60% - 70% of first visits. 5G service is coming, but it will be years before everyone has it. Sites need to load fast on phones and tablets where service can be sketchy.
How do you know when your page speed is a problem and what needs to be fixed?
Page Speed Reports Are Confusing
To help website owners and developers monitor website page speed, a number of automated tools and reports have strung up. And while these tools can be very helpful, more often than not it creates confusion. There are four reasons for this.
1. Complicated & Technical Results
Automated reports are written by technicians. That means the results tend to deliver detailed and technical analysis — which is fine. But there is no way that a website owner can tell from the report alone what needs to be fixed or if a slow process needs to be “fixed” at all.
2. Page Speed Score Chasing
People chase arbitrary scores. It’s built into how humans think. Fair enough. But all scores are arbitrary by definition. Ultimately, a page speed score means nothing. Website page speed is only valuable to the extent that it accomplishes a real business objective. Chasing a page speed score instantly becomes a bad thing when you forget this critical fact.
3. Inconsistent Page Speed Score Results
Automated page speed tools run on servers located in a datacenter in a specific location. That seems obvious, right? But you can run the same report pointing to the same website or page on two different days and get two different results even if you haven’t changed anything. There are a lot of reasons why this can happen.
- The traffic to your server at the time.
- The data packet routing is always different.
- The specific performance of your DNS provider.
- Resources and services called from external servers vary in performance from day-to-day.
- Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) also vary in routing and traffic load.
- Different page speed reports can generate wildly different results because they do not always measure the same things and they weight other things as more or less important.
Each one of these can impact the page speed results of your website and each one can vary a bit from report to report and from day to day … even from hour to hour.
4. Ever-Changing & Expanding Technology Stack
If you set out to build the ultimate page speed analytics tool, by the time you completed it your tool would already be out of date. It’s a cliché to say that technology is moving faster today than ever before. But it’s true. Development frameworks like .NET, Angular, Ruby on Rails, and Django; Content Management Systems (CMSs) like DNN, WordPress, and Joomla, and even major website platforms like Shopify, Squarespace, Weebly, and Wix are all changing and updating all the time. It is impossible for automated reports to keep up.
It’s no wonder that people have so many questions about page speed.
The Important Stuff About Page Speed
When Page Speed Really Matters
The tech world has been aware of the importance of page speed for a long time. So, a lot of measurements and statistics have been gathered over time — there’s a lot of data on page speed right now. Let’s talk about the general best practices based upon a consensus of opinion.
The Holy Grail of page speed is for a website to load in 2 seconds or less across all devices. It is generally agreed that a website that takes longer than 3 seconds to load starts to experience bounces and abandonment. Those negatives escalate rapidly from there as load time increases.
But what does page load really mean in this context?
What really matters is the user experience. It is demonstrable that when all aspects of the user experience — visual elements and points of action and engagement — load in two seconds, sales and retention improve. If the user experience takes longer than three seconds, then you are likely to be losing visitors. But once those points of user experience are satisfied, additional processes can be running in the background and take longer. These "invisible processes" will likely not impact retention and conversions unless they impact the user experience.
That means that an automated report can say that a page is taking 5 seconds … 7 seconds, even 10 seconds to load. But if the visual aspects fully render, the interactive elements (CTAs, expanders) and engaged, and the visitor can cleanly scroll in 2 seconds then the longer “full page load” time will likely not impact user experience and therefore will likely not impact bounces and abandonment.
When Page Speed Matters Less
The more sophisticated your business needs, the more sophisticated the apps, plugins, and integrations you need on your website. Requirements for the site will come from the Marketing Team, the Sales Team, the IT Team, the Investor Relations Department, Business Forecasting, Production, and many others. All of these will slow down your website, but that doesn’t mean that those requirements are not important and helpful to the business. If you need them, you need them.
And sometimes there are compliance requirements that can impact page speed. A good example of this are Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Certain industries have very stringent accessibility requirements and things like hot-key navigation, text-to-speech, in-page magnification, and font selection capability can be mission-critical while generating a significant amount of processing overhead.
The key is to balance all of the business needs while optimizing for user experience performance.
Practical Best Practices To Improve Page Speed
Here is a list of best practices that can be applied to every website to improve page speed where it matters most.
1. Properly Format & Optimize Images
Set a standard for ALL images on your website — hero images, product images, blog posts, and more. The standard should be strictly enforced. Your site will look and feel more professional, your images will be properly optimized to balance speed and quality, and your website will have less uncontrolled bloat over time. As an example, an image standard for product images might look something like this:
For photos, JPEG image at 5” x 5” at 150 dpi compressed. For line art, PNG image at 5” x 5” at 150 dpi compressed.
2. Remove Unused App, Widgets, & Integrations Completely
This is one of the issues we see build up on websites over time. Automated uninstalls of apps, widgets, and integrations routinely fail to remove all of the related code and external calls. When we have helped businesses speed up their websites, we have found code for services that have not been used in years. Not only does this unnecessarily slow down a website, but it is a security risk since those old calls are no longer being updated or patched.
One of the hidden calls that website admins often forget about is fonts that are no longer used. It’s very common for a font to be called for a while — a new product launch, a promotion, or other limited-time marketing function — and then be unneeded. But the code that loads the font is still out there calling for a download that will not be used.
4. Consider Order of Operations
Ensure that your user experience elements are prioritized by ensuring the code loads these elements first whenever possible. Tracking pixels, cookies, and payment gateways (among many others) can load after the customer is engaged with the page. What good does tracking do if the visitor is frustrated by the page load? The user experience is the most important objective of your website … treat it that way.
Page speed reports and automated tools are valuable. But the value is not in the “score.” These tools provide an overview and tell experienced admins where to look. When it comes to page speed, what really matters is what the user experiences — what the users see, the ability to scroll and interact with the site, and their ability to engage with the content and CTAs. It’s how the site renders to satisfy the human senses.
Some developers and automated page speed tools call this user experience rendering “first contentful paint.” But you don’t need to remember insider terms. What you need to remember is the user experience is what matters most. Measure page speed via user analytics and review your site not as a marketer or a developer or as a salesperson. Use your site as a customer across a variety of devices and let your experience be the judge.
If you need help interpreting your page speed report or advice on assessing and prioritizing the things that need to be improved, just drop us a note. We’re always happy to help.