The Most Important SEO Factor in 2020: Site Performance
A new year means that there are going to be new ways of looking at things. On top of that, most bloggers and marketers are going to be seeking out new techniques for improving their digital presence. And what better way to learn than to put the previous year in perspective. For today’s article, we’re going to be looking at the most important SEO factor for this year.
This review is possible thanks to an article written by Max Cyrek for SearchEngineLand. In his own time, Max found that Page Load Time is going to be crucial for a successful SEO strategy in the year ahead. In other words, website performance is going to dominate the SEO rankings.
If we look back on previous years, this isn’t entirely bombshell news to most SEO experts in the field. We’ve known that performance plays a big role in rankings for years now. But it’s always nice to get a reminder, as it helps you to equip yourself with better SEO tools and learn more about the different techniques with which you can optimize your website performance.
How hard is it to optimize website performance?
Unlike other SEO factors like snippets, Schema, and long-tail keywords; better performance is rather easy to achieve due to its inherent nature. At the end of the day, website performance is one of those SEO ranking factors which you do have full control over.
If you wanted to do keyword research, you’d have to consider signing up for a service like Ahrefs or SEMRush. Likewise, optimizing for snippets might require similar tools because manual data gathering can be tedious. Whereas with website performance, you’re mostly looking at optimizing your hosting department, as well as on-page resource factors.
Nevertheless, if you have not done any previous website performance optimization – you might be out of the loop as to where you need to start. So, this article is going to be dedicated entirely to answer this question. How do you optimize your website performance?
Fortunately, it’s easier than it sounds, and you can reap immense SEO benefits within days or weeks of you making minuscule yet substantial changes.
Start by understanding your current issues
In one of our recent guides, we took a closer look at how to perform a content audit. Essentially, a content audit helps us to understand the performance of our content, but also our website performance. Both have some interconnected links between one another. As an example, a page with too much clutter might make it for pages to take a lot longer to load on mobile devices.
And, as Google has so eloquently stated in the past, mobile-performance is to be one of the top priority factors for anyone involved with SEO.
In our shared pursuit to push the web to do more, we’re running into a common problem: performance. Sites have more features than ever before. So much so, that many sites now struggle to achieve a high level of performance across a variety of network conditions and devices.
Performance issues vary. At best, they create small delays that are only briefly annoying to your users. At worst, they make your site completely inaccessible, unresponsive to user input, or both.
If you have never done an SEO check-up in the past, one of the easier (and free) to use tools is the SEO Analyzer by Neil Patel.
All you need to do is specify your Website address and wait for results to generate. The things you’ll want to look out for immediately are load times, the number of resources used per page, and potential SEO bottlenecks. Fortunately, Neil’s analyzer, as well as many other similar tools, can do such reporting on the fly without much hassle.
In this sample report, the load time for a mobile page took 4 seconds, which is way above average. And, as such, should be addressed immediately. Personally, my recommendation is to use tools like GTMetrix to check the load times of your pages from many different locations.
It’s pretty much impossible to accurately check your site’s speed through your own means. This is because most of the website resources get cached in your browser, and it can give a false impression of how fast or slow your site truly is. This is why using speed-testing tools come in handy.
So, by now you should have a fairly broad idea of where your website stands. With the above methods, you can do 2 things effectively:
- Check the general report of your site’s pages and their integration of modern SEO techniques and potential issues.
- Observe the average load time for your pages, including that of a Desktop and Mobile version. Anything above 2 seconds should be attended to, immediately.
In this case, attending means optimization. So, for this second part of this guide on website performance optimization, we’ll focus solely on ways in which you can optimize your site’s performance for better SEO results.
And the best place to start is your web hosting.
#1: Choosing a reliable hosting company
Cheap isn’t always better, although in some cases cheap hosting companies do provide reliable performance. The thing to remember about affordable hosting is that in most cases you’re put on a shared plan. A shared hosting plan means that there are other websites being hosted on the same machine as yours. As such, any issues occurring on other websites might also affect the performance of your own website.
So, how to deal with this? For one, you might want to look into hosting companies that specialize in your type of hosting. Namely, if you operate your website through WordPress – you might want to seek out WordPress-specific hosting companies. Some of the more popular ones include HostGator, WP Engine, Kinsta, Pagely, EasyWP, and others.
Another option would be to look into companies like Linode and DigitalOcean. These hosting companies specialize in Virtual Private Servers, which although more technical, can provide substantial performance improvements over shared hosting plans.
As an example, DigitalOcean has data centers in more than 12 locations across the globe. Not only you can choose a specific data center location, but also create a specific CDN (Content Delivery Network) to further improve the performance of your load times.
This also brings us to our second point.
#2: Learn about Content Delivery Network’s
CDN for short, allows you to serve your website pages from a location nearest to your visitors and customers. As an example, you might have your website’s data center located in New York.
When a visitor from Europe tries to access your website, they will naturally experience a small delay in response time due to the distance. But, if you use a CDN – the said request will be served from a location nearer to the said visitor.
And there are many great companies that specialize in CDN services, some of which offer their services for free.
- Cloudflare. A true expert in the business – Cloudflare specializes in all-things performance optimization. From succinct CDN services to more robust caching engines and SSL certificates. And trying their services out is completely free, without any downtime.
- Jetpack. WordPress users might be familiar with Jetpack already, but did you know that this package also offers CDN services? Albeit, slightly limited in their nature, Jetpack is ideal for photographers and photobloggers. The performance improvements are visible instantly.
- OptiMole. Another WordPress plugin that specializes in image processing and optimization of delivering photo files. The upside is that you can compress your images on the go, and have those images served through a content delivery network.
As someone who was pessimistic towards using a CDN, I’ve found that the performance improvements outweigh the process of settings things up. Platforms like Cloudflare provide a 100% increase in performance without 0 downtimes. All you need to do is change your NameServer details and everything else is taken care of.
#3: Think with mobile-first in mind
There are more people consuming content from mobile devices than those who do it on a desktop computer. It’s a natural change in pace as more people get access to modern and capable smartphones. For you, as a website owner, this means one thing only: think with mobile-first in mind.
From a design perspective, mobile-first means that you start building your website as a mobile version first. And then slowly transition to a desktop-friendly version. However, this might not always be the case as many website owners build their sites using themes rather than code the website themselves.
And, using a theme can sometimes backfire because you’re not guaranteed 100% compatibility. For example, a WordPress theme might say that it is built with mobile-in-mind. But, once you start adding new plugins and extensions, eventually the theme starts to function poorly. This isn’t necessarily the fault of the developer, but the simple nature of plugin interaction between different themes.
Fortunately, you have several options to resolve this bottleneck:
- Always check the interaction between your plugins and your theme. Run tests whenever you add major features or implement new changes. If something breaks, considering finding an alternative.
- Rather than using a standalone theme, consider using a website builder which can eliminate the strictness of certain design rules.
- Consider building a mobile application for your website which you can then add to popular app stores as well.
In my experience, building with mobile-first in mind also helps alleviate certain design issues. Mobile sites tend to be far less cluttered than their desktop counterparts, so building with minimalism in mind can provide a substantial boost to your website performance.
My last recommendation to look into would be AMP – Accelerated Mobile Pages. A project built and maintained by Google. AMP transforms the mobile experience your users have on your behalf. And I’m sure that throughout your own Google searches, you’ve come across several AMP pages already.
The basic idea behind AMP is to strip down all the clutter from your pages to serve a singular, clean, and minimalist content page. The biggest disadvantage of this is that Google serves the pages through its own proxy. And, on top of that, you’re quite limited in terms of customization options.
But, when it comes to performance, it is absolutely tremendous. Some of the biggest news sites in the world use AMP in order not to lose any performance when serving millions of readers on a daily basis.
#4: Finding a balance between content and design
Everyone has a different idea of how to run a proper content strategy. Some people prefer to operate from a design-first perspective, while others tend to focus on their content presentation. To illustrate, let’s take a look at the differences between both strategies.
The first one, as shown in the photo above, is focused on the design aspects of a website. Generally, these are modern websites built with dynamic design patterns in mind.
The upside of such a design is that it feels unique, and in some ways engaging to the reader. Whereas the downside would be a lot more resource usage (and thus worse performance), and the fact that such a design rarely feels intuitive.
For the second approach, the above example taken from our beTop theme, you’re going to focus on content more than design. Which is not to say that design becomes irrelevant.
Rather, you’re utilizing design white-space in a way that executes your design idea but also helps to highlight content more effectively. Not to mention that with a traditional design, you’re going to be using a lot fewer resources to load your website pages.
So, with that said, you can decide on whether you wish to start with the content or with design. In most cases, it’s preferable to start with content because that’s where most of the SEO factoring happens anyway.
#5: Caching, minification, resource optimization
Lastly, you’re going to want to ensure that you’re up to date with the latest caching and resource optimization techniques. For every content platform out there (WordPress, Squarespace, Drupal, etc,.) there are different methods to achieve optimal performance.
If WordPress is your preferred website platform of choice, here are a couple of plugins that are going to website optimization a lot easier.
- LiteSpeed Cache – LiteSpeed Cache for WordPress (LSCWP) is an all-in-one site acceleration plugin, featuring an exclusive server-level cache and a collection of optimization features.
- WP Super Cache – This plugin generates static HTML files from your dynamic WordPress blog. After a HTML file is generated your webserver will serve that file instead of processing the comparatively heavier and more expensive WordPress PHP scripts.
Being able to perform certain optimization tasks automatically will greatly improve your productivity. And plugins nowadays are smart enough to understand modern development principles, too. So, you can use any of these plugins with premium WordPress themes without sacrificing flexibility.
Website performance and SEO go hand-in-hand. Both complement one another, on top of performance helping to create a much nicer browsing experience for your readers. At the end of the day, whatever changes you make to your website should be weighed with performance in mind.
Even small acts like compressing your images can go a long way to trim down excess load times. And the more of such small and incremental changes you make, the sooner you’re going to achieve optimal performance results. Sites like PageSpeed Insights can give you a broad idea of where you stand in terms of Google’s own algorithm rankings.
This post has outlined both performance optimization techniques but also mindful strategies. Whether you have a website established already or you’re only planning to make one, these tips will provide immense benefit in the long-run. And, that is to say, website performance won’t cause you any issues as far as SEO rankings go.
We’d love to hear your own opinion on this matter, and perhaps your experience with performance optimization. Specifically, the type of optimization that focuses on getting better SEO rankings for your content.