Google first introduced site speed as a ranking factor in 2010. But site speed as a factor has always only impacted the speed of the desktop version of websites. With an increased focus on mobile, including Google’s announcement of the mobile-first index, developers began asking when mobile page speed would start counting as a ranking factor, on mobile versions of their website.
And in an announcement early in January 2018, Google finally revealed that mobile page speed would become a ranking factor in July 2018. Dubbed the Speed Update, Google explains:
The “Speed Update,” as we’re calling it, will only affect pages that deliver the slowest experience to users and will only affect a small percentage of queries. It applies the same standard to all pages, regardless of the technology used to build the page. The intent of the search query is still a very strong signal, so a slow page may still rank highly if it has great, relevant content.
Within that announcement are a few statements that should offer some guidance of how you can respond.
Test Your Site and Optimise NOW
Google has stated that this update will only affect a small number of queries – and pages that deliver the slowest experience – but without quantifying either. But Google did make some notable changes to their own Page Speed Insights (PSI) tool that may help.
Already available, PSI now assigns both a Speed and Optimisation score to web pages, testing performance on both mobile and desktop. However, the Speed score is derived from data in the Chrome User Experience (CrUX) report, which provides speed data for popular URLs that are known by Google’s web crawlers. It does not include all publicly accessible URLs, so many websites will have “Unavailable” as a speed score.
Sites that do receive a score can expect to see a grade, broken down as follows:
- Fast: The median value of the metric is in the fastest third of all page loads.
- Slow: The median value of the metric is in the slowest third of all page loads.
- Average: The median value of the metric is in the middle third of all page loads.
The grade is assigned according to the median value of two metrics: First Contentful Paint (FCP) and DOM Content Loaded (DCL). A page is graded as fast when both of these metrics are in the top third.
If the Speed score grading seems a bit vague, remember that Google has already stated that Speed Update would only affect pages that deliver the slowest experience. Regardless of your page’s score, following any optimisation recommendations given by PSI should see incremental improvements in performance, and possibly your score.
If your site isn’t fortunate enough to have a Speed score, you can still use Lighthouse to run an audit on your site:
- Using Google Chrome, load the URL you want to audit.
- Once the page has loaded, open Chrome DevTools: from the main menu select View > Developer > Developer Tools, or use Command+Option+I (Mac) or Control+Shift+I (Windows, Linux)
- Select the Audits tab, and then Perform an audit….
- If you know your website is not set up as a Progressive Web App (PWA), you can deselect this option, but leave all other options checked, and then select Run audit.
The audit report that follows is more detailed than any optimisation recommendations shown by PSI, and when viewed in conjunction with Google’s guidelines on measuring performance using the RAIL model, it will provide valuable insight into how you can go about improving page speed and associated user experience.
The Use of AMP
Using accelerated mobile pages (AMP) and Progressive Web App technology won’t necessarily influence how the Speed Update affects your site. Google’s announcement includes the line:
It applies the same standard to all pages, regardless of the technology used to build the page.
However, depending on the device and browser used, PWAs can result in significant page speed improvements, and have also been shown to influence time spent on the site, and other ranking factors. Much of this also applies to AMP pages, with Google further clarifying that:
since users from Search would be seeing an AMP page, the speed of the AMP page would be taken into account. However, if a page built with AMP provides a slow experience to users, it may also rank lower in the results. (emphasis added)
There are so many factors influencing rank that it would be foolish to believe that AMP – or PWAs – would guarantee a better ranking, before or after the Speed Update. But AMP and PWAs still offer powerful benefits that shouldn’t be ignored.
Content Relevancy is Still Important
One of Google’s top priorities with any update is to ensure relevancy in the top results. And the Speed update is no different. Google’s announcement of the update includes specific mention of intent being a very strong signal, so it is still possible for a slow page to rank higher than pages that are faster, purely because the content of the page is great, and highly relevant.
Google still endorses a broad approach to user experience, meaning developers and site operators shouldn’t obsess over a single ranking factor, at the expense of others. If the actual content on your pages is of a poor quality, no amount of performance optimisation is going guarantee that your page will outrank a slower page with excellent content.
As of the date of the article, you still have five months to test and optimise mobile page speed for your website. In truth, mobile page speed is something you should have been paying attention to for almost a decade already, regardless of it not being a ranking factor before. Because any site optimisations you implement should be for the benefit of users first, not Google and site speed has always been a massive factor on a user buying or returning to your site.