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Website performance is now crucial - forget pretty

Phil Payne is a Google Bionic Poster and Top Contributor based in Sheffield UK. The opinions here are not Google's

Response time - as measured by Google.

The isham research site - as measured by Google

The November 2007 version of this page compared two sites using Google crawl data. Site A had over three times the performance of Site B. Now guess which site was crawled more often, and which got the most traffic. In this particular case, a lazy programmer had designed a site using SSI to save an hour or two's programming - simply changing the SHTML pages to static HTML tripled the speed of the site.

Google Site Performance

Those measurements were based on the Googlebot crawling pages. Perhaps Google was persuaded by this to make response time a factor in ranking - a quick response does improve the search experience. Who wants to wait while a page loads? The first step is the announcement of measurement tools in December:

These measurements are made using the Google toolbar with PageRank enabled - so they reflect more of the browsing and rendering process.

But why?

Why is web site performance so important? A study published by the BBC suggests people's patience expires at just FOUR seconds.

About half of mature net-shoppers - who have been buying online for more than two years or who spend more than $1,500 (£788) a year online - ranked page-loading time as a priority.

It found that a third of those questioned abandon websites that take time to load, are hard to navigate or take too long to handle the checkout process.

The four-second threshold is half the time previous research, conducted during the early days of the web-shopping boom, suggested that shoppers would wait for a site to finish loading.

So people used to be prepared to wait eight seconds - now it's halved to four. This trend will continue. Three decades ago, IBM researchers explored the link between response time and productivity:

[Walter J. Doherty] and Richard P. Kelisky, Director of Computing Systems for IBM's Research Division, wrote about their observations in 1979, "...each second of system response degradation leads to a similar degradation added to the user's time for the following [command]. This phenomenon seems to be related to an individual's attention span. The traditional model of a person thinking after each system response appears to be inaccurate. Instead, people seem to have a sequence of actions in mind, contained in a short-term mental memory buffer. Increases in SRT [system response time] seem to disrupt the thought processes, and this may result in having to rethink the sequence of actions to be continued."

And these people were talking about sub-second response times. In a competitive environment, "it's enough if it works" is not good enough.

Performance as a ranking factor

If the rumours are to be believed, a future Google algorithm will use web site speed as one of the myriad ranking factors. This means web designers, hosting companies and webmasters have a raft of new factors to manage.

Few people consider response time and transfer rates when designing a site and buying web. Hosting is priced in gigabytes - which are cheap - and not milliseconds, which aren't. But they are the most critical of all parameters and one of the aspects isham research routinely monitors for its customers.

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