Matt Cutts recently referred to a movement inside Google to begin using page load times as part of the organic ranking algorithm, describing the factor as one of his ‘what to expect in 2010? bullet points in a presentation at PubCon Vegas 2009.
Most webmasters and SEO’s have seen this as a positive change, and Google have already started doing a lot to support webmasters in their quest to pursue a faster, more efficient website. They’ve even begun developing a new protocol, “SPDY” to improve upon the “HTTP” protocol to create a “2x Faster Web”. Google’s make the web faster project provides background reading and resources as part of their mission to “improving the web for all“.
I’ve picked out some useful tools that you can use to start improving your client’s site performance now. Does it make sense to start including recommendations related to serious site performance issues in your SEO consulting from now on? I think it does.
Pingdom tools – full page test
The tool is particularly useful for identifying slow loading internal objects or external scripts through the “order by” functionality, though the tool itself does not provide a commentary and recommendations on potential performance issues.
Google page speed
On the tool, Google writes:
Page Speed performs several tests on a site’s web server configuration and front-end code. These tests are based on a set of best practices known to enhance web page performance. Webmasters who run Page Speed on their pages get a set of scores for each page, as well as helpful suggestions on how to improve its performance.
Google’s plugin integrates nicely with Firebug, the code preview plugin, standard in all Firefox SEO setups and seems a lot more reliable than the earlier versions. It’s strength (Over Y!Slow) is that the recommendations made in the speed test sometimes contain actual examples. For example, if you’re told to minify your CSS, Page Speed will provide you with an example of your own CSS file in its minified form.
Based on the Internet Explorer specific, AOL developed tool Pagetest, the online version offers the ability to choose test location (US, UK and New Zealand), Browser (IE7 or IE8), and more advanced settings such as repeat testing for more reliable data. Matt Cutts mentioned this tool in an interview with Mike McDonald at Pubcon 2009.
The test is surprisingly powerful (don’t be put off by old school UI design) with an optimization check list and waterfall report, similar to Pingdom’s tools. The downside of the UI experience is an inability to sort by performance metrics – all of the reports are generated as images, not ideal for deep data analysis.
If you’re careful to get the arguments right in the command line, WGET can provide a useful breakdown of page load times as the crawler fetches and stores web pages on your computer. Normally WGET is for Linux users, though I wrote a how to install WGET in Windows guide for the Vista / XP / Win7 crowd. If you’re interested, definitely have a go.
WebSiteOptimiser produces a basic, but useful page objects report with a particular focus on bandwidth saving through the use of compression. The report also makes comments and gives warnings on image size, scripts and CSS. Very handy, though bypassing the CAPTCHA to get to the report was an unwelcome step in the process.
Google Webmaster Tools
Don’t forget Google’s Webmaster tools – though extremely basic, the crawl stats section can give you a directional feel for the overall performance of your website. In the example from Builtvisible above, you’ll see a sharp decrease in time spent downloading a page in mid October. That was due to a site redesign and relaunch, where a lot of inefficient code was replaced with something much more nicely put together. If anything, it just goes to show that a site update with a good development team can usually provide performance improvements without having to do anything to the server or hosting!
It’s great that Google are actively involved with research and tools that can deliver a faster web. I do hope though, that Webmaster Tools gets an upgrade in the site monitoring department before any page speed related upgrades are included in the ranking algorithm. In the meantime, there are already plenty of tools (and good developers) that can help you with your site performance issues.