Is Google about to tell the world that your site is too slow?

We spend a lot of time talking to people about why they should care about their site’s load time. A poor-performing site can result in lower conversion, higher bounce rates, higher abandonment rates and even higher costs. Sometimes, we find ourselves preaching to the converted. Sometimes it falls on deaf ears. But if we tell someone their site’s speed will affect their search engine ranking, we invariably have their attention.

It’s surprising how many people don’t know that performance is a factor, particularly when Google’s been taking it into account since 2010. And it doesn’t just affect natural ranking. Performance is also a factor in determining quality scores for PPC ads and has been since 2008.

Now, though, it looks as though Google might be about to take this a step further. According to a recent article on Search Engine Land, a new “slow” label is under test. A small, red flag would appear next to results for pages that are slow to load, warning searchers that the page could take a while to appear.

It’s an interesting idea. Google has probably done as much as any single organisation to promote faster websites (for example, through the PageSpeed Module and its work on the SPDY protocol, which contributed significantly to HTTP/2).

It does raise a few questions, though. The most obvious is how “slow” is defined. It’s possible for a site to have a high total load time but still deliver key content quickly. And while Google might be able to work out if a page is loading “above-the-fold” content quickly, it won’t necessarily be able to tell what content is important from the end user’s point of view. For example, what if page load is delayed by an advertising banner at the top of the window? As long as visitors can navigate the site and find the content they were interested in, they probably won’t care if a few banner ads appear later.

Potentially, what Google could do is base its speed rating on the time it takes for the user to see the content they searched for. This would certainly make the label more useful and relevant.

Companies might also fall foul of the slow label when Google indexes pages that require some kind of intensive back-end process to build them. This could have an impact on pages that are created dynamically using a database search, for example. Organisations that studiously optimise the performance of their product pages could nevertheless see their search results pages penalised.

The other big question is how the label will affect user behaviour, and it will be interesting to see whether Google publishes the results of its tests.

On the one hand, the label suggests danger or an error. Red is not a neutral colour, and the intent appears to be to warn users and – possibly – put them off (although red is also rather good at attracting attention, which might mitigate this effect). Ultimately, slow websites could be stigmatised.

Another interesting possibility is that owners of slow sites will see lower abandonment rates. People abandon slow-loading pages when they lose patience or when they conclude that the site is down. While searchers might be less willing to click on a link if they know the page is slow, if they’ve been forewarned and they still click through, perhaps they will be more likely to wait. This might be beneficial in a PPC context, since companies will be paying for fewer wasted clickthroughs.

If the label is rolled out, perhaps one of the most important effects will be to raise the profile of web performance within organisations. CEOs and board directors who give performance KPIs only a cursory glance might be more inclined to take note if the world’s biggest search provider is telling the world their site is slow. And it’s easy to see avoiding the dreaded “slow” tag becoming a matter of pride for designers and developers.

All in all, this looks like a positive move – a very public attempt to nudge site owners in the right direction. If and when the label sees the light of day, it will be interesting to see whether or not it has the desired effect. Either way, Google deserves credit for continuing to fly the flag for web performance.

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