This post is for anyone who knows they’ve got what it takes to be a content superstar — but just can’t find that tipping point.
You are relentless. Thorough. Creative. Curious. You can write most people under the table. You read like mad and aren’t afraid to catch hell.
You are a self-starter, and you work hard. In fact, that hard work has paid off.
You’ve built up a nice little audience for your blog. You get a steady stream of visitors to your site every day, some meaningful comments with each post you publish, and occasionally someone emails to tell you how much they love your writing.
But you’ve noticed that, despite your maniacal consistency, things have started to stall.
Your numbers are starting to drop, especially your repeat visitors. Subscriptions to your email list are barely trickling in. Nobody is buying your products and/or services. Your ideas aren’t spreading.
The ugly truth is your site isn’t growing anymore — even with a half dozen guest posts on big-audience blogs.
Staring at the ceiling you start to toy with the idea that maybe being a wildly-spectacular content producer just isn’t in your cards. That your fate is to be cubicle bound forever.
You are about to roll over and accept the fact. But you can’t let it go. And there, crawling through your web reports once last time, you stumble upon a hypothesis: maybe your website performance sucks.
Why you need to care about site speed
Seems like a strange thing to worry about, right? But the speed of your site affects every metric you care about.
Bounce rate. Search ranking. Conversion. Page views. Reader satisfaction. Even revenue (otherwise known as money in your bank account).
And just about every major retailer online has come to the same conclusion: making your site faster can increase conversions.
Last summer Sherice Jacobs reported on a speed test run by Google. Then-Google VP Marissa Mayer asked users if they’d like 10 or 30 results per page. Hands down, web users wanted 30 results per page.
But when Google rolled out the changes and tested for speed (they are obsessed with speed) their jaws dropped. Traffic had dropped by 20% on those pages with 30 results.
The download speed difference? Half a second.
Amazon experienced a similar drop in traffic and revenue due to a fraction-of-a-second load delay. Impatient bunch, we web users.
Did you know this would happen with a faster website?
Last year Chad Summerhill, Manager of Digital Marketing at U-Pack, explained how their web team buckled down on site speed in 2011 as a major site-wide performance improvement initiative.
Chad said they “revamped code, optimized images, etc. to give our web pages a diet — and we’ve seen real improvements in site speed.”
What they didn’t plan on, however, was this: lowering page load time led to a dramatic rise in conversion rates across the site.
They’d already formed the excellent habit of tracking their website’s overall conversion rate. So they know a dramatic push of the needle when they see one. And a 15% increase in overall conversion made them do a happy dance.
Was speed behind this conversion boost? Their digging demonstrated it was a huge contributor. Their organic pages got the bulk of the benefit.
Think about it.
Anyone who fanatically tests the effectiveness of PPC landing pages will come to the same conclusion: thinner and faster pages convert.
But what does all this mean to you?
For starters, site speed affects your search ranking.
As John Eckman points out, page speed is a ranking factor in Google’s algorithm. In other words, fast load times equal higher rankings. And higher rankings lead to more traffic.
Now, page speed is just one of about 200 signals Google uses to determine rank. And Geoff Kenyon claims that less than one percent of search queries actually are affected by page speed.
That’s certainly not an excuse to ignore it.
A faster web site means a better visitor experience. A slow website will lead to a poor user experience. Your bounce rate will grow. Page views will drop. Most important, you will lose money.
Strange Loop puts it like this: a one-second delay can cost you 7% percent of sales.
If you make $1,000 a month from your site — that’s seventy bucks a month you are losing — and $840 a year. Can you afford to just throw away $70 a month? $840 a year?
Unless you are Mark Zuckerberg, I doubt it. Now that I have your attention, let’s look at what actually reduces site speed.
What slows down site speed?
The first place to look is your host.
Your speed problem may be from the uneven quality of service that comes with sharing a server. Some days are good. Some days are bad.
It could also come from choosing a generic hosting provider as opposed to one whose stack is finely tuned for your CMS. For example, WordPress users will see significant performance improvements by going with a premium managed WordPress host.
A good managed host should also be able to help you solve the litany of additional factors that could be slowing down your site. I’ll list a few here and then jump into what you need to do to test for these issues.
- Widget or plugin overload: In this category you’ll find common household names like a comment plugin or Hello Bar — notorious for killing page speed. In fact, Matthew Ogborne discovered that his Facebook Like button was downloading 83 Kb of data at 1.34 seconds of load time. He yanked it. Joshua Bixby had the same reaction when he discovered that it took 2 seconds to download the original Google+ button. Google has since fixed the problem, but the lesson is clear: know what kind of burden a widget or plugin will put on a site.
- Too Many Ads: Of course there is a temptation to display ads once you’ve got high levels of traffic. However, one of the major causes of high-bounce rates are slow-loading ads. Weigh the cost of each additional ad.
- Bloated images: Giant graphics can grab attention and pull readers in. But large images can also make downloading the page a burden.
- Incompatible Browsers and Apps: Chrome and Shockwave Flash are a great example. They don’t play nice. Who to blame? Google, of course, but it’s your responsibility to test your site (and all the pretty trinkets hanging from it) across browsers.
- Design Theme: A theme is your blog’s paint job. It’s what makes heads turn. It’s what makes people bristle with envy. And in some cases, it’s what makes your site painfully slow. Use a framework that works.
- Analytics Code: That snippet of code you dropped across your site to measure performance might add a hair’s breadth of drag to your site speed. Maybe 100 milliseconds here. 100 milliseconds there. But it all adds up.
- Sign Up Forms: The back end code of a sub form (like Aweber or Google Feedburner) can make additional calls to your SQL server that trip up your speed.
- Affiliate Code: Another line of code … another call to the server … keeps your site crawling.
The issues above … bandwidth thieves. All of them. Here’s how to round ‘em up.
6 tools to test your site’s speed
Fortunately there are plenty of free tools out there to test how fast your site is. And except for the Plugin Performance Profiler, there is a lot of overlap between the tools.
Since these tools are fast and free, it’s worth testing your site on all of them to see if there are problems another tool might miss.
Drop your URL into the text box of this dandy little tool, click “Submit,” and you’ll get an instant report of your site’s performance. You’ll see a list of recommendations that are broken down into high-, medium- or low-priority. If you are the curious sort, you can even explore the experimental recommendations (but not until after you knock out the others). A must use.
Joost de Valk of Yoast.com created a sweet Google Analytics plugin that includes a Site Speed feature, too. Performance reports will show you how quickly or slowly your page loads across different browsers and around the world.
If you want to test individual pages, Pingdom can deliver some robust reports. The nice thing about Pingdom is that your results will reflect real-world conditions, because the tests are performed on real browsers like Chrome.
Yahoo! designed this tool based on their rules for high performance pages. Run a test and you’ll get a summary report that includes recommendations for site performance. What makes this tool unique is the performance analysis tools they offer, like Smush.it and JSLint.
Anyone who uses WordPress knows that plugins are a beautiful thing. These applications can help you do just about anything you want. Theme-Check tests your theme to make sure it meets WP standards. TweetMeme adds a button that lets visitors share your content on Twitter. PopUp Domination may help you capture leads.
There are more than 21,000 plugins to choose from. But each one adds a cost. Each one can steal bandwidth and make your site crawl. So you have to make hard decisions about which plugins are worth the extra load to your site. The Plugin Performance Profiler will audit your plugins and identify which ones are hogging bandwidth. Root out the culprits — and then disable it when you are done.
6. Load Impact
This test simulates thousands of users hitting your site at the same time — which might happen if you get a tweet from Lady Gaga or a link on the front page of Reddit. You’ll be able to see where your site breaks, spot your bottlenecks, and fix problems before real users land on your site.
In conclusion …
Building and maintaining a fast website comes down to these general principles: eliminate what you don’t need. Run new features you want to add through a cost/benefit analysis. Keep whatever you truly need. Ditch whatever you don’t.
Got any thoughts, questions, recommendations, concerns, tips, or tools on website performance you’d like to share? Drop them into the comments box below …