How does website speed boost search engine optimization (SEO)?

Optimizing a website's performance is an important part of ensuring a website shows up high in search results

Learning Objectives

After reading this article you will be able to:

  • Explain what SEO is
  • Understand why site performance is important for SEO

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How does website speed boost SEO optimization?

Website speed is one of many factors involved in the discipline of search engine optimization (SEO), but it is not the only one. SEO is the practice of tailoring content and website experience to how search engines like Google and Bing evaluate webpages and rank them in search results. The goal of SEO is to rank pages as highly as possible in search results, which ultimately drives more traffic to a website.

From a search engine's perspective, it is important to make it easy for users to find the information they need, so a website's user experience is very important. Site performance is a big part of user experience; it is frustrating for the user when they have to wait for pages to finish loading.

How much does site speed affect SEO?

In 2010, Google announced that site speed would be factored into their search rankings. Since that time, site performance has grown more influential, and optimizing for performance is now a large part of optimizing for SEO. In their initial announcement of site speed as a ranking factor, Google emphasized the perspective of the user, and how a slow website adversely impacts the user's experience. Google also pointed out that users were less likely to stay on websites that loaded slowly. (This would imply that users were therefore less likely to stay long enough to get their query answered.)

Google does not reveal details about its search algorithms, so it is difficult to quantify exactly how much site speed affects SEO. However, website usability and the overall user experience are certainly crucial, especially for mobile devices, and Google's own research has shown that 53% of mobile sites are abandoned altogether if they take longer than 3 seconds to load.

SEO fundamentals

How does SEO work?

When a user performs a search, the search engine generates a list of websites that are put in order from most likely to least likely to fulfill the query. This list is typically divided into a series of results pages (or SERPs) listing websites that may answer the user's query, and usually there are 10 results per SERP. Most users will not go past the first page of search results, opting instead to refine their search and try again. For this reason, the goal of most SEO experts is to get the website they are managing into the top 10 search results for the queries they are targeting.

A website will rank higher or lower in search engine results depending on a number of factors, including how relevant it is for the query and how authoritative the search algorithm considers the website to be. By optimizing a website for search, website owners can make sure their content shows up as high as possible in search rankings, making it more likely that users will click.

SEO functions as a collection of practices for helping search engines determine what kind of information is offered on a website, and by extension, enabling users who are looking for that information to find it.

In the West, Google dominates the search engine market, and because of this Google's algorithms are largely what determine SEO best practices. In North America, Google has close to 90% of all searches, with Bing and Yahoo search taking up most of the rest of the market. However, in other parts of the world, other search engines hold sway; for instance, Baidu is the main search engine in China.

SEO encompasses a variety of tactics, including:

  • Content quality relates to how well a piece answers the questions users raise in search. Practitioners use a process called keyword research to ensure topics and search terms are worth pursuing. Keyword research involves understanding search volume, related search terms, and the competitive landscape for a keyword. Additionally, the quality of a piece relates to how well a piece matches user intent — or helps the user accomplish whatever goal landed them on that page. For example, a piece titled “what is SEO” should focus on defining SEO and explaining its relevant components, while a piece titled “how to optimize SEO” should focus on actionable advice.
  • On-page factors refer to how the webpage content is structured. Optimized webpages have clear and direct titles, helpful section headers, descriptive file names and alt tags for images, and easy-to-understand site hierarchies. These factors make it easy for search engines to “understand” what a webpage is about.
  • Off-page factors, on the other hand, are outside of the content on the website itself. One of the most common off-page factors is the amount of external links a website has. When authoritative (or trusted) websites link to content outside of their website, the Google algorithm interprets that as an indication the content is valuable.
  • User experience focuses on the website visitor and is where core web vitals (CWVs) come into play. The CWVs are a set of metrics Google uses to measure how quickly and smoothly items on a webpage load and in turn, how users experience the site. While CWVs matter for any website, they may be particularly critical for certain industries, like ecommerce. For example, when someone is trying to check out from an online shoe store, slow page speed could be the difference between $100 in revenue and $0.

Some website owners opt to use problematic tactics called “black hat” SEO, but these are generally not recommended. One of the most well-known techniques is called keyword stuffing.

Keyword stuffing is the practice of using keywords multiple times in content to an unnatural degree to gain an advantage in search engine rankings. Google no longer considers the frequency with which keywords are used to be relevant and sometimes penalizes sites for clear instances of keyword stuffing.

Why is SEO important?

SEO is critical to a holistic marketing strategy, partially because having relevant content that ranks highly is good for a company’s authority in their chosen industry.

Additionally, SEO is an organic or unpaid marketing tactic. While it may require time and effort to optimize a piece of content or optimize the user experience, the traffic SEO efforts garner is not something that can be bought. Compare this to digital ads, which disappear as soon as a company stops paying for them. In this sense, SEO efforts may have more long-term benefits compared to pay-to-play tactics.

SEO can also help companies build an audience of future buyers. For example, if an ecommerce company that sells sunscreen wants to drive potential customers to their site, they can pay to have their website appear as an ad on other websites. But that will only capture some potential buyers. Someone who searches on Google, “what are the benefits of wearing sunscreen” may also be a potential customer, but could be unlikely to click or see an ad. A holistic marketing strategy will have tactics to make both of these types of customers familiar with their brand and eventually convert them into buyers. SEO should be part of that strategy.

How do I optimize my web page for SEO?

Content and keyword research

  • Conduct keyword research: Optimizing a page for a keyword only matters if people are actually searching for that keyword. The process of keyword research can help site owners to determine what types of questions searchers are looking for and find overlap with their own business priorities.
  • Understand and write for search intent: All readers have a goal in mind when they read or visit a webpage, whether they are consciously aware of it or not. Site owners should think about how to best help their readers accomplish their goals. For example, a reader who visits an article about how to sew a dress is looking for something instructive and actionable. A site owner may want to supplement their article with a video demonstration or images of the process to make it easier for the reader to follow along.
  • Write thorough, easy to understand pieces: Google will rank the pieces it believes best answers search queries. One way to give pieces the best shot to rank is for site owners to ensure they cover as much of a topic as relevant for the reader’s goals. Additionally, writing pieces that are easy for readers to understand can help boost SEO as well, because readability is another ranking factor.
  • On-page SEO tips

    • Organize by headers: Using headers to divide a piece of content can help make it easier for the reader to scan the piece, improving their experience. This could also be an opportunity to write based on the keywords an organization is targeting. For example, writing a header that says “how to sew a dress” can not only make it easy for the reader to spot where to get actionable instructions, but also make it easier for Google to understand that the piece may be a good fit for the search term “dress sewing instructions.”
    • Use alt text: Alt text is used to describe the contents of an image. This makes websites more accessible for people who use screen readers to navigate the Internet. It also helps reinforce the main idea of a piece by creating additional opportunities to incorporate the keyword or core concepts.
    • Keyword incorporation: While keyword stuffing is never a good tactic, there are some places that are very important to include a target keyword, such as the meta title and meta description.
    • User experience and technical SEO

      There are many factors in technical SEO, but here are two of the most important:

    • Site speed: A fast website is one of the core tenets of technical SEO. Some ways to help boost site speed are to use a content delivery network (CDN) and resizing images. A CDN works by caching (or storing copies of) content across a network of servers. This way, when a user visits a webpage, its content will load on a server that is closer to them, improving loading speed. Similarly, reducing the size of images helps them load faster, improving website performance.
    • Crawlable webpages: Another important factor in technical SEO is ensuring that search engines are able to crawl webpages. One way to do this is to make sure relevant webpages are “indexed.” This is an indication that the webpage should show up in search results. Site architecture is another part of making a website crawlable. Using internal linking (including hyperlinks to web pages on a website from within the website) helps tell Google which pages are most important.

    How can Cloudflare help with SEO?

    Cloudflare offers a few tools for boosting site speed, which can improve technical SEO. Cloudflare CDN improves website performance by caching static and dynamic content across a global network spanning more than 320 cities in over 120 countries. Additionally, Cloudflare Images offers resizing functionality that can compress images and further increase website loading speed.