Why a slow website will kill your business & how to fix it

Yes, the quality of your product or service is #1, but… 

After working with clients in different niches, I can safely say that the quality and speed of a website can be one of the main factors which can make or break an online business.

According to a study carried out by Google, 53% of mobile site visitors leave a page that takes longer than 3 seconds to load. For websites that load in 5 seconds, the probability of leaving increases by 90%.

Let’s take a more in-depth look at the statistics from Google and see how they can be used to improve our bottom line:

Probability of exit from your website based on the page's loading time
source: Google/SOASTA Research, 2017, https://www.thinkwithgoogle.com/marketing-resources/data-measurement/mobile-page-speed-new-industry-benchmarks/

After the first 3 seconds, we will have lost around 53% of our potential website visitors, meaning we will retain 47% of our visitors.

After the first 5 seconds, the probability of our visitors leaving increases to 90%, meaning we will have lost a whopping 76% of our potential website visitors.

And finally, pages that take 10 seconds to load could potentially be losing out on 90% of their audience!

Of course, not all visitors exit the website only because it took too long for the page to load. They will include a combination of:

  • low-motivation users whose attention (during those few seconds) jumped to another object of focus; 
  • accidental traffic from users who misclicked on links/ads leading to the website; 
  • visitors who exited the website due to other factors.

Speed tolerance – need vs curiosity

Not all people will have the same tolerance level for slow websites. The tolerance for slow website loading time will correlate with how much a person needs the content. This could be portrayed with a graph depicting a positive regression between these two variables:

Graph of speed tolerance versus need for the content
Speed tolerance vs need for the content

The less we need the content on the website, the less likely we will be to wait around for the content to load.

Of course, if we really need it, we’ll refresh the page, reset our WiFi, even try different browsers, just to be able to access that website. However, in most cases, people will see no need to struggle with a poorly performing website and choose a solution offered by a competitor.

Here’s what’s interesting about that graph: there is potential to cash in on visitors who, at the moment, do not have a substantial need for our content.

Let’s call these visitors “curiosity-based traffic.”

Curiosity-based traffic

The reality is that most websites do not offer content which is vital to the visitors, and most online traffic is curiosity-based, versus needs-based.

We do not really need to buy that gadget from Amazon, and we don’t really need to read that news article that popped up on our Facebook feed.

With that in mind, suddenly, it becomes less shocking to see that 53% of online traffic may drop off if the website does not load in 3 seconds. 

A tolerance for slow website speed will not exist if the primary motivation behind clicking through to read a news article came from pure curiosity.

The major players have already figured this out.

Instant content & BBC News case

When our main source of income comes from monetizing traffic with advertisements, our website must load as quickly as possible.

When our website content loads quickly, it enhances our revenue in several ways:

  1. People who visit our website spontaneously are less likely to switch their focus somewhere else.
  2. People can consume more content in the same amount of time and therefore see more advertisements.
  3. The faster we load the content, the more people will stick around to see that first (and possibly only) advertisement during their spontaneous visit.

The UK’s largest news publisher BBC News is successfully cashing in on this strategy.

For visitors using mobile devices, they offer scaled-down versions of their website, based on Google’s AMP website technology.

This is the score one of the BBC News’ articles received from Google’s website speed test:

BBC news got a Google page speed score of 95/100
source: https://developers.google.com/speed/pagespeed/insights/?url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.google.com%2Famp%2Fs%2Fwww.bbc.com%2Fnews%2Famp%2Ftechnology-35652271

The first consumable content (First Meaningful Paint) loads in just 0.8 seconds, and visitors are already able to read more about that headline they had just clicked on.

Also, you may notice that the text loads before the image. This is a powerful strategy to immediately present visitors with some consumable content (I’ll expand on how to use this strategy later in the article).

Compound page loading time & Booking.com case

Another type of traffic monetization occurs when visitors actively bring in revenue by making a purchase themselves.

This applies to e-commerce stores, hotel reservation sites, subscription-based services, etc.

Let’s take Booking.com as an example of this type of traffic monetization.

Researching holiday destinations may be a spontaneous decision. 

People might spontaneously look up some possible holiday ideas while scrolling on their phones during work-hours in the office.

This is why we have to optimize our websites for mobile devices.

This is Booking.com’s mobile page speed score, according to a test run by Google.

Booking.com's website loads in 0.9 seconds using 4G networks in the UK
source: https://www.thinkwithgoogle.com/intl/en-gb/feature/testmysite/

Just 0.9 seconds is all it takes to load Booking.com on a mobile device with a 4G internet connection.

For Booking.com, having a fast website is essential to their business, because loading only one page will not be enough to find a good deal for your next holiday.

To find any deal, it will take us a minimum of 4-5 pages: homepage, search results, hotel page, and the reservation.

However, in reality, it will require loading a lot more pages, looking through hotels and running searches for different dates and locations, until we find a deal we are happy to purchase.

Let’s say it took us 50 pages until we finally found a stay, which we were happy to book.

For these 50 pages, we will have spent a total of 45 seconds only waiting for pages to load in order to see the information which we were looking for.

Now let’s imagine that Booking.com did not care much about their website speed and, instead of 0.9 seconds, each page loaded in 8.9 seconds – the UK’s average page loading time for mobile devices (source: https://www.thinkwithgoogle.com/intl/en-cee/insights-trends/research-data/european-mobile-speed-rankings-are-how-does-your-site-compare/)

If we were to visit 50 pages until we found a deal that we were happy with, then at least 445 seconds (~7.5 minutes) of our total research time would be spent staring at a blank screen, waiting for the information to load.

Now let’s imagine that all of this happened while we were on our morning commute, spontaneously scrolling on our phone, and we had only 30 minutes on our hands.

If we spent 25% of our time just waiting for the pages to load, how likely is it that we would find a deal that we were happy with?

In this scenario, Booking.com’s loading time of 0.9 seconds will give us a total of 400 seconds of additional time that we can spend looking at more options, hotels, reviews, dates, and trip destinations.

These additional 400 seconds results in a 22% higher chance to find a deal that we are happy with.

That’s how much a small improvement in page loading time may give us when it compounds by loading multiple pages and running several searches.

Website speed is a good investment

I’ve had numerous talks with business owners about their website speed, and often they respond with something like this:

“Sure, all of those things may be important for big businesses like Booking.com or BBC News, but I have a small business website, and my situation is completely different. My visitors will find what they need anyway, even if the website is a bit slow, plus I don’t have the resources to speed it up right now.”

I understand that website speed may not be the first thing businesses will want to invest in. The examples mentioned above sound more like traffic/revenue optimization, rather than trying to build a new business from scratch. 

However, your website speed may play a significant role in generating new traffic, as well.

Increase Organic traffic

One of the primary sources of online traffic may lie in Organic traffic when your website comes up as one of the top results in search engine rankings, i.e., Google or Bing.

You see, Google wants their results to provide visitors with a positive experience. To achieve this, they use complex algorithms and formulas, which use different variables for calculating the final rankings.

Website loading time is one of those main variables (source: https://webmasters.googleblog.com/2018/01/using-page-speed-in-mobile-search.html).

Facebook also uses website speed as one of the variables when deciding whether to show its users content leading to a website (source: https://newsroom.fb.com/news/2017/08/news-feed-fyi-showing-you-stories-that-link-to-faster-loading-webpages/). 

Therefore, if you wish to attract visitors via Organic traffic, it may be a good idea to look into how fast your website loads.

Slow websites pay more for marketing

If you advertise your website on Google, Facebook, or any other major advertising network, a slow website may be killing your business quite literally.

Similarly to how it plays a role in calculating Organic traffic rankings, website speed is one of the variables which determines what price you will have to pay for advertising your website (source: https://support.google.com/google-ads/answer/2404197).

The slower the website – the more you’ll have to pay to compete with other advertisers.

This is a screenshot from Google Ads for a client I’ve worked with. They had two separate websites for projects in the same niche:

The slower the website - the higher the average cost per click
The slower the website – the higher the Avg. CPC

The projects were located in the same location, bid on the same keywords on Google Search, the content in the ad copy, and landing pages were created according to the same logic & structure.

The main variable that differed in Google’s rankings was the website speed score.

As seen in the screenshot, one website had a mobile speed score of 9/10, the other – 5/10.

Unsurprisingly, the website with the better speed score paid 22% less for each click on its ads (“Avg. CPC” stands for “average cost per click”).

While many other factors could determine the price per click, website speed was the main difference that stood out between these two projects.

If your business spends $5,000 per month on advertising, around $1,000 of that budget may go down the drain due to a low website score.

Perhaps it would be a better decision to invest that $1,000 into improving your website and then reap the benefits of lower marketing costs.

Mobile versions

Hopefully, by now, we’ve established that investing in a fast, well-performing website is a wise business decision.

However, there is one other thing business owners always fail to check on their website: the mobile version.

Remember that screenshot in the last paragraph, where the website speed column was described as “Mobile speed score”?

While it’s true that the Desktop version is more likely to bring in conversions and may be a safer and more reliable source of traffic for your business, more and more people are surfing the web on their mobile devices.

In fact, more than 50% of all web traffic now comes from mobile devices:

More than 50% of all web traffic now comes from smartphones and tablets
source: https://www.thinkwithgoogle.com/data/web-traffic-coming-from-smartphones-tablets/

What is more, Google now uses the mobile version of your website to determine its Organic ranking. (source: https://developers.google.com/search/mobile-sites/mobile-first-indexing “Google predominantly uses the mobile version of the content for indexing and ranking”).

The number one blind spot of business owners and even website developers is the mobile version of the website.

Sure, the desktop version of your website may look great. Heck, it may even load quickly on your high-speed broadband connection. 

But what if I used my smartphone with a screen size of 360×640 pixels on mobile data?

How to improve website speed

Website speed is an essential factor in any online business, but how can we improve it? 

Luckily, there are some quick fixes to speed up almost any website. Best of all, it can be done using free tools, which I will cover next.

Diagnose if there’s a problem

To quickly check if your website performs well on mobile devices, you can use a free tool created by Google called TestMySite. You can find it here: https://www.thinkwithgoogle.com/intl/en-gb/feature/testmysite/

TestMySite tool gives a simple report for your website speed on mobile devices

The tool will evaluate your website loading times on mobile devices using a 4G and 3G connection. Also, there is an option to compare your site with some competitors in your vertical.

Make a list of issues

You can easily make a list of the most significant issues slowing down your website using Google’s Lighthouse tool. You can find it here: https://developers.google.com/speed/pagespeed/insights/

The report also calculates time marks for “First Contentful Paint” and “First Meaningful Paint.” These are arguably the most critical scores you should be looking at:

Google PageSpeed insights report score

They show how much time it took for the content to load “above the fold.” It is the content your visitors first see on their screen.

“First Contentful Paint” and “First Meaningful Paint” should be kept under 3 seconds for the best performance.

Optimize images

The absolute most common issue I see on the majority of slow websites is always the same – heavy image files.

When designers send in their work, they want the images to be as high quality as possible. Yet, it is simply not necessary to use very high-quality files on your website, because images inside the page will be placed in smaller containers and served scaled-down. 

In fact, if the visitors are on their smartphones, their whole device screen may be smaller than the full-sized version of your image.

However, if the image is not optimized, the visitor’s browser will download the massive image files from the website server.

Therefore, resizing images can save several seconds on your website loading time.

Take a look at this example from a Spanish train company’s website. Anyone who’s ever tried to buy tickets from here using a mobile device will know what I mean when I say that a slow website can kill your sales:

Google PageSpeed insights score for Renfe.com is very poor

It takes a staggering 8.6 seconds for the First Meaningful Paint to load!

While images aren’t the only culprit for slowing down this website, it is one of the main issues.

Funnily enough, visitors using mobile devices do not even see these images unless they scroll down the page!

According to the report, a whole second could be slashed simply by optimizing images:

Optimizing images could save 0.9 seconds for this website

After inspecting the page’s code, I noticed that the containers in which these images were shown were 1440×469 in size on desktop devices and only 480×350 in size on mobile devices. Yet the images which were hosted on the website server were much larger – 1903×469 in size!

There are several free tools online for optimizing images.

The most popular are: squoosh.app and tinypng.com

Find bottlenecks with the Waterfall report

A waterfall report displays a timeline for when each element on your website was loaded. It also displays a green mark for the moment when the first meaningful content loaded on the screen. 

A waterfall report timeline with the First paint mark

Some elements are essential for the first meaningful content to load. For example, the “/” element seen in the screenshot is an essential file of the page. Loading of non-essential content should be delayed.

Load text before images

Remember that trick BBC News does by loading text before starting to load images?

This strategy is called “lazy-loading” images, and it is a handy technique to speed up the time for when the first meaningful content loads on the page.

You can see it done in this waterfall report – all the image files (they end with “.png”) started to load only after the first paint mark:

Waterfall report shows images loading only after all other content has already loaded

As you can see in the screenshot, even though the image files are tiny icon files, they can still take up to 240 ms to load! Delaying them after the first meaningful paint mark makes the essential content load much faster.

Load content before running analytics scripts

If your website gathers analytics data, such as Google Analytics or Facebook pixel, you can save time by loading these scripts only after you’ve loaded the first meaningful content on your page.

Analytics pixels load only after all other content has already loaded

This technique can be easily implemented with a tool called Google Tag Manager. It is a single container where you can keep all of the tracking pixels on your website and run them only on wanted triggers. 

On this page, the analytics scripts are run on GTM using DOM-ready pageview events as triggers to fire Google Analytics and Facebook pixels. If you use Google Tag Manager, the configuration will look something like this:

Google Analytics Tag setup example

Take ownership

In the end, it all comes down to running tests and analyzing the performance of your website, versus judging it based on how it looks visually.

I could go on more on how to reduce the loading time of your website, from using an effective cache system to using a content delivery network (CDN) with multiple locations around the world to serve your visitor from the server nearest to their location. However, the absolute majority of websites could go from slow to faster than average by merely running the quick fixes mentioned in this tutorial. 

All it takes is a genuine interest to recognize whether your website is performing well and, if it is not, find out what is causing those issues. 

A little sense of ownership can go a long way and become the tipping point, which will either make or break your business.

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