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2019 Is the Year of Page Speed. Are You Ready?

By Colin Loughran, Content Creator at Unbounce

Page speed matters.

We’ve been hearing it for years, though any one of us would be forgiven for letting it slide.

There are other priorities, after all. Marketers have been busy ensuring content is GDPR compliant. We’ve installed SSL certificates, made sure that our pages are mobile-responsive, and conducted conversion optimization experiments.

Some of us have had kids to raise. (And others, dogs.)

But Google has been sending some serious signals lately that suggest sluggish loading is a problem you can no longer sleep on.

In fact, if we look at Google’s actions, it’s undeniable that 2019 will be the year of page speed, the year of the lightning bolt. It’s the year when the difference between fast and slow content becomes the difference between showing up in the search results (whether paid or organic) or disappearing completely.

Not convinced? Let’s explore the evidence together.

Google has been saying speed matters since forever

One of the reasons marketers aren’t taking Google’s latest messaging about page speed as seriously as they should is that the company has been asking us to speed up for at least a decade.

Way back in June of 2009, Google launched its “Let’s make the web faster” initiative, which sought to realize co-founder Larry Page’s vision of “browsing the web as fast as turning the pages of a magazine.”

“Let’s make the web faster” video posted on June 22, 2009 (via YouTube)

These weren’t just empty words. This initiative signaled a burst of activity from Google, including:

  • making speed a ranking factor for desktop searches (2010)
  • releasing PageSpeed tools for Firefox (2009) and Chrome (2011)
  • adding the capacity to preload the first search result to Chrome (2011)

But that was nearly ten years ago, and Google followed it with… almost nothing. Digital marketers and web devs thought they were safe to focus on other things.

Then, in February of 2017, Google returned to the subject of speed in a big way, publishing an industry benchmark report that’s been widely shared ever since.

The first version of the benchmark found that the average mobile landing page was taking 22 seconds to load.

This average came down to 15.3 seconds in 2018, but it’s still a significant concern. (If you’d like a visceral reminder of why a 15-second average wait is still a major problem, hold your breath for that long.)

While the core message that “speed matters” was the same in 2009, in the report Google was now warning that “consumers are more demanding than ever before. And marketers who are able to deliver fast, frictionless experiences will reap the benefits.”

Google and Page Speed: A Timeline

The benchmark report sounded an alarm. Much like “Let’s make the web faster,” it has preceded a flurry of activity from Google, this time laser-focused on mobile page speeds. Here are a few of the more significant moments that should concern you:

May 2017: Google introduces AMP landing pages to AdWords

This update to AdWords (now Google Ads) makes it possible for advertisers to point their mobile search ads to Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP), an ultra-light standard for web pages that is designed to load in less than a second on a mobile device. It’s the strongest indicator yet that Google wants you to get behind AMP in a big way.

June 2017 to February 2018: Google makes its tools more insistent

In this period, performance tools like PageSpeed Insights and “Test My Site” began making more forceful claims about speed improvements. In February, Google even announced two new tools. The Mobile Speed Scorecard lets you measure your domain’s load time against up to ten of your competitors. And the Impact Calculator produces an estimate of the revenue impact you’d see by speeding up your site.

July 2018: Google’s “Speed Update” drops

While speed has been a ranking factor in desktop search results since 2010, the “Speed Update” applies stronger standards to mobile searches. Alongside mobile-first indexing, this places renewed pressure on site creators to ensure their mobile landing page experiences are speedy and engaging.

July 2018: Mobile Speed Score is added to Google Ads

Though Mobile Speed Score doesn’t (yet) have a direct impact on your cost-per-click (CPC), loading times already factor into your Quality Score because they determine landing page experience. By isolating mobile load times, Google Ads now makes it “easier to diagnose and improve your mobile site speed.” Hint, hint.

Google is making mobile page speed mandatory…

Since 2009, one of the ongoing arguments that Google has been making — through releasing tools and metrics like PageSpeed Insights, Lighthouse, “Test My Site,” the Speed Scorecard, Impact Calculator, and Mobile Speed Score — is that speed matters.

Since 2017, though, that argument has gotten much louder. And while no single action or announcement on this timeline should send you into a tizzy just yet, it’s worth remembering that Google’s gentle reminders tend to become more or less mandatory.

In 2016, for instance, you could have safely put SSL certification on your “nice-to-have” list because all Google promised was a small boost to encrypted sites in the search rankings. Nice, to have, but not critical. In 2018, Google Chrome began actively flagging non-HTTPS sites as “Not Secure.”

That’s how Google encourages change: first a carrot, then the stick.

…but what are marketers doing about it?

Unbounce wanted to know what, if anything, digital marketers are doing to meet Google’s new performance standards. So in the “Inside Unbounce” tent at this year’s Call to Action conference, we conducted an informal survey of attendees.

Participants could choose any page they wanted. Together, we’d run the selected page through Google’s “Test My Site” tool and record the results.

An attendee uses “Test My Site” at CTAConf 2018. Unbounce wanted to know, how fast are you?

Our numbers beat the benchmark by a significant margin. That’s not shocking considering CTAConf is a digital marketing conference. The average load time was 10.27 seconds, five seconds faster than Google’s 2018 benchmark.

But it wasn’t all good news, and just how bad it got surprised us:

Only 1.6% of the 188 attendee landing pages we tested at CTAConf loaded in three seconds. Not a single one we tested loaded faster than that.

That stings, especially since Google says 53% of visitors bounce after three seconds.

This means even savvy marketers are not getting the opportunity to convert because a majority of prospects bounce before the content ever loads.

Imagine stressing over the color of a button or the length of your headline copy only to discover most people who click on your ad will never even see the resulting landing page.

Our manifesto, or what page speed means to Unbounce

As the market leader in landing pages, Unbounce recognizes that being capable of extremely fast speeds represents a significant advantage for our clients.

We’ve been happy to make it our priority into 2019. At the same time, though, we also want to remove some of the obstacles to building faster landing pages.

Technical challenges

Over the past few months, our developers have been optimizing Unbounce pages for the recommendations made by Google’s PageSpeed Insights. This bundle of technical improvements (we call it Speed Boost) automatically takes care of many of the technical details that can be a hurdle to improving performance, especially if development hours are tight or (let’s be realistic here) non-existent.

Speed versus beauty

Another sticking point when it comes to speeding up is that few marketers feel comfortable sacrificing visuals for faster load times. Image file sizes have increased to match the larger display resolutions and higher pixel density of modern mobile devices, one reason the average page size has doubled in the past three years.

With the addition of support for ultra-light SVG images and the recent integration of the free Unsplash image galleries right within the Unbounce builder, we’re helping marketers keep things looking slick without weighing down the landing page.

And we’re working toward creating even more optimization opportunities in the near future. The result will be Cheetah speeds — no, scratch that, cheetah-with-a-rocket-strapped-to-its-back speeds — but without the need to sacrifice either visual allure or creative control.

Unbounce + AMP Landing Pages

When it comes to improving page speeds on mobile devices, however, accelerated mobile pages (AMP) set the gold standard by offering load times that are typically much quicker on a 3G connection — and under a second on 4G.

AMP implementation also has a democratizing effect. Considering that 70% of the world uses a 3G or slower connection — and that the repeal of net neutrality means more internet users in the US might find themselves in the slow lane — designing for older devices and slower connection speeds mean connecting to more people.

But AMP can also be hard. As Unbounce’s Larissa Hildebrandt put it in a recent post, “the reason the AMP framework creates a fast page is that it is so restrictive.”

Implementing it typically involves learning the nuances of AMP’s specialized markup, including a restrictive version of HTML and a truncated JavaScript library. Pages are delivered by the Google AMP Cache, a proxy-based CDN which helps them load even faster. And, all-in-all, to be validated requires closely following the strict design principles laid out by the AMP Project.

If all this sounds like a killer headache in the making, you’re right.

While Unbounce has been greatly interested in supporting AMP, we wanted to make sure it’s fast and easy for our customers to implement. So when Unbounce launches support for AMP landing pages in early 2019, you’ll be able to use our drag-and-drop builder to create AMP landing pages in no time.

We also didn’t want you to sacrifice creative control, so Unbounce allows the inclusion of AMP-compatible custom CSS, JavaScript, and HTML. As long as it passes validation, you can include it. Go nuts. We love how our community innovates on our platform.

Ultimately, whatever approach you take, no marketer can afford to ignore page speed in 2019. Mobile speeds can have a dramatic effect on paid advertising spend and your conversion rates, and Google’s actions so far show that the search engine is cracking down on the slow-to-load across all devices. The web will speed up and slim down, and those who don’t match the new paradigm will be left behind.

Thankfully, if 2019 is The Year of Page Speed, then you’ve still got a few opportunities to start speeding up.

Read the full story at unbounce.com, originally published on October 22, 2018.

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