resources

Matt Cutts first mentioned speed publicly, as a potential ranking signal in November 2009 but, speed has always been important at Google. Google's homepage for example, is intentionally sparse so that it loads quickly. Larry Page recently said he wants to see pages "flip" online. Clearly the concept of speed and it's importance at Google is nothing new. Robert Miller, actually conducted the first research in this area over 40 years ago. According to Miller, when a computer takes more than one tenth of a second to load, the user feels less and less in control. When Google and Bing conducted their own tests in 2008 the results were similar to what Miller had predicted. Bing experienced a 1.8% reduction in queries when slowed by 2.0 seconds and Google experienced a 0.59% reduction in queries when slowed by 400 milliseconds. Bottom line, fast pages help marketers because users are far less likely abandon fast loading sites. Users expect pages to load quickly!

Page Speed was introduced as a ranking signal for English queries executed via Google.com nearly a month ago. It's defined as "the total time from the moment the user clicks on a link to your page until the time the entire page is loaded and displayed in a browser." In their first major update to Webmaster Guidelines in over a year, Google recommends webmasters monitor site performance and optimize page load times on a regular basis.

Because Page Speed data is missing from Analytics and other tools, it's best to use the Site Performance in Google Webmaster Tools for regular monitoring and optimization. To view Site Performance data in Google Webmaster Tools, you'll need to add and verify your site first. In Google Webmaster Tools, Site Performance data is processed in aggregate and without personally identifiable information. "Example" URLs are derived from actual Google Toolbar user queries and as a result query parameters are removed. "Suggestions" are based on URLs crawled by Google and not truncated. "Average" site load times are weighted on traffic. Site Performance data accuracy is based on the total number of data points, which can range from 1-100 data points (low) up to 1,000+ data points (high). As mentioned earlier, this data comes from Google Toolbar users with the PageRank feature enabled. While Google hasn't provided Toolbar PageRank user demographic information, this data seems fairly reliable. If anything, it would seem that Toolbar PageRank bias would point to more savvy users and that as a result Google Webmaster Tools Site Performance data might be faster than actual.

During our "Speed" session at SMX, Vanessa Fox and Maile Ohye (Google) seemed to agree that less than 4.0 seconds was a good rule of thumb but still slow. According to Google AdWords, "the threshold for a 'slow-loading' landing page is the regional average plus three seconds." No matter how you slice it, this concept is fairly complex. Page Speed involves code, imagery, assets and a lot more not to mention user perceptions about time. For example, the user's internet connection (Google Fiber), their browser (Chrome), device(Nexus One), its processor (Snapdragon), the site's host and other issues all impact user perceptions about speed. Don't worry though, according to most expert estimates, 80% to 90% of page response time is spent on the front-end. At the end of the day, relevance is critical but speed follows quickly behind.

Speed Resources:

It's becoming more and more clear that ranking reports are no longer reliable. Users are noticing personalized SERPs more and more and they're catching on to obvious inaccuracies generated by traditional ranking report software. These inaccuracies are caused by differences in query IP, query data, account status, web history, personalized settings, social graph and/or other. As a result, there is a growing shift away from rank report software to analytics for accurate SEO measurement.

Prior to personalized search results, SEO relied heavily on ranking reports in order to measure SEO campaign performance. SEOs create "ranking reports" with software that submits automated queries directly to search engines, a.k.a. "scrapes search engine results." Despite the fact that automated queries are against Google Webmaster Guidelines, waste energy and cost Google millions of dollars each year to process, scraping search engine results is still a popular practice. Obviously it’s in the engines best interest to take steps to prevent these queries.

Analytics software on the other hand is different, it works independently of search engines. Analytics relies heavily on code embedded within pages as well as human interpretation of data. Until recently, analytics software has been used only to “tell a story,” but not for the precise measurement SEO requires. Site analysis focuses on trending and establishing a “comfort level” with data determined to be "good enough" by the analytics specialist. Analytics platforms are designed for anyone to use, specialist and non-specialist alike. In many cases, analytics specialist themselves have little analytics experience, expertise, knowledge about how search engines work or an understanding of searcher intent. How can we expect anything different, when WAA itself still doesn’t teach things like transactional queries?

"To optimize scent trails, make sure that when the intent is transparent, the scent trail on any chosen term matches that intent. It doesn't matter if the trail starts with PPC (pay-per-click) or organic search. Prospects usually hope to find one of two things: the answer they seek or a link that takes them to the answer."

- The Web Analytics Association "Knowledge Required for Certification" (also available in non-www version)

Analytics tracking code is usually implemented by URL without consideration for user path, intent, source or origination. In most cases the implementation is performed by someone other than the analytics specialist interpreting the data. According to some estimates as many as 45% of pages implemented with Google Analytics contain errors. Conversions from organic SERPs are the most difficult to track back to the original referrer. To compound that problem, site issues often prevent even flawless analytics implementations from reporting. Analytics failures are costly, often go unnoticed and undetected because NOTHING is in place to report when analytics doesn't report.

Quick examples & thoughts:
- Even if Avinash himself, implements Omniture and Google Analytics tracking code on every page of your site, users entering from SERPs via 301 or 302 redirect won’t be attributed as “Organic.” According to Google, "If your site uses redirects, the redirecting page becomes the landing page's referrer. For example, if a user searches for a specific keyword, such as 'used books' on Google, there will not be any referring data showing that this keyword was searched on Google. Instead, the referral will be shown as the redirecting page."

- High traffic major converters or blank pages that send users to a competitor? Either way, nobody will ever know because these pages lack analytics tracking code. URL naming conventions for most sites follow a specific pattern. Use the site operator to quickly spot check for URLs that seem out of the ordinary to be certain they include analytics tracking code implementation and aren't redirected. It's pretty common to find legacy pages from older versions of sites indexed.

SEO Analytics

- If these folks are quick evaluators, analytics tracking code might not execute before a new page loads and this SEO conversion might be credited somewhere else. Analytics won't measure landing page load time even though it's a highly important metric for users. Flash or otherwise, pages like these always have issues when it comes to tracking organic conversions.

SEO Analytics

- If your site goes down chances are you'll never know because analytics reporting goes down as well. Using a website monitoring service is always a good idea, just to be sure that conversions really are down and not your entire site.

Takeaways, until SEO expectations are more clear to the analytics community, SEOs should insist on performing SEO analytics audits as usual. When hiring analytics specialists, look for applicants who are willing to address websites from the user perspective and outside of analytics. Folks willing to question data accuracy and those able to identify analytics obstacles are highly desired. Key being, SEO is as concerned with what analytics is tracking as it is about what analytics should be tracking.

While Google has condemned buying and selling links that pass PageRank, they've encouraged listing in paid directories like Yahoo for years. It seems that era may have come to an end earlier today. The following bullet points have been removed from Google's Webmaster Guidelines Webmaster Help Center*

  • "Have other relevant sites link to yours."
  • "Submit your site to relevant directories such as the Open Directory Project and Yahoo!, as well as to other industry-specific expert sites."

Does this recent move reflect a renewed emphasis on rooting out paid links passing PageRank and/or low quality links by Google?

*As mentioned, the bullet points above have been removed from the US version of Google's Webmaster Help Center. Other versions may not yet reflect this change.
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UPDATE: Hat tip to Barry Schwartz who noticed John Honeck's post in Google Groups where Google's John Mueller comments on the change. Barry provides a full recap at SERoundTable.com and SearchEngineLand.com.