Google’s experimental new “slow” label could revolutionize how we tackle web performance

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Earlier today, Search Engine Land posted about a new label that Google appears to be testing in its search results pages. The red “slow” label, pictured here, warns people that your site is unacceptably slow.

Screen capture via K Neeraj Kayastha
Screen capture via K Neeraj Kayastha

There’s little explanation from Google on how this label is being tested and what the plans for full rollout might be. Based on the small amount of current information, all we know is that it appears to be visible to some, but not all, mobile Android users. It may also only currently be applied to Google properties.

Given the fact that mobile performance is a huge priority for Google, this label isn’t a trivial feature. If you care about performance, user experience, and SEO, then you should care about this potential game-changer.

Who defines “slow”?

If you’re like me, the first question you asked when you heard about this label is “How does Google define ‘slow’?” To me, that’s the most critical missing piece of information. Is a “slow” page any page that takes more than 4 seconds to load? Or is it ranked according to its speed relative to competing sites? No one knows but Google.

Everyone hates slow pages.

“Slow” is a powerfully repellant word. People hate to wait. We’ll visit a site less often if it’s slower than a competitor by just 250 milliseconds. This behaviour is hardwired, and it’s unlikely to change. And as one survey from Tealeaf/Harris Interactive shows, when pages are slow, especially on mobile, we don’t react well.

phone-rage

Convincing site owners to care about performance is an uphill struggle.

“But my site isn’t slow.”

This is one of the most frequent things I hear when I talk to site owners. And from their perspective, they’re right. That’s because most people’s experience of using their own site happens close to the source, inside a speedy corporate LAN. It’s also because they may be misinterpreting the performance data they’re receiving from their measurement vendors. (This is incredibly common.) For many site owners who do see the light about their site’s real-world performance, this painful — and often embarrassing — revelation happens when they’re on the road and try to demo something outside of their site’s speedy comfort zone.

Convincing site owners to care about mobile performance is an even steeper uphill struggle.

Everything I said above, times ten. When it comes to visibility about mobile performance, there are a lot of heads stuck in the sand. My sense is that this is because measurement has, historically, been tricky for mobile. I think it’s also because tackling mobile performance is a huge scary beast that a lot of people are, understandably, afraid to look at head on.

Making speed a priority for SEO reasons has been only somewhat successful in the past.

This isn’t the first time Google has waded into the topic of making speed an SEO issue. But while this has attracted a fair bit of tech media attention and discussion in the past, I’ve never met a site owner who suddenly decided to prioritize performance because of it. This could be due to the fact that the details have always been murky, with most people agreeing that speed is probably just one relatively minor part of Google’s search ranking algorithm.

The “slow” tag, however, is too in-your-face to dismiss.

It signals that Google is taking performance — and particularly mobile performance — very seriously. Site owners would be wise to do the same now, before this tag is fully rolled out.

Next steps: You can’t fix what you can’t measure. First, get real visibility into how actual users see your pages. Identify your performance problem areas. Then fix them.

15 COMMENTS

  1. Hey Tammy,

    Thanks for taking the time to write this up. I’ve been annoying our devs to no end over the past few months to make site speed improvements and now this information is coming to light, it shows they haven’t wasted their time.

    Peace

  2. Anybody not taking note of website speed as per Pagespeed/webpagetest/gtmetrix/pingdom suggestions has their head in the sand and will ultimately lose ranking.
    The web is becoming far too busy for slow sites. Google has to crawl, cache and direct users to the best user experience.
    They will call the shots. Great information that takes 15 seconds to load on mobile will go down in rankings.
    When it happens, don’t blame Google, you have been warned

  3. @JF: Developers who accept slow pages need to be replaced. Now. Beyond our own testing, there are FAR too many studies correlating slow page load and site abandon for lazy developers to run the show. Fire the slow losers and hire smart people instead.

    We shoot for a 2 second page load on ALL pages – both desktop and mobile – from a 3G connection to a 5Mbit connection. Anything longer is unacceptable: in a world of one thumb and one eye web access you only have a traffic light to solve the users problem.

  4. […] There’s little explanation from Google on how this label is being tested and what the plans for full rollout might be. Based on the small amount of current information, all we know is that it appears to be visible to some, but not all, mobile Android users. It may also only currently be applied to Google properties. – Web Performance Today […]

  5. Many people don’t realize how importart page loading speed can be to their business. It seems that google is on a mission to fix that with a number of projects, including pagespeed insights and the pagespeed web server modules. I’m also trying to help a bit with my ebook “Web performance: a pragmatic approach”: https://bit.ly/1MUAN1B

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