Most SEO professionals could spend hours explaining the ways in which UX can impact a website’s standing with Google. But among all the elements that come under the category of “user experience”, it’s easy to get caught up in the intricacies of site structure and layout while overlooking a much more glaring factor – page load speed.
If your website is typically slow to load – a flaw that’s seen as increasingly unforgivable by users in our age of ever-more-hyperfast internet – you may soon find yourself penalised further by Google, as it adds a badge of dishonour to its ubiquitous Chrome browser.
Where users would once have backtracked from your site after one too many seconds of waiting for it to load, now they might steer clear altogether. Gone are the days of hoping people will blame their broadband connection for slow speed.
What changes is Google Chrome introducing for slow sites?
Google announced on 11th November that it intends to introduce a system of “clear badging”, whereby websites with slow loading speeds will be clearly flagged to prospective visitors. The exact nature of the identifier is yet to be decided by Google (as it is testing a number of options to see which is the most feasible), but it is likely to take the form of a warning such as “Usually loads slow” alongside a caution icon. The location of this flag – whether on the SERP or on the loading page – is also crucial but as yet unclear.
However, it’s not all bad news. Plans are in place to reward websites providing what Google considers to be “high-quality experiences” – starting with fast loading times but expected to factor in a number of other UX elements in the future. Identifiers for quick-loading sites may include a green progress indicator bar at the top of the page as it loads, as opposed to the standard blue one.
Why is Google introducing these changes?
The move towards predominantly mobile browsing several years back has not only necessitated a change to the way that websites are indexed and ranked by Google, but also made site loading speed a much more pressing issue – one which exacerbates existing problems.
For millions of users, particularly those in emerging markets, as technology has advanced from desktop to mobile there’s been a somewhat counterintuitive downshift in connectivity speed. Now that we rarely plug directly into the internet via cables, a swish device is no guarantee of a fast connection. Websites that pick up the slack at their end – by offering a swift loading speed – are therefore often rewarded when it comes to traffic and conversions.
This graphic from Cloudfare illustrates how load speed impacts on conversions:
Not only will a badging system push website owners and developers into considering the importance of loading speed, but it could provide a handy indicator to users as to where the fault lies. From this point of view, it’s possible to see the changes as less about punishment and more about awareness – Google explained in its announcement that “we have all visited web pages we thought would load fast, only to be met by an experience that could have been better. We think the web can do better”.
It’s also important to note that badging won’t necessarily mean laying the blame solely at the door of your website. Google has expressed an intention to identify sites that might load especially slowly because of a user’s device or network conditions.
What can business owners do to avoid negative badging?
As with any announcement about Google Chrome, this isn’t so much a reason to overhaul your entire UX strategy as a prompt to reconsider what you prioritise – in this case, speed.
Google recommends several platforms that can be used to appraise your website’s speed and improve its performance. PageSpeed Insights and Lighthouse can both be used to evaluate the quality of your pages, and web.dev/fast is full of practical tips to improve and maintain your load times.