What does Google’s “Speed Update” mean for mobile?

Yesterday, Google announced a major upcoming change to its mobile ranking algorithm.

In a short blog post entitled ‘Using page speed in mobile search ranking’, it explained that starting in July 2018, page speed will officially be a ranking factor for mobile searches.

The catchily-named “Speed Update” (a feat of inventive naming on a par with “Assistant”) is set to only affect “pages that deliver the slowest experience to users” and, in Google’s words, will only impact a “small percentage of queries”.

However, given that Google processes around 3.5 billion search queries per day (per Internet Live Stats), a “small percentage” can still amount to a lot of websites.

So for any website owners and SEOs who might be concerned about how this affects them, let’s examine what we know about the update so far, and what it means for mobile SEO.

Speed as a ranking factor: coming to a mobile update near you

Google has used page speed as a ranking factor on desktop since April 2010, but although having a fast mobile site has always stood companies in good stead for ranking well in search, it hasn’t been an official ranking factor in Google’s algorithm until now.

However, this announcement is far from coming out of left field. As far back as June 2016, Google webmaster trends analyst Gary Illyes confirmed that the next mobile algorithm update from Google would use page speed as a ranking factor.

Google has also frequently emphasized the importance of speed in mobile user experience in its advice to webmasters, and Google initiatives like Accelerated Mobile Pages and Progressive Web Apps have aimed to furnish site owners with the tools to make their websites fast and streamlined on mobile.

The “Speed Update” announcement doesn’t give all that much new information about how website owners should improve their sites in order to rank well on Google, but here’s what we do know:

  • Speed Update will mainly impact the websites which deliver the “slowest experience” to users, although Google hasn’t given a benchmark by which webmasters can judge whether or not their site falls into this category.
  • It applies regardless of the technology used to build the page – so it would still apply to, say, AMP websites. If an AMP website for some reason delivers a slow experience, this would impact on its ranking.
  • Content relevance still trumps speed. In Google’s words, “The intent of the search query is still a very strong signal, so a slow page may still rank highly if it has great, relevant content.”
  • Google wants developers to “think broadly about how performance affects a user’s experience of their page and to consider a variety of user experience metrics.” This means user experience matters as well as speed – we’ll come back to that in a bit.
  • There is no tool or notification that will tell webmasters whether their site is being affected by the update, but Google recommends using Chrome User Experience Report, Lighthouse or PageSpeed Insights to evaluate a page’s performance.

Spotlight on mobile user experience

As highlighted earlier, the language used by Google in its blog post indicates that the search engine is looking at not just speed, but overall mobile user experience with this update.

Google went so far as to spell this out in a Q&A with Search Engine Land, saying that, “The intent of the signal is to improve the user experience on search.”

In other words, site owners who want to score highly here need to pay attention to more than just page load time. This is underscored by Google’s recommendation of the Chrome User Experience Report as a tool to evaluate webpage performance in light of the update.

A lot of improvements to mobile page speed also improve the wider user experience on mobile – for example, videos and audio set to autoplay are annoying and inaccessible to users, and also slow the page down by loading unnecessary content – meaning that site owners can kill two birds with one stone.

Other steps that site owners can take to improve mobile UX include disabling annoying full-page pop-ups and interstitials (which Google is liable to penalize anyway) and implementing a slimmed-down, task-based design that allows users to quickly navigate to the functionality they need.

Above all, a mobile website should enable users to efficiently accomplish what they came there to do, without being bogged down by unnecessary bells and whistles. If you achieve this, you should be able to stay on the right side of the Speed Update algorithm both in terms of page performance and in terms of mobile experience.

Here are some more guides we’ve published that will help you get to grips with mobile SEO, site speed and UX ahead of the July update:

Mobile SEO

Mobile site speed

Mobile UX

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