Search Engine Optimization or SEO is an area filled with ever-changing recommendations from a wide range of sources. At it’s core, SEO is the practice of websites improving their rank in search engines by adhering to best practices including providing relevant content, using keywords and meta-tags, having good on-page user experience, and being linked to by other websites. Google’s PageRank is a famously mysterious algorithm which is constantly changing, making it difficult for websites to know how to appear on the coveted first page of search results.
Here is an example of what the first page of Google looks like for the high traffic keyword ‘Content Delivery Network’:
Website speed and SEO
Despite the questions surrounding SEO and how to appear high on organic search results, there are some things we know about SEO and specifically what Google factors into their PageRank. One of these factors is website speed. Website speed is an increasingly important element of SEO, and it should be something all marketers look into when performing a SEO analysis of their website. Since 2010, Google has included website speed as an element of the PageRank algorithm, and in 2016 Google announced that the speed at which mobile pages load would be a major factor in their mobile search rankings.
Facebook has also announced that content which has not fully loaded will be down-ranked in the newsfeed, demonstrating the increasing impatience of users to wait for content to be loaded. A fast website has additional SEO benefits as it decreases bounce rates and improves general on-site user experience.
But what exactly should you be looking for in terms of website speed when it comes to SEO? There are many different measures of website speed, from the first moment a browser receives data from the website server to the time it takes to load a full page and everything in between. Websites should try and optimize for all of these metrics, but there is evidence that suggests the main element Google takes into account is the Time to First Byte, which is the time it takes a browser to connect to a website server and receive the first part of the HTML document that generates a page.
The Time to First Byte is a crucial element of website speed because it indicates the time at which the browser can begin to build a web page. A long TTFB would mean a user looking at a blank web browser, which often leads to them navigating off the page. A good TTFB to aim for is around 200 milliseconds.
How to improve the Time to First Byte for SEO
TTFB is all about your server response time, and with inferior hardware or servers which cannot handle an influx of users at the same time, your TTFB will slow down for everyone. Importantly, this is a back-end metric, so no matter how well-optimized your images, CSS, and other front-end files are, a poor TTFB would still harm your website speed and SEO.
The best way to improve your TTFB is to install a globally distributed Content Delivery Network, which brings the content closer to end-users around the world, with a flexible caching solution. By caching content either locally or through a CDN, your content will be served from the cache so the browser does not need to travel back to your website server. This is by far the most efficient way to improve TTFB. To ensure your website is the fastest it can be, you should cache full HMTL documents using a solution such as Section.