8 April 2009

I had a couple of great discussions yesterday with an SEO expert who challenged UKFast on their “fast servers deliver better results” message. Google actually reduces your cost per click on faster sites and penalises you, charging you more if you have a slow site. FACT. (See the quality score rules in your Google Adwords account.)

Why is this? Is Google acknowledging that faster sites give the customer a better experience? Absolutely! Is traditional SEO as we know it dead or is it evolving at such a pace that it has caught a large proportion of the SEO enthusiasts and internet users by surprise? Could it be that speed has always been a major deciding factor in ranking and no one knew about it?

Or did we?

For the last 6 or 7 years we have been watching clients with faster machines and lean sites soar to the top of the rankings. Not only this we have witnessed that when sites have slowed down, through congestion at peak times or with network or routing failures, they loose traffic and consequently customers.

A fantastic example of this and believe me I have hundreds was a site called Cheapest Flights.co.uk. The entrepreneur, Andy Speight, who set this up, built one of the fastest growing travel web sites in just a couple of years. Its growth was so impressive it attracted attention from TravelCare who ended up buying the business for millions. We had extensive meetings with TravelCare over their change-management procedure, as they decided to move the site to their in-house datacentre as part of the cost savings after the acquisition.

What they underestimated was all of Speights reseach and the lengths he and UKFast engineers and R&D team had gone to with regards to the hosting environment Cheapestflights was on. Speight had truly pushed the boat out, he deduced that slow downs at certain times during the day had a direct effect to his business with reductions in sales. He instructed UKFast to build him the fastest solution we had, load balanced, clustered, it had everything.

The results were phenomenal, his traffic went through the roof and the customer experience improved dramatically resulting in higher customer numbers, leads and direct conversion rates. Each time he upgraded the solution, the results just kept getting better.

I received a telephone call first thing one Monday morning from a very angry director of Travel Care. I was very distressed to hear that there was something radically wrong with the cheapestflights web site and that orders from their website were down massively. We take great pride in providing the very best service at all times even when clients are moving away. We have an astonishing rate of customers who return after leaving so we are careful to never burn bridges. I called my IT director immediately.

Neil Lathwood was perplexed. He is a lot more pragmatic than me. He simply called me back and calmly explained the poor results were down to their own network, not ours. He showed me the speed difference, it was staggering. Travel Care had moved the site over the weekend and the speed difference alone had begun to decimate their business.

The site never recovered and it lost momentum and credibility with search engines and customers. It dropped out of the Alexa.com top 1000 to become a shadow of its former self at an embarrassing 1,799,379th place when I looked a few minutes ago.

So why is Google bothered by this? Surely Google is just interested in land grab and their PPC model. Absolutely not!

If you understand Google’s model and what motivates the Google team, you will understand and unlock the key to true online success.

Just like Bill Gates said, “how do we become the intelligence that runs all the computers in the world?” when he founded Microsoft, the young men in Google have similar aspirations.

“How do we become the definitive doorway to the internet?

When you ask a great question like that, you start to look for great answers. In this quest for the answer, Google realised that they need to provide the very best search results and the absolute best customer experience.

Google analysed their customers and their user experience and found that the most important factor was not the number of links on a page, or the meta information, or one of the countless SEO rules we hear about, but the speed. The speed determined whether or not customers got bored waiting for sites to load.

We have all done it haven’t we, where you click back because of a tiny delay? Well guess what, they are measuring that and in our opinion, they have been for some time.

So during the discussion I had about search engine optimisation, I was challenged to provide evidence of Google’s stance.

Firstly, Google posts on their own site that landing page quality and Quality Score will be negatively affected if a keyword is graded ‘This page loads slowly’. The full details are presented by Google on the Adwords page below.

http://adwords.google.com/support/bin/answer.py?answer=87144

I have also enclosed a UKFast pdf which summarises the Google stance. I am specifically referring to item 4 on the ‘Google load time advice’ PDF:

http://pdf.ukfast.net/google_load_time_advice.pdf

Secondly Google advises website owners to contact their hosting provider if they are experiencing slow load time.

http://adwords.google.com/support/bin/answer.py?answer=93116

My third and final point is more emotive. Google like any corporate body take their revenues very seriously. Yet they are prepared to sacrifice some of this for fast sites with good quality scores. Why is this?

It is safe to assume that as they take speed seriously in the PPC model, they also view speed as equally important with their non paid for search.

Remember this, Google does not publish a list of what to do, like the top 100 things to make your site go up the search engines. SEO experts have simply deduced their findings from things that have happened to their sites. (Increases and decreases in traffic directly linked to recent changes they have made.)

The problem with this method of research is that they are comparing these to their own sites that they manage and not the Internet as a whole. How can this be accurate? They are not able to analyse all their changes in relation to the changes all other website owners are making. This would take an impossible coordinated effort.

However, at UKFast we are taking an active role in trying to speed up commerce and at the same time understand the search engines and what makes customers choose and leave sites. We have spent almost a decade with an R&D team always around 20% of our workforce splitting the Google atom.

With hundreds of thousands of domain names on our network and clever pieces of kit like our CISCO GUARD anomaly detector which funnily enough looks for anomalies and unusual spikes in traffic or our IDS and IPS which track and prevent unwanted intrusions, our unique CTM software (Capacity Threshold Monitoring) we are able to spot a change in a sites behaviour in an instant. Often it turns out to be a genuine increase in traffic. When this happens we all get excited, contact the site owner and put on our Google analysis hats.

Overwhelmingly the majority of increases in traffic to sites are directly linked to an increase in server or site speed. So a leaner web site on the same server is a great place to start.

Ironically if you look at a well SEO’d web site, they are text heavy with very little imagery. It is highly likely the leanness of the site is winning the great results. Imagine what is possible when you upgrade onto a faster network.

And this is where the fun begins.

I remember 7 or 8 years ago, sat at an ISPA event talking with some hosting company owners. Their businesses dwarfed UKFast at this point in time. They ridiculed the UKFast idea that speed was important. They thought I was missing a trick and they both proudly explained how they were maximing profit by reselling the same bandwidth (contending) over and over and over again. What frustrated me most was they were so pleased with themselves that their customers would never know!

And businesses are still doing it. Hosting companies who offer unlimited bandwidth or terabits of traffic can simply not be telling the truth if they promise an uncontended network. What happens when the internet users start to use the promised traffic.

Take the top hosting providers who make these large promises and you do the maths. If everyone of the 1000’s of businesses on their networks, all demanded the traffic promised in one month, in my opinion their networks would collapse. They probably would struggle if people require 25% of their allowance! It is a nice idea to be able to offer so much traffic, but it is simply not feasible because in the long run, as the internet grows, so does the need for bandwidth. Sadly, aggressive marketing often takes precedence over common sense.

The good news is, long before we knew that speed was fundamentally important, we realised that with a name like UKFast, we’d better live up to our name, and the result? UKFast customers are growing like wildfire.

So a decade on, although it is immensely rewarding to be larger and more profitable than the 2 businesses who scorned our honest approach to hosting and this is clearly one of those occasions where less is more, I have to attribute a lot of our success to good fortune and plain old fashioned luck that we find ourselves in this position now. Still fortune favours the brave and I am a big believer in karma, especially in business. 🙂

Finally if there are any SEO experts out there who still need convincing, just remember that your industry massive as it is, is built on supposition. If you are asked to name the top most important SEO ingredient I guarantee it will differ from expert to expert.

Speed is one ingredient which is easy to track. Try it, the results are awe inspiring.

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