Should Page Speed Influence Google PageRank?

Matt Cutts, a software engineer and an eloquent corporate spokesman for Google (s goog), spoke at PubCon earlier this month and later gave a video interview to Web Pro News, in which he said that the speed at which web pages are available might become a factor in SEO moving into 2010. He said that because many within Google consider fastness to be vital to the web, the company is considering making web site speed a factor in calculating page rankings. Those comments have confused and scared many folks as to how speed might impact their businesses.

To be sure, Cutts’ comments don’t offer any details, and it is not even clear if  Google will go down that route. (Matt, can you offer clarifications please?) Still, some are worried that Google is going to turn PageRank into a country club for the rich, and penalize smaller sites because they don’t have high-end hosting facilities. Of course, there is the uneven distribution of backbone connectivity. Many parts of the world are not as well-connected as, say, Asia or the United States, so does that mean this new approach to PageRank could penalize sites hosted in places that don’t have abundant connectivity?

Ken Godskind, chief strategy officer of AlertSite, a web site traffic monitoring service, thinks such a move could have a serious impact on many web sites. “The potential changes at Google mean there will be a REAL business impact for poor web site performance, and conversely, in Google’s words, a bonus for good performance,” he writes on the company blog. “Online organizations will need to look closely at themselves and the other parties that participate in the Web application delivery supply chain to understand and manage this new development in 2010.”

On a personal level, I believe that a faster web is good for everyone.  At some point in our web journeys we have all cursed slow-loading sites, a problem that is only going to increase as the web becomes more intricately intertwined, in the process becoming a patchwork quilt of diverse  services. Performance hiccups at one service can send out ripples of disruption.

Increasingly popular widgets can slow down the performance of even the best web offerings, thus lowering the overall experience. The increased interdependency of various services can often cause disruption. Hours after the news of Michael Jackson’s death spread on the web, many news sites became inaccessible and suffered slowdowns. Those sites didn’t crash but instead were hampered because they were pulling data from ad servers that weren’t prepared for the onslaught of traffic. On our own sites, we have seen things break down when one of our partners suffers an outage or has performance problems.

As a consumer of information, I would say Google giving preference to faster sites doesn’t seem like a bad idea. As a publisher, the high cost of speeding up my web offerings might hurt in the short term, but ultimately it means a better experience for my readers — and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Photo of Matt Cutts at Pubcon 2009 courtesy of PlanetC1 via Flickr