Matt Cutts and Google confirmed on Friday what they've been hinting at for close to a year: Site speed will now be one of the factors that determines Google search rankings. This is the latest tweak Google has made in its algorithm, which now considers more than 200 signals prioritizing search results.
The change is indicative of a common perception among Web users that the search isn't complete until the data has been received. In other words, it doesn't matter how quickly Google, Yahoo!, Bing, or other engines retrieve your results. It matters how quickly users can obtain the information they're looking for. If users click on the first or second links returned in their query, and the site takes a long time to load, the users perceive this as a reflection on the quality of the search engine, not the end destination site.
With this change, Google is trying to use its leverage to force their customers (i.e. online companies) to do better and improve overall experience. In effect, it will enable Google to more quickly connect its users with information, thereby improving perception of its own site, setting itself above the competition, and positioning itself to become THE default search engine.
What does this mean for online businesses? As we've mentioned before, organizations are really going to have to evaluate and optimize all of the content on their sites -- images, Flash videos, third-party content, etc. -- and in the case of this third-party content, demand greater delivery and performance. The tricks companies have used in the past to beat the system and boost their Google rankings will now have less of an impact. Speed, a cut-and-dry factor that can't be fudged, will be the newest determining factor.
Google hasn't publicly defined what the speed thresholds will be, but it's safe to say that quicker is better (for customer satisfaction and conversion rates, too). If you can outload your competitors, you'll likely beat them in the rankings (and make Google look good while you're at it).
Check back soon for a few free resources you can use to determine where you fall on the speed spectrum.