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The need to speed: What you need to know about website load speeds


  • Users expect websites to load in 2-3 seconds or less
  • Speed depends on how it’s measured
  • Speed optimization has to be weighed against trade-offs

Most of today’s websites are fast. So fast, that you generally don’t think twice about them loading—that is, until things slow down. As a user, you expect a fast-moving internet on every device you use, from your mobile phone to your Google Home.

It should be no surprise, then, that digital marketers are in a race to make their websites slimmer, faster, and—as a result—easier for users to access without frustration.

But, how fast is fast enough? In this blog, we’ll break down the subject of website load speeds and look at all the factors that need to be weighed before deciding to build faster and faster for the sake of speed itself.

Ain’t nobody got (load) time for that

It’s been quite a while since AOL used to hand out those free discs to set up your home dial up internet connection. In other words, people are generally used to high-speed internet with near-instantaneous load speeds.

In some ways, this has lowered our tolerance for sites with slow load times in the same way that the invention of the automobile made horse-drawn carriage rides a tedious affair. If a user feels your site isn’t moving fast enough, they’re more likely to leave than to try to stick it out.

This has led to a race to get faster and faster. For example, even Google—practically a speed demon—is working to make their search faster and faster, down to omitting certain search results that can be solved with a function of their own.

How fast is fast enough?

In general, experts agree that a site that loads in about 2-3 seconds is fast enough for most users. Naturally, Google is going for more ambitious goals, but a site full of images, plugins, and tracking codes has a certain speed “ceiling” set in. No matter how much you press the foot to the gas, there’s a limit to how far to the right the speedometer can go.

There may also be good reasons not to push the car past its breaking point. For example, a site owner obsessed with speed could continually compress images, again and again. However, there’s a tipping point where the speed gains are incredibly small, while the images are so compressed that they look terrible on the site. Obviously, a slow site isn’t great for user experience, but neither are pixelated, blurry images.

We’re faced with this question a lot. The truth is that it has to be a balance: are the right tradeoffs being made for speed gains? If tracking shows that a Google Maps plugin is popular with users, is purging it from a page to gain a few milliseconds of speed all that worth it?

Of course, that’s before we even talk about margin for error.

Your mileage may vary

There are many, many sites that test speed. Here are three of the most popular ones:

  • GTmetrix
  • Pingdom
  • Google Speed Test

However, even putting in the same page on the same site mere seconds after your previous result can yield different results. That’s because speed is dependent on a number of factors, including:

  • Cached images
  • Server location
  • End user location
  • Time of day

These sites may give you a roundabout way of knowing how fast your site is. But, they’re by no means a concrete, definitive figure. The very speedometer used to measure page load speed can vary from test to test, between different platforms.

Most of these sites attach a letter grade (A+, C-, etc.) to your website to indicate how well it is optimized. They’ll also give you a number, in seconds, that corresponds to your speed: your total load speed or your load speed. We’ll discuss the difference between these two below.

Can 5 Fold make my site faster?

Almost every website, big and small, can do more to be faster. Given that you can continually compress images down to a blurry mess, even good-looking websites for big companies can be faster. Given the tradeoffs, however, there’s a legitimate question of whether or not they need to be.

Generally, we recommend focusing less on the letter grade assigned by speed test software, and instead look at the page load speed. As long as it’s within that 2-3 second margin, you’re generally good.

If you have a load speed of 2-3 seconds but a letter grade of “C+” for optimization, that’s not bad. It means you can still continue to optimize—there’s room to improve. But, it doesn’t mean anything is wrong with your current site.

About total load speed versus load speed

This shows the speed test results for a major sports website. The sheer size and complexity of this site could be what is causing it to load slowly in this particular test. Future tests of this same page might yield different results.

Some speed test platforms track different metrics. You may notice that your website has a very high total load speed. But, plugging it in on another platform, the load speed is more normal.

Total load speed is a calculation of how long it takes for every single element on the page to load, from the stuff the user sees to things working in the background.

A total load speed of 50 seconds doesn’t mean that it will take 50 seconds for the user to see the page. It’s probably not ideal, but it’s also not as bad as it looks when you first see that number.

Learn more about how 5 Fold builds websites!

From using the right data to designing better-looking websites, 5 Fold is a great fit for your digital marketing needs. To learn more about our website strategy, contact us or get connected with us on Facebook.