Google turns the dial on page speed

CheetahGoogle seems to be on a crusade against slow websites. Last year they first spoke about incorporating page load times into the ranking algorithm. One client, suffering from the curse of cheap shared hosting, has just seen his first wide-ranging rankings drop of one to four places. Interestingly, by removing external widgets (Facebook Like Button, a Youtube video) and using CSS sprites for more of the images most of that ground has been recovered within a couple of days, so it seems Google are very responsive to changes.

This suggests that the dial has been turned on the importance of page speed to Google’s algorithm.

Where does Google get that page speed data from?

Real users – if you’ve installed the Google Toolbar and not opted out of pretty much everything, Google logs URLs and load times. The more traffic your site gets the higher chance there is that your visitors have the toolbar installed and the more reliable the data Google gets.

Do I have speed problem?

To find out if your site might be being penalised for loading slowly, take a look at what Google’s Webmaster Tools tells you in the Labs > Site Performance section, comparing our site performance to all the sites they test, or install the Page Speed Add-on for Firefox and Chrome, or use Google’s new Page Speed Online tool.

What can I do about it?

There are many different aspects that affect a page’s load time, from the time taken for the server to generate the HTML for the page, to the time taken to deliver it and all the related scripts, stylesheets and images. If you’ve got a problem (you’ll know about it soon enough if you do) then it’s time to spend money on better hosting and some development time to squeeze the very best performance you can out of the site.

image credit: Shoot-n-fish via Creative Commons on Flickr

Who bought all the ads?

If you’ve noticed recently that the vast majority of the ads you’re seeing on sites that use Google’s Adsense programme for their advertising slots are for the same company? You’re probably being ‘retargeted‘ (remarketed in Google’s parlance) to.

What is retargeting?

Say you go to a website, in my case, Mydomain.com. You look around, but don’t buy anything on that visit (I was just checking my account). Shortly thereafter you’re browsing the web and you start to notice banner ads for that website. Everywhere. You’ve been retargeted. How this works, technically, is the advertiser (mydomain.com for example) has a bit of javascript code on their website that tells Google Adwords that they’d like to retarget you – putting you onto a list that forms a target-able audience in the Adwords interface. Subsequently whenever you’re on a Google ‘content network’ site (site with AdSense) you might see these ads.

Why am I seeing these same ads so often?

Simple – content network bids are often notoriously low, whereas a the retargeting advertiser figures that as a relatively warm prospect, you’re worth a fair bit to them if they can get you back and close the sale.

So what’s the problem?

I’m not that bothered about the behavioural tracking aspect of this particular instance, after all I did go to the mydomain.com website but say a jewellery store was doing this: you’re shopping around for an engagement ring to surprise your girlfriend, then suddenly almost everywhere you go on the web is plastered with jewellery ads. I’m pretty sure there are more acute examples too.

As a user, how do I make it stop?

You don’t (well you can, you can delete the relevant cookie, if you can find it, that is your retargeting identifier, or use your browser’s private browsing feature when going to websites you don’t ever want to see ads from). The little ‘i’ image that appears on the ad to tell you more is really just pitching Google’s Adwords and Adsense services to you. You can complain about a specific ad, but even that isn’t made easy, the feedback form doesn’t carry through the details of the ad or publisher site that you have an issue with.

As an advertiser should I get into retargeting?

I haven’t tried this for a client yet, and it’s a new Adwords feature just out of beta (late March 2010). My guess is that you can fairly cheaply reacquire visitors who may have forgotten to bookmark your site. Whether you can then get them to take the action you wanted is another matter. In the case of mydomain.com, I’m already a customer, I’ll go back them if I need. Maybe the problem is it isn’t easy for an advertiser to take people off a retargeting list once they get on there, or for a user to get themselves off that list.

Want to know more?

If you’re curious to learn more Google have some reasonably detailed information in their Adwords Help center.

iLike Ads

I like ads. Always have done. Good ones that is. As a teenager my walls were decorated with framed mini-proofs of poster campaigns that my dad worked on. There are some very effective TV and cinema campaigns that I enjoy watching, where each ad is part of a serial and I look forward to the next execution.

Are there any web ads I’d place in the same category? Web ads I’d mention to a friend ‘hey have you seen the latest Acme Widgets banner?’ Um, nope. Mostly they annoy the hell out of me, they make noises or enlarge, unbidden when I mouse over them, (hey. Wired, I’m looking at you) and worst of all are designed to hijack my attention and take me away from the content I want to read.

But the iAds that are demoed in this Stevenote (skip to 45 mins in unless you want to learn about the new features in iPhone OS 4.0), now they looked like the kind of advertising I wouldn’t mind on my phone.

Essentially they’re small ads when when clicked open in a layer over the app you were in. Then what you have could be described as a mini-app within the app, or a micro-site (depends on what paradigm you’re familiar with). Except unlike a standard micro-site there appears to be the ability to interact with the iPhone on a relatively meaningful level – like setting the wallpaper on your iPhone. I can only guess at the other possibilities.

The demo ads that Apple created for this presentation (for Pixar, Nike and Target) really showed the potential of the platform. In fact I’d say there’s a shortcut button missing alongside the little ‘x’ to close the ad – a ‘save & share’ that puts the ad into a Favorite iAds app on the iPhone, or sends a link to a friend.

It’s not all roses however as this Marketing Vox piece takes great pains to point out though some of the criticisms levelled there are somewhat churlish: ‘iAds will be hard to build’. Yeah? Hard like a TV ad? Hard like a micro-site for the desktop web? Yes it’s harder than a crappy text ad that you could create in seconds with Google Adwords or Yahoo Search Ads. Good, because I don’t like those ads, you want other reasons why they’re lowest-common-denominator bad? Check out the demographics of who’s clicking on those ads. If iAd raises the bar on ad quality, I’ll be happy, because it’s pretty low right now.

Domain name housekeeping

An often forgotten aspect of search engine optimisation is centred around various aspects of your domain name. For example Google’s search algorithm takes into account over 200 different factors, categorised as on-page and off-page. On-page is the content of your pages themselves – the visible text and the code. Off-page factors include things like external links and a whole host of things you mostly have no control over.

There are however a number of simple ‘off-page’ domain-related factors that you can control and that search engines consider when ranking sites:

  1. Age of domain
    You can’t fake this, but you can buy up older names, sometimes it’s worth making an offer, if the domain you want is up for sale. If it has been registered for a few years, that may help you rank higher, even if it’s not currently in search indexes. Just do your due diligence first – check it doesn’t have a chequered past.
  2. Domain ownership details
    Many domain name registrars offer a premium service of domain name anonymity. Google and other search engines aren’t so keen on this. They figure you have something to hide. If you’re worried about privacy and don’t want to put your home address, you don’t have to – nobody’s going to be posting anything to that address (or at least nobody you want to hear from).
  3. Domain expiry
    Most people don’t pay for things until they have to. So you wait till your domain name is up for renewal and renew then right? WRONG! A domain with less than a year remaining till expiry is considered as a potential drop-out. Most domain registrars offer multi-year discounts and you don’t have to wait till your name is due for renewal to secure it for 3, 4 or more years more. At around $10 a year for a .com it’s a false economy to hold off on renewing your name till you start getting email reminders.

Now go get your domain in order!

Image credit: Pewari Naan on Flickr