12 minutes

Online retailers that prioritize mobile web speed gain more than a fast site—they receive a boost in Google search rankings, a lower mobile bounce rate and a higher mobile conversion rate. Even so, improving mobile speed can be tedious and costly.

Campmor Inc.’s top priority for its mobile site is ensuring it loads quickly.

“Every little millisecond and every little minute change that can improve conversion rate matters,” says Nick Scilingo, director of marketing and e-commerce at the retailer of outdoor gear and hiking equipment.

That mindset led Campmor to Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) technology when the search giant expanded the project beyond publishers’ sites last year. AMP allows retailers to build lightweight mobile pages that load extremely quickly, typically within one second, when a consumer clicks to a mobile site from smartphone search results. Mobile search is particularly important for Campmor given that mobile search accounts for 31% of the retailer’s traffic.

To develop AMP pages, developers have to code the HTML using rules set by Google, such eliminating custom Javascript, in order to ensure the pages load extremely fast. AMP also uses AMP Cache, which is Google’s content delivery network that validates every page works and doesn’t depend on external resources, such as suggested products powered by an e-commerce technology vendor. Instead, coders have to build in these features using Google-approved specifications.

Even though the AMP site’s product pages are not as rich as Campmor’s desktop pages, they are producing significant results: Since deploying the pages in March, mobile consumers who view the AMP pages view 15% more pages per session and buy 28% more products compared with mobile shoppers who don’t visit AMP pages, Scilingo says. And the implications extend beyond sales. Campmor’s ranking in Google mobile search results have risen 33% on average for non-branded search terms from the 90 days leading up to March, compared with a 90-day period between May and August. That’s led to a 21.8% increase in search impressions, he says.

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Campmor’s experience demonstrates the increasingly far-reaching implications of having a fast-loading mobile site. Smartphones have never been more important to online retailers given that they are driving all of the web traffic growth in the United States, according to new research from Adobe Analytics. Smartphone visits to retail sites grew 31% in the second quarter of 2017 compared with a year earlier, while desktop visits to retail site fell 2% and tablet traffic fell 1%.

As consumers increasingly rely on their smartphones to navigate the web, retailers are finding that a slow-loading mobile site isn’t just annoying for online shoppers, it also may keep them from ever finding a retailer’s mobile site. Google and Facebook Inc. are increasingly focused on site speed, which means that mobile load times factor into everything from a retailer’s organic Google search ranking to the likelihood that a brand’s post will appear in a consumer’s Facebook news feed.

Customer experience is at the heart of the growing focus on speed.

Consumers aren’t willing to wait for a page to load. In fact, 53% of mobile site visitors leave a page that takes longer than three seconds to load, according to global Google analytics data from March 2016. Each additional second a consumer has to wait makes it less likely she will wait for the page to load. Plus, many shoppers aren’t willing to wait for pages to load throughout their shopping visits. Shoppers who eventually make a purchase on a retailer’s mobile site spend 12.7% of their web visit waiting for pages to load, while consumers who don’t convert spend 23.4% of their mobile visit waiting for pages to load, according to a 2017 study of 23 e-commerce websites by mobile commerce vendor Mobify between April-June 2017.

These issues continue to grow in importance as mobile’s share of online traffic grows. Google last year began factoring speed into its mobile search results algorithm that determines a website’s natural search ranking. 57% of all Google searches occur on a mobile device, according to SEO and content marketing firm BrightEdge based on June 2017 data from thousands of domains and more than 1 billion web sessions. Facebook too, in August announced that it had begun factoring a web page’s load time into its news feed algorithm that determines what consumers see when they look at the social network.

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It’s a question of focus, of taking small bites of the problem.
Mehdi Daoudi, CEO of Catchpoint

That’s important because Facebook and Google are king when it comes to consumers and mobile. For example, Facebook accounts for 16% of referred smartphone traffic while Google accounts for 61%, according to the Adobe study.

Google’s emphasis on speed, in particular, is pushing retailers to take note. After all, the search giant is responsible for a large chunk of web traffic for many e-retailers. On average, 46.6% of traffic to Internet Retailer’s Top 1000 merchants came from a search engine, according to Internet Retailer’s Top500Guide.com. What’s more, mobile traffic has surpassed desktop traffic for many e-commerce sites and mobile sales continue to climb, Mobile sales accounted for 29.7% of the Top 1000 merchants’ online sales in 2016, according to Top500Guide.com. And with Facebook and Google using mobile speed as an indicator in their algorithms, mobile speed needs to be a priority for retailers now more than ever before.

“Mobile is critical and it not going to go back to wherever it was ever,” says Stephen Spencer, founder of SEO vendor Netconcepts.

Improving a website’s load time is a never-ending task. But there are a few goal posts retailers can shoot for, according to a recent study from Akamai Technologies Inc.-owned performance monitoring vendor Soasta. E-commerce smartphone pages that load within 2.7 seconds have the highest conversion rates at 3%, the report finds. A one-second slowdown after that peak conversion rate leads conversions to decrease by 20.5% and a two-second slowdown from that peak conversion leads conversions to fall by 26.2%. For reference, mobile retail websites load in 2.81 seconds, on average, among the top 500 mobile retailers in Internet Retailer’s 2017 Mobile 500 Guide.

For some retailers that improve their mobile sites’ load times, the gains come quickly. Take online retailer of festival apparel iHeartRaves.com, where roughly 67% of site traffic over the past 12 months came from mobile devices, according to SimilarWeb Ltd. Over the past year the retailer has reduced the size of its images to be only as big as they need to be depending on the device the shopper is using. The merchant also has tweaked its site code to prioritize which elements on the page load first depending on their importance, such as loading files on the top part of the page first and scripts near the footer second, says Brandon Chopp, digital marketing strategist for the web merchant.

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The two projects helped the retailer reduce its mobile site load time by 33% to 6.86 seconds from 10.25 seconds. The faster site has also helped the retailer decrease its mobile bounce rate to 34.0% from 40.3%, Chopp says.

Additionally, for five to 10 of the non-branded keywords it tracks, the retailer has jumped to the No. 4-10 slots on Google’s mobile search results page, when the site was previously not on the first page for those keywords, Chopp says.

Small tweaks, like routinely analyzing every element on a page and deciding if they are necessary, can have a big impact on speed, says Mehdi Daoudi, CEO of digital performance analytics company Catchpoint Systems Inc. “It’s a question of focus, of taking small bites of the problem.”

For instance, online pearl jeweler The Pearl Source has spent the past year investing in search engine optimization, including mobile speed, says Leon Rbibo, the retailer’s president. First on its list was resizing nearly 5,000 images to ensure they were the appropriate size for a small screen instead of having mobile shoppers wait for a large image to load. By early 2017, the retailer had created a set of images for desktops and a set for mobile devices.

Image compression is a common tweak many retailers can make that can have a dramatic impact on speed, Catchpoint’s Daoudi says. Retailers can reduce page load time to two seconds from five seconds just by optimizing images, he says. While Rbibo is unsure how this particular change specifically impacted mobile speed as the changes were made over time, he’s confident that it did in the long run.

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The Pearl Source then made changes to its mobile design, such as paring down its product descriptions to a line or two from five or six lines. If consumers want to see more information, they can tap on a box that loads additional details. By limiting the content, a consumer doesn’t have to scroll endlessly down the page to view all of the products, and consequently a shopper doesn’t have to wait for that content to load, Rbibo says.

The retailer also switched its content delivery network to Akamai Technologies Inc. from a smaller vendor that was geared toward smaller businesses. While Akamai charges $700 per month compared to about $100 per month for the retailer’s old CDN, Rbibo says it was worth it for him. After changing its CDN, the retailer’s mobile site load time decreased by more than 30%, he says.

Between tweaking its mobile design, compressing images, moving to a new CDN, publishing blogs several times a week and building up its link structure, The Pearl Source saw a huge improvement in its mobile search ranking in October 2016 from the previous month and year over year, Rbibo says. Among the 50 to 60 non-branded keywords it tracks, The Pearl Source ranks on the first or second page on Google mobile search results, a marked increase from before making the switch, when it regularly ranked on pages two through five. For one of the retailer’s biggest keyword traffic drivers “pearl necklace,” the site now regularly ranks in the top three spots, he says.

Rbibo believes a combination of all of these methods helped boost its search ranking. “The truth is we don’t have one facet of our SEO strategy we can attribute this to,” he says “We’ve always focused on user experience, many different facets of it, so it is hard to pinpoint if speed was the main factor.”

However it’s achieved, a top spot in Google search is associated with “a huge dollar value,” Rbibo says, as its web traffic increased almost 300% from October to November 2016, and it’s since remained at that elevated level.

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There’s no question web speed matters for mobile search rankings, Spencer says. However, retailers should also work on other search engine optimization methods, like link building and posting blogs like The Pearl Source did, he says.

At the same time, speed will likely gain in its importance, Spencer says. Google and Facebook are prioritizing speed as part of their value propositions include sending consumers to websites that fulfill their needs. “Over time this is only going to be more and more prevalent,” Spencer says. “Any traffic source will not want to send traffic to a poorly performing website in terms of page speed.”

Still, after a retailer improves its site speed, its work isn’t over. It’s easy for pages to grow in size and then in load time, over time. “Performance is never ending,” Catchpoint’s Daoudi says.

U.K.-based window blinds manufacturer and retailer Roman Blinds Direct, for example, optimized its images and also worked to reduce the total download size in hopes of decreasing site speed because of Google’s mobile algorithm update, says Jordan Harling, e-commerce manager.

“When we first heard that Google was changing its algorithms to put greater priority on mobile speed, naturally we did the same as everyone involved in e-commerce and optimized our site for mobile devices,” says Job Brown, e-commerce manager.

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Mobile is important to the retailer as it accounts for more than half of its sales, says Harling.“We’ve seen a constant shift from desktop to mobile over a number of years,” he says.

Following the changes, Roman Blinds Direct’s mobile site’s bounce rated dropped 40% immediately and after a few more tweaks it decreased an additional 10% in the following months, Harling says.

Likewise, its mobile conversion rate increased 5% in the short term and then slowly increased to another 5%. Its mobile search rankings, however, remained the same. That’s OK though, as the retailer’s website performed better in almost every other aspect, Harling says. “Our theory is that everyone—or at least everyone competitive—made similar changes,” he says.  “That’s not to say our optimizations didn’t do anything.”

One way a retailer can increase its likelihood of jumping up in Google search results is to code its site with Google’s AMP technology. Similar to Campmor, online retailer of wood products Carved used Google’s AMP technology to increase its speed.

Smartphone shoppers are a huge, growing chunk of Carved’s business and account for 38% of its sales and 62% of its web visits so far in 2017, up from 31% of sales and 52% of traffic in 2016, Webber says.

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With such a large share of mobile customers, mobile speed is important to Carved, because many activities, such as email and text messages, compete for attention on a consumer’s smartphone, says Carved founder and president John Webber.

“If I hit a website from Google search, click a link and if that page takes five, six seconds to load, I’m making a judgment that every single page on that site will take that long to load, and I don’t have the time to wait. I’m just going to search Amazon,” Webber says.

Carved launched its AMP pages in January 2017. The mobile AMP pages load on average in 3.1 seconds on a 3G connection, which is faster than the average of 11.7 seconds it takes for the non-AMP pages on 3G, Webber says. Moreover, Carved’s improved mobile speed boosted its Google search rankings. For example, for the long-tail keyword, “Real wood iPhone 7 case,” Carved’s AMP page typically ranks No. 1, compared with the non-AMP average page ranking of 1.6. Similarly, Carved’s AMP page “S7 Edge wood case” now ranks in the top spot compared with an average ranking of 2.2 for its non-AMP page.

Another feature of AMP pages that attracted Webber was the gray lightning bolt badge with the acronym “AMP” that signals to consumers that Google has validated that the page will load quickly. Carved’s AMP pages are clicked on four times as often as its normal links in mobile search results, which Webber believes is due to the badge.

The faster site, improved search ranking and higher click-through rate is producing mobile sales growth, Webber says. That’s important as the retailer’s mobile traffic grows. Smartphones account for 38% of sales so far in 2017, up from 31% of sales in 2016, Webber says. Carved’s mobile conversion rate has increased to an average of 1.6% this year compared with 1.02% in 2016, Webber says.

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If I hit a website from Google search, click a link and if that page takes five, six seconds to load, I’m making a judgment that every single page on that site will take that long to load, and I don’t have the time to wait. I’m just going to search Amazon.

To develop the AMP pages, WompMobile, which is Carved’s mobile site design vendor, charges on average a one-time fee of $12,000 and retailers pay a monthly fee that starts at $1,000, says Madison Miner, co-founder and CEO at WompMobile. AMP is paying off for businesses of all stripes. For example, Adobe finds that 84% of the media and entertainment websites—the companies AMP was originally designed for—it analyzed, credit AMP for boosts in traffic.  Other retailers also decide to speed up their responsive design sites by redesigning it to be adaptive or hybrid, but this can also cost thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars. With adaptive design the retailer has several distinct website layouts for multiple screen sizes. With this approach, the web server first detects the type of device requesting a web page and then only sends what is necessary to build the page on that type of device.

Not every online retailer, however, has the capital to pour into the latest mobile site design technology. Especially a mobile design that is only visible to consumers who visit a website via Google. But there are a host of free tools—such as gtmetrix.com and testmysite.thinkwithgoogle.com—that can point retailers in the right direction on how to reduce their web speed.

Subscription wine retailer Uncorked Ventures, for example, is a 7-year-old online retailer that generates around $500,000 in annual revenue, says founder Mark Aselstine, who employs part-time workers but largely runs the site himself. About 35% of the site’s traffic is mobile whereas but only 15% of sales stem from smartphones, he says.

“Our site speed is abysmal, to put it mildly,” Aselstine says. On average, UncorkedVentures.com loads in 10 seconds on mobile devices but it could take longer, he says. On average for non-branded keywords that Uncorked Ventures tracks, the retailer is on the bottom of the first page all the way to pages five or six of Google’s organic mobile search results.

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Aselstine ran UncorkedVentures.com through Google’s Test My Site tool to find areas where he could improve his site’s load times. “[Test My Site with Google] brought up some items that there is nothing I can do about, but other stuff that seemed actionable,” Aselstine says.

For example, the tool recommended UncorkedVentures optimize its images and fix its browser caching, which Aselstine then did, and for the retailer to “clean up his cascading styles sheet,” which he says is well beyond his programming capabilities.

The importance of making those types of changes stands to grow as Google and Facebook put more emphasis on speed in their algorithms. But retailers can make significant improvements to their mobile site speed by using free web tools and implementing basic changes. For retailers that already have a speedy mobile site and are looking to get to a new level, however, they may need to invest significant dollars to reach the top spots in Google search rankings. But even if a retailer doesn’t see a boost in search rankings, they’ll likely see a decreased bounce rate and more conversion. And those results are dollars and time well spent.

april@verticalwebmedia.com

@AprilBertheneIR

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