Is Speed or Responsive Design More Valuable?

  • What is “fast,” and why does it matter?
  • What is the role of responsive design?
  • Is responsive design or speed more pivotal?
  • Checking your speed
  • How SSD VPS fits into the speed conversation


Two of the most important elements that will determine the success of a website are the critical user experience (UX) considerations of performance and responsive design. In other words, how fast is the site; and does it consistently load a version of the site that is customized to the user’s operating system and device?


It’s interesting to look at these two elements head-to-head, to consider which of these core priorities is the biggest concern. It’s another way of asking whether it’s fundamentally more important to invest in performance (via optimization tactics and infrastructure) or design (via a premium, regularly updated responsive theme). Focusing on speed is certainly a broader process, but the debate will still be good fodder to consider these dual obsessions of the web development industry.


Albert Costill of Search Engine Journal pointed out that the previously impossible speed and sophistication of the Internet have given rise to more demanding expectations. When we arrive at a site, all its various pieces should load rapidly for us, or we will head to a competitor.


The hunger for speed runs parallel, in a sense, to the desire that the site function perfectly whether we access it on a phone, tablet, or PC. As with a sluggish load time, we will head to a different location if our device fails to access the site in all its glory.

We know that responsive design is a key to web success (at least in most situations) and that speed is central as well. If you haven’t yet focused deeply on either of these, which one should be your first and immediate point of focus?


What is “fast,” and why does it matter?


We all know that the speed of a site is central to how we perceive it. Assumedly just about every Internet user regularly leaves sites because they take too long to load. With users spending less than 15 seconds on your site on average, you don’t want to waste any of that time with them effectively sitting “on hold.”


After all, even back in 2011, nearly half of people (47%) expected web pages to load within 2 seconds. Given that fact, what should we now consider fast for a website?


One of the best pieces of recent information on the topic comes from Maile Ohye of Google. “Two seconds is the threshold for e-commerce website acceptability,” she noted. “[W]e aim for under a half second.”


Pingdom data on site speed shows that the average load time for a webpage is 5 seconds – more than double Google’s suggested threshold for acceptable speed and 10 times the search company’s benchmark. These sites are clearly not investing in SSD VPS servers or otherwise paying enough attention to speed.


Based on Ohye’s comments, we have a reasonable sense of what fast should be considered, at least to the search engines, and we know that sites are, by and large, slow. Does this matter, though? Yes, if you want to make money, according to huge websites:


  • Walmart has found that when it improves load time by 100 milliseconds, its revenue rises 1%.
  • To look at it the other way, Amazon says its conversion rate plummets 7% for every second of lag.


You obviously don’t want to lose out on the direct revenue potential that speed offers – but your slowness will even impact your Google visibility, since load time has been built into its algorithm since April 2010. Load time even affects your AdWords Quality Score.


What is the role of responsive design?


“Responsive design means you only have to have one website and it is designed to adjust to fit any screen size,” explains Costill.


In the past, it was common for businesses to have both desktop and mobile sites. Today, the standard has become responsive design. In fact, Pierre Farr of Google noted (in 2012) the search engine’s preference for going the responsive route. Based on Farr’s comments, we can assume that this design tactic is best aligned with search engine optimization (SEO).


It should be clear how important the mobile web is from the number of people we see scrolling through their screens in public. However, let’s again look at the numbers – because understanding the rise of mobility gives us a better sense of why it’s necessary to leverage responsive design and allow the user’s device to dictate how you serve them your site.


Statistics curated by Dave Chaffey of Smart Insights show that:


  • As of August 2014, mobile surpassed PCs as the preferred mode through which users access digital media.
  • The digital media time for US adults now tips in favor of mobile, with 2.8 hours spent viewing content on mobile vs. 2.4 hours on laptop or desktop as of 2015.
  • Also according to 2015 data, tablets and smartphones were gaining ground as web search tools of choice: 91% of respondents said they prefer searching on PC/laptop, while 80% and 47% said smartphone and tablet, respectively.
  • Multi-screening (splitting access of a site between mobile and PC or laptop) emerged as a concern for marketers in 2014, when comScore released findings that the practice was used by 57% of retail shoppers.


Is responsive design or speed more pivotal?


To be clear, some brands don’t adopt responsive design. Dominos Pizza, the second largest pizza chain in the US behind Pizza Hut (according to this chain/independent pizzeria analysis) was developing specific plans for mobile since most orders were coming through that route – so they kept their separate sites.


However, generally, mobile is the way the Internet is moving. By 2018, there will be more than 10 billion mobile devices connected to the web, according to one analysis.

Responsive design helps to cater to mobile users, so that is a big plus. The approach means you are only working with a single site rather than multiple versions. It helps your search presence.


In other words, the case for responsive design is strong. However, speed is critical on any device, mobile or desktop. Like responsive design, it also improves both UX and SEO – so more people come, and more stay.


Checking your speed


Everyone’s situation is, of course, a bit different. How fast is your site? There are various free tools to give you this information, the most prominent of which is PageSpeed Insights. Another popular one is Pingdom – which offers a performance grade (A to F) and allows you to check from New York City, Dallas, San Jose, Melbourne, or Stockholm.

How SSD VPS fits into the speed conversation


John Stevens of Webdesigner Depot looked at the issue of speed in 2016, and one of his primary suggestions was to carefully choose your web hosting provider. If you work with a high-quality provider, “you can get better support, better speed, and better space to meet your site’s demands, he said. “Don’t just jump on the bandwagon and choose the first site you see advertised.”


To extend those ideas, it’s important to look at the specific technologies used to serve your site. At KnownHost, we offer managed virtual private servers (VPS’s), some of which are based entirely on solid state drives (SSD’s). The VPS creates greater distinction between hosting accounts for consistently strong performance, while SSD is a more streamlined data retrieval approach than a mechanical disk. See our cost-effective solution.

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What Do You Need to Know Right Now, This Year, about Load Time?

Does it matter if your site is fast? Well, ummm… Are you serious? Of course it does. However, we all know how much business is about scale, so, how much does speed matter? Let’s break down what we know about site speed by answering a few common questions on load time:


  • How important is page load time to Google?
  • How fast should your site be?
  • No really: How fast should your site be in 2017?


The Financial Times conducted a couple of tests in spring 2016, in preparation for a site redesign. “We wanted to understand how much the speed of our website affected user engagement, specifically, the quantity of articles read, one of our key measures of success,” explained the researchers. “Using that data we then wanted to quantify the impact on our revenue.”


Does that sound like you? It’s a pragmatic thing to want to know. The study is actually kind of funny, because it involved damaging UX: the most straightforward way the researchers could devise to get good math was to slow down the site to varying degrees and compare to the basis (i.e., their site as it loads “in real life”).


This is the mean percentage loss of article reviews as the media outlet slowed down its site:


Page load time Impact at 1 week Impact at 4 weeks
1 more second 4.9% drop 4.6% drop
2 more seconds 5.0% drop
3 more seconds 7.2% drop 7.9% drop


According to a different study, highlighted by Kissmetrics, you need your site to load in just 2 seconds in order to meet the needs of nearly half of users (47%). Meanwhile, 2 in 5 say they will go elsewhere if your site hasn’t populated in 3 seconds. Sound like you need to be fast? We’ll explain below why your site must be much faster than 2 seconds this year if you don’t want to lose a huge volume of customers.


To beat the speed factor, let’s have a discussion about what performance expectations on the Internet look like right now.


How important is page load time to Google?


Google has made it clear that speed is now a factor used in its search algorithm. To be fair, note that the formula used by the search giant, just like any other, is extremely sophisticated. After all, speed is one of 200 Google ranking factors, the top three of which are links, content, and RankBrain. In other words, speed is not the end-all and be-all of the web. As a general rule (please write this down), you can’t just offer fast-loading pages with garbage information on them about topics that are of interest to no one, disengaged from the rest of the Internet, and succeed.


Nonetheless, let’s be straightforward: speed is extremely important to online success. Picture that last statement underlined twice. This is why: Google, that aspect of your effort, is just one piece of how speed impacts your presence. What about people coming in from elsewhere? What about your site itself? Fast-loading pages mean better UX, and, in turn, stronger conversion rates.


Many companies don’t pay any attention to site speed, despite Google’s prioritization of it. Something many people don’t think about is that search engine spiders will crawl your site more slowly. That’s very problematic, especially if you are putting up a lot of content or rearranging your structure. Think about it: it can’t be positive for Google to experience poor performance on your site.


How fast should your site be?


Well, the basic answer to that question is as fast as possible. Everyone knows that speed has value. However, getting a better sense of the specific impact in certain scenarios will help you determine the amount you want to invest in performance.


First of all, let’s get back to our comments above about the research in Kissmetrics. That study noted that 47% of users will be displeased if you site doesn’t load in 2 seconds. 40% say they’ll abandon if the site isn’t up in 3 seconds. However, here’s the clincher: That research is from 2009! Think that figure hasn’t gone down?


Second, let’s look at research highlighted by Cami Bird of SEMrush. First of all, Bird is not impressed with the data that’s available on page loading time heading into 2017. “[T]he numbers on page speed suck,” she said bluntly. “Often, the same stats are posted time and time again and are dated while technology is anything but dated, it’s continually improving.” Having made that statement, she mentioned a study performed by Geoff Kenyon of Moz that had the following results:


  • 5 seconds will outpace 25% of online sites.
  • 2.9 seconds will beat 50% of websites.
  • 1.7 seconds will be better than 75% of sites.
  • 0.8 seconds will outperform 94% of the Internet.


Great, now we’re getting somewhere… Not so fast! That data is from 2011! Again, 2.9 seconds might sounds fine looking at those numbers – from half a decade ago.


Third, let’s get into further information on the study by the technology department at The Financial Times – which was conducted in April 2016. Here, for review, are the results in terms of mean percentage reduction in article views:


Page load time Impact at 1 week Impact at 4 weeks
1 more second 4.9% drop 4.6% drop
2 more seconds 5.0% drop
3 more seconds 7.2% drop 7.9% drop


The FT conducted a couple of 4-week experiments. One split a pool of subscribers evenly in half. There were control users who were delivered the site “as-is” and experimental users who saw it with an intentional five-second delay, per page. The impact was huge – well, of course… 5 seconds is a long time to wait online.


The second analysis was revised so that they could further segment wait time.


The control users (Group A) experienced the site exactly the same – with no artificial, imposed hindrance. Group B was given 1 second of delay, while groups C and D were given 2- and 3-second delays, respectively.


“The delay was achieved by inserting a blocking CSS call within each HTML page,” noted the FT technologists. “The CSS referenced a file that was configured to (artificially) respond in one, two and three seconds, depending on the test variant.”


As indicated above, the researchers were also interested in determining the effect of speed on the publication’s revenue. An inability to create engagement (as indicated by additional page views) is detrimental to two absolutely key streams of FT revenue: subscriptions and advertising. Ads are gauged in terms of number of views but also in terms of how long the user stays on a page.


It’s clear from our test that the speed of our website affects both of these revenue streams, over the short term, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of pounds, and in the long-term millions,” said the researchers. (Oh, I should probably mention, as a reminder, that a British pound is worth more than a US dollar – so this is a lot of money.)


No really: How fast should your site be in 2017?


Beyond knowing that search engines use speed as a ranking factor, they probably have good general advice on page load time, right? Maile Ohye commented in a Google Webmasters video that 2 seconds was what they consider an acceptable length for ecommerce sites. Keeping that in mind, Ohye added that Google always strives to hit a half-second. Oh wait, that information was published in 2010.


“Half a second is fast, to put it in layman terms it’s close to a blink, while two seconds is shorter than one breath,” said Bird, “and that pagespeed time is what they thought websites 6 years ago should be aiming for.”


Technology is rapidly developing, as we all know. It seems pragmatic that the average site in 2017 would need to be able to meet the goal Google had for itself seven years ago… right? Can your site achieve a half-second? Many cannot.


Aim for half a second with lightning-fast hosting


How do you get your site faster? Well, you can do all the work you want on your end, but it really all starts out with having the right engine. At KnownHost, our managed SSD VPS packages are a cost-effective solution for those who want the benefits of a managed VPS and the super-fast speed of SSD drives. Compare plans >>>

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