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Google is now using site speed - "how quickly a site responds to web requests" - as part of the criteria for ranking links on its world-dominating search engine.

With a blog post in December, Google seemed to indicate that such a change was in the cards, and the company formally announced the change on Friday with another post to its Webmaster Central blog.

"You may have heard that here at Google we're obsessed with speed, in our products and on the web," wrote Google Fellow Amit Singhal and, yes, principal engineer Matt Cutts, the man webmasters look to as the Delphic Oracle of search results. "As part of that effort, today we're including a new signal in our search ranking algorithms."

Site speed, the pair say, "reflects how quickly a website responds to web requests."

The change is meant to make the world a happier place. "Speeding up websites is important — not just to site owners, but to all Internet users. Faster sites create happy users and we've seen in our internal studies that when a site responds slowly, visitors spend less time there," the post continues.

"But faster sites don't just improve user experience; recent data shows that improving site speed also reduces operating costs. Like us, our users place a lot of value in speed — that's why we've decided to take site speed into account in our search rankings."

But as you might expect, some webmasters aren't happy. "I do not think that this is a solid idea," reads one response to Google's post. "What about sites that post lots of photos on their pages or use complex services that take longer to load? What about all the sites that use advertisement[s]? They obviously load slower than a plain HTML site."

Of course, Google is also an advertising company. And it's responsible for other code that has been known to slow site speed. "So if Google Analytics' code snippet is slow, would that lower a website's rankings? That would be the ultimate irony," says another response to the post.

It's unclear how Google will handle such things. And per usual, webmasters are complaining about the lack of clarity. "It would be nice if Google would add more transparency to the new signal, including if a website's rankings are affected by its loading time (in webmaster tools for instance)," says one webmaster.

Singhal and Cutts merely say: "We use a variety of sources to determine the speed of a site relative to other sites." And then they point webmasters to a list of tools they can use to evaluate their site speed, including the PageSpeed Firefox add-on, Yahoo!'s YSlow, and Google's own Site Performance tool.

Presumably, Google will measure site speed - at least in part - via Google Toolbar, the browser add-on installed on user machines across the globe. And one webmaster wonders whether the company will consider that audiences vary from site to site. "You guys [Google] hopefully look at the connection speeds and origins of visitors as well. A website with lots of Indian users for instance will likely have slower speeds reported than a website with Japanese or Swedish users. Are those factors included in the calculation?"

According to Google's post, site speed "doesn't carry as much weight as the relevance of a page" - though, of course, specific weights are not provided and they're likely to change as Google sees fit. Famously, Google uses over 200 "signals" to rank sites.

The post goes on to say that currently, fewer than 1 per cent of search queries are affected by the new site speed "signal." And at least for the moment, it only applies to people searching in English on the company's main google.com search engine.

The change was put into place "a few weeks back," they say. "If you haven't seen much change to your site rankings, then this site speed change possibly did not impact your site."

When Google first hinted it would make the change, Phil Payne, of web consultant ishram research, argued it would completely change the world of web design. "For experienced Google-watchers, this means Google has thrown web design as we know it into the trashcan," he told The Reg. "Web design as currently practiced is hereby DEAD. Flash becomes poison - lots of funny little blank pictures to build up a page's appearance will ensure no one ever sees it."

Payne also points out that the change may impact the webhosts as well. "Free gigabytes are no longer enough - 2 millisecond response times will be demanded. How many can control service time on virtualised servers?

"Adding a performance requirement to the web as we know it stands it on its head." ®

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