The speed factor: Google algorithm change favors small business

Ian Lurie

I’m here tonight to clear up a little misconception:
Douglas Karr wrote an article a few days back titled “Is Google really trying to make the web better?”
He talked about Matt Cutts’ implication at PubCon that site load speed is becoming a search ranking factor. Karr implies that this favors businesses with deep pockets, I’m assuming because they can spend more on improving load speed.
Mashable picked up the thread, too:

1. Favors big / powerful sites: As Karr notes, big companies are best able to plow resources into technical prowess. This could disrupt Google’s egalitarian basis, and the whole idea of the web as a meritocracy.

They got it backwards

If page load time becomes a ranking factor, that favors small business, not big business.
Have you ever seen a large company try to change their web site? Here’s how it goes:

  1. IT department is asked to build site based on a content management or ERP system that the accounting department chose.
  2. IT department builds site, testing it carefully on their internal network, and over their ridiculously fast Internet connection.
  3. Site launches.
  4. Site runs like crap, with page load times somewhere around 45-60 seconds (see below if you don’t believe me).
  5. Marketing department says “What the hell?!” and asks IT department to speed up the site.
  6. IT department says they’ll have to take time away from 10 other projects to change it, and anyway, the competition’s site loads just as slow, so who cares?
  7. Marketing department tries to find a way to fix the problem themselves. Finds out there are only 10 people on earth who know how to use the web system they’re on, and they all cost $2500 a day. Oddly enough, they all work for the company that makes the system.
  8. Accounting department sees that the marketing department is hiring a consultant. Sends a 3-inch-thick stack of forms to the marketing department to handle the new vendor, who the marketing department is paying a total of $2500.
  9. Marketing manager quits.
  10. New marketing manager comes in, starts the whole thing over again.
  11. IT department manager, sick of managing a web site, quits.
  12. New IT manager comes in swearing to work well with the marketing department.
  13. Accounting department slashes IT budget 40%. New IT manager has to lay off 4 people. Is now totally overtasked.
  14. Marketing manager sees how slow the site loads, says “What the hell?!”, and asks the IT department to spee up the site.
  15. Return to number 6 and loop infinitely.

At a small company, here’s what happens:

  1. CEO gets site built on WordPress or static HTML.
  2. Site’s not perfect, Lord knows, but it works.
  3. CEO realizes they don’t rank for anything, hires an SEO.
  4. SEO says “your site runs too slowly”.
  5. CEO yells down the hall to the CTO: “Frank, fix the damned site. It’s too slow!”
  6. Frank sets up GZIP compression, or compresses a few images, or hires someone to fix it, or Frank gets fired.
  7. Problem solved.

Quick research

I just checked out a few home pages with Safari’s Web Inspector and Google Page Speed:

  • 1.25 megabytes, 15 second average load time
  • 1.72 megabytes, 10 seconds average load time
  • NYTimes: 2 megabytes, 8 seconds average load time

Now, let’s look at a few ‘smaller’ players:

  • .271 megabytes, 4.7 seconds average load time
  • .75 megabytes, 6 seconds average load time
  • (totally random choice): .135 megabytes, 1.9 seconds average load time

Hmmmm. So who exactly is Google favoring? The small sites, seems to me.
For once.

Related reading

Ian Lurie

Ian Lurie is the founder of Portent. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (that's more than 25 years, if you're counting). Ian's recorded training for, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Ian is now an independent consultant and continues to work with the Portent team, training the agency group on all things digital. You can find him at

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  1. I joked with a friend just today about a link from my site to his… “I’ll send a request to the IT guys and we should get this done after Thanksgiving” I wrote. But really, I went into my WordPress Dashboard, switched the info and it was done!
    On a serious note, I did switch from a budget host after it was super slow… to a super fast host, GDaddy. Made all the difference in enjoyment.

  2. Hey Ian,
    This is on my long list of things to do after our excellent 10 Things Discussion a couple of weeks ago.
    Some of this is out of my hands because our shopping cart/blog/site is all hosted with GoodBarry. The jury is out on how quickly their pages load…however, your advice about reducing the image file sizes should help considerably.
    Anything that can help the “little guy” is a friend of mine right now.
    Thanks again for everything!

  3. Perfect depiction of a corporate bureaucracy trying to change their web site.
    I do think it depends on the company, but even more it depends on how the page speed ranking factor will actually work. Will it penalize you for being just slightly slower? Will it give you a huge boost for being super fast, or just a tiny boost? I think that will be the biggest factor.

  4. I don’t think it’s a big / little issue. It’s a smart / dumb issue. If you’re not smart enough to already realize that load time affects user experience (and thereby, imho, already affects your SE rankings through other factors) then your not paying attention. Load time is already critical and it doesn’t take a level of effort that would make the size of the company matter.
    your large company scenario is classic though. only funny because it’s true.

  5. I think this is a remarkably stupid move on Google’s part. When I search, I pick results based on relevancy, not how fast the page loads. If it takes a few seconds extra but is more relevant to what I searched for, I want that. This is a quick way to get people to switch to Bing.
    Imagine going into a bookstore and asking for books about the history of the US and having them recommend books that weren’t as good and weren’t as relevant because they happened to be closer to where you’re standing, as opposed to being upstairs or something. Dumb analogy, but the bottom line is that I’m searching for information I need, not to support Google’s half-baked attempts to speed up the internet.

  6. @Ryan Waggoner I agree with your book analogy point Ryan but I wonder if google is adding page load as a rank factor to upsell you on one of their new apps. It seems that everything that good adds it turns up to be connected with something else they launch in the future. Who knows?

  7. I think we’re pretty soon going to run into a paradox: Google needs to see a lot of meaningful content on your page to analyse it and give it good rank. On the other hand, it needs to be fast. The more content, the slower a page gets, so in the end we’ll have to choose to either optimise with good loading speed or with good, well linked content.

  8. Ian, I laughed at what you wrote as I have been on both courts. That happen to a company I worked at and I was the Marketing guy that quite because of the lack of support from other departments to support my SEO work.
    Have you been there or do you know of someone that has? :0)
    Google surely is in the business to make money, so why would they favour the big companies? Aren’t they the ones with the huge marketing budgets? and able to spend on PPC advertising? The small quality companies should be in the top 10 listings.
    I now work for a small to medium company and am having a ball seeing their website go up the rankings everyday, over taking the big boys. My current boss did exactly what you wrote in your second part of your posting. I said can we move to a faster server? Yep, done!!! We did it in a week. Now we’ve hired a graphics desginer to streamline our images and banners.
    Google creates jobs!!! Simple. Isn’t it?
    I look forward to hearing your comments.

  9. When you optimize speed, where do you commonly get the big wins?
    When reducing image file size, what are your fav tools?
    Thx. This blog is great.

  10. @Greg The biggest wins are server-wide: Stuff like GZIP compression. But, if your site was coded poorly then moving javascript into separate, minified .js files can help a lot, as can image compression.
    I like to use FireWorks if I’m compressing by hand, or use if I’m compressing lots of images at once.

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