When it comes to on-site factors for SEO, content marketing, and other inbound strategies, most people pay attention to structural elements and aesthetic elements. Structural elements include title tags and meta tags in the HTML code of your site, while aesthetic elements refer to things like design elements and word choices. These are all important, but they aren’t only things that are important for traffic and conversions.
I’d like to turn the focus to site performance, an important but sometimes overlooked component of a website’s ability to attract and convert traffic. Site performance factors are somewhat technical, as they often require backend coding or structural improvements to work, and somewhat aesthetic, as they improve a customer’s subjective experience, but belong to neither of the aforementioned categories. These are things like site speed, mobile compatibility, and site features like hover effects.
So just how important are these factors for traffic and conversions? Let’s cover each one.
Site uptime is one of the more obvious elements of site performance — if you want to get traffic and conversions, your site needs to be available when your audience tries to visit it. If your server goes down or if you’ve got a 404 page up instead of live content, you could miss out on opportunities. A 404 page by itself won’t hurt your rankings badly, but it can leave users with a nasty impression and could cost you traffic and conversions (assuming you still have links pointing to that page). In that case, building a simple 301 redirect is the perfect solution — it simply forwards any traffic to a new, more appropriate live source. As for your entire site going down, do your best to avoid such an incident altogether and respond quickly if it ever happens.
The time it takes for users to load your site is sometimes called “site speed” or “page load time.” Google has admitted that site speed is a ranking factor — that is to say, faster sites do end up ranking higher than slower sites. However, it’s not as significant as we once thought. Having a faster site can help your rankings, and thus your traffic.
More importantly, site speed affects how users view your site. When it comes to accessing a page for the first time, every second counts — with each passing second, a greater percentage of online users are going to abandon your site altogether, losing you the opportunity for a possible conversion. Maximize your chances of retaining traffic, making a good impression, and earning conversions by cutting out unnecessary files, using an efficient caching plugin, stripping unnecessary meta data, and reducing your image sizes.
Though not strictly tied to performance, your navigation plays a critical role for your site; informing users (and web crawlers) about the organizational hierarchy of your domain, and helping them find the pages they need the most quickly and efficiently. Accordingly, it’s in your best interest to ensure your navigation (and sitemap) are as accurate, up-to-date, straightforward, and easy to access as possible. This is both a structural and an aesthetic choice, as it affects the overall layout of your site as well as users’ perceptions of your brand.
Organize your pages into groups or categories of sub-pages, and don’t prominently display pages that aren’t centrally important to your mission. Home, contact, about, product/service, and blog pages are your star players, so all the others can take a bit of a back seat; just make sure it’s easy for users to command and move throughout your site.
Mobile performance is vitally important, especially after Google’s “Mobilegeddon” update earlier this year. Because so many users are relying on mobile devices to navigate the Internet, how your site performs on mobile can make or break their experience. If Google doesn’t find your site to be mobile-friendly, you could incur a ranking penalty, and your rankings could be throttled as a result. Additionally, if users grow frustrated with slow loading times, missing content, hard-to-click buttons, or other mobile problems, they could leave your site, never to come back — leaving you without those valuable conversions and returning customers.
Finally, know that broken content on your site can be an issue. By broken, I mean referred to but not present, such as a nonexistent image in the body of your page, or an embedded video that’s no longer available. These “broken” or missing pieces of content do negatively affect your rankings, thereby reducing your traffic, but can be easily fixed by replacing the broken piece or setting up a 301 redirect. Again, the more important effect here is on your users — if they see missing content on your site, it could damage your reputation and cause you to lose conversions.
Ultimately, with the exception of mobile performance, none of these factors are going to kill your rankings or make it impossible for users to convert on your site. However, when each is optimized, you will stand to gain momentum in search rankings, increases in traffic, and ultimately, happier customers who follow through on converting. For the most part, these factors are qualitative and work on a sliding scale, so there’s no “turning a switch” to go from bad to good. Instead, you’ll have to make corrections as you find opportunities, and consistently work to improve your site over time.