For years Google has been telling us how to present our content in a way that helps them understand what our websites are about.  Now, they want us to do it faster.

On Friday, Google announced something official that many in the SEO community were already expecting:  that the search engine will now consider site speed when ranking results.  If your website is too slow to load, you might find yourself slipping down the SERPs.

The Google Webmaster Central Blog says that “site speed reflects how quickly a website responds to web requests.”  That means that initial page load is a big deal now—though they claim they’ll be looking at a host of speed factors in determining your site’s “speed” score.

Google then waxes poetic for a bit about how much they love speed, and why speed is better for the whole internet—users and site owners (it’ll save you money, they say, if you’re a website owner who speeds up his site’s performance).  And I’m alright with that.  I’m not necessarily sure that Google’s wish for the Internet (more speed) should be everyone’s wish, but they are in a unique position to instantly make speed matter more than it used to—and that’s exactly what they’ve done.

They go on to give a nice list of tools and resources for site owners who wish to begin testing their site’s speed:

  • Page Speed, which is a Firefox add-on that evaluates the performance of web pages and even offers tips for enhancement.
  • YSlow, a free tool from Yahoo! that suggests ways to improve website speed.
  • WebPagetest, which offers data on site load performance.
  • Webmaster Tools, which shows your site’s speed performance data.

Google says it’s not a very important signal in the algorithm at this point—apparently less than 1% of queries are even affected by this change… for now.  As with most things, Google is probably starting small, with plans to expand down the road after some more testing.

I’m hard pressed to believe that they would offer all these tools for improving website speed if they didn’t have plans to increase that signal’s weight more down the road.  Why stress at the end of the article that “We encourage you to start looking at your site’s speed” if it’s never going to impact more than 1% of queries?  I wouldn’t be surprised to see it vault to the top of the list of important signals very quickly.

So what does all this mean for video?  I’d say it’s a healthy wrinkle in the “hosted versus posted” debate that has been going on as long as online video has existed.  No single change can completely close that hosted-versus-posted debate, for sure… but it can alter a person’s decision greatly.

For instance, I work for a company that hosts a ton of small business websites.  Some of these sites are using YouTube to embed videos, and others have paid to have a custom flash player developed so they can host and serve their own videos.  Without question, the sites using YouTube are loading faster this morning.  I’m sure the reason for that is probably more complicated than a simple “YouTube eats the bandwidth on embedded videos” explanation, but it’s data that I can’t ignore when talking to these clients about how to rank their website moving forward.

In a very general way of speaking:  you’re going to want to be much more conscious moving forward about how the way you build and maintain your site impacts its speed.  That may mean fewer photographs—or using lower quality images, embedded videos instead of hosted ones, fewer plugins or flash animations, etc.  Anything that helps add to the load time or slows down the performance of a page is going to start receiving extra scrutiny.

Google says it’s all in the name of bettering the internet.  Of course, a faster site is a site that’s easier to index, so let’s not all act like there’s no benefit to Google to make speed an important signal in the algorithm (heck, considering my point above about video may negatively impact site speed, this could be a boon to YouTube as well).

Regardless of the motivation, we are still faced with a new challenge:  make our sites faster.  For some of us, that’s going to mean changing hosts.  For others, perhaps it means looking at a new publishing platform.  For other still… it might mean a complete overhaul of the type and format of a site’s content.  But we’re all in the same boat.  We’re all spending the next few weeks asking ourselves:  How fast is my website?  What is the first thing I need to address to make it faster?