Improving Site Search Rankings – Is it Google Love at First Byte?

Ah, the grand mystery of Google’s algorithms. Like any other good web developer or SEO, we’re constantly trying to eek every drop of advantage out of Google’s updates to boost our clients’ site search rankings.

So, back in 2010, when Google announced that your fat hog of a website would be penalized, we all gave greater attention to the size of our web pages and the speed in which we could deliver content to our visitors.

Now, Google didn’t say exactly what it was that they were measuring or how heavily it would be weighted, compared to other factors, but we knew then that it mattered beyond simply delivering a positive user experience. (Which, by the way, is pretty dang important.)

So, earlier this summer, when Google announced that it would penalize slow-performing mobile sites, Moz tasked Zoompf with uncovering this speed-of-delivery ranking factor’s deep, dark secrets.

What did they discover? And, are they right?

Which speed-of-content-delivery metrics matter in Google’s eyes

When it comes to speed-of-delivery, Zoompf’s study shows page load times have no correlation to site search rankings.

However, their study did demonstrate a positive correlation between search rankings and Time to First Byte, or TTFB.

But, wait, wait, wait…

Before we move on, please tell me I’m not the only one that reads “first byte” and conjures up a glorious disco-era vampire. You know, back when vampires were vampires?

(You do not hold a monopoly on the undead, Millennials!)

Okay, let’s get back on topic here…

So, what is TTFB?

Let’s say you wanted to pull up a Love at First Bite movie trailer. (And, not that it needs to be said, but—you should.)

TTFB measures how long it takes from the moment you click the video link on your search engine results page, or SERP, to the time your browser receives the very first byte of data from YouTube.

If you ask your IT peeps, they’ll tell you that TTFB represents a solid measurement of your server infrastructure health.

(And to be clear, that first byte doesn’t refer to on-page data, but rather to the page header.)

So, if your TTFB lumbers at a zombie-like pace, what’s up?

It could be related to:

  • Network latency between your server and your user. Which, in plain English, simply means the amount of time it takes for your host server to receive the page request and deliver the first byte of the header response–a factor that can be impacted by your geographic location. The farther away the visitor is from your server, the longer it takes for the server to transmit the data.
  • Your physical server resources. Is your site equipped to handle heavy traffic? Not sure? You’ll want to find out if your site shares server resources with hundreds of other sites and how quickly your web server can access the database; these are the things that can stress a web server. If you discover it’s a problem and you want to spin up content for your visitors more quickly, you may need to invest in larger infrastructure—either by using a bigger machine with greater processing power, memory and disk space—or by distributing that load across several servers, either through a cloud service (which may also help with that last mile latency) or a whole lotta iron of your own.
  • Your website code. When your website receives a request for a webpage, the code determines what content is needed and fetches that content from your database. It’s then assembled into an HTML page and sent to the browser. So, errors and clunky code can get in the way of returning your content quickly.

Our thoughts on the Zoompf study

The Count once professed, “I know many things about you. Secret things.”—and Zoompf seems to suggest the same of Google.

Well, are they right?

I chatted with our lead developer, Lon Koenig, about this and he felt the straight line in their “Median Time to First Byte” graph was misleading.

Sure the top 7 sites have low network latency, but the rest are nearly flat.

TTFB correlation to site search rankings

Median Time to First Byte (TTFB) correlation to site search rankings. Graph via Zoompf.

And what of the top 7?

They could be giant sites with great network infrastructure and delivery networks, like Amazon—organizations with resources far beyond the means of many others.

The fact is we have no idea how much weight Google applies to speed and, therefore, can’t determine if these results are statistically significant to begin with.

Our recommendations on improving site search rankings

We know Google is promoting page load as a factor, and it already has diagnostic tools available to help support improvements on that front.


Google’s PageSpeed Insights can help give you a leg up.

So, while it doesn’t appear to correlate with site search rankings now, we do agree with Zoompf that Google is moving in that direction. It’s just that this initial TTFB ranking metric is easy to measure and, therefore, first out of the gate.

So, building sites with clean code, taking advantage of acceleration solutions, like Cloudflare, Akamai and other CDNs, and stress testing servers should find a permanent place on your website development checklist.

That said, we all know that Google continues to give significant weight to the quality of your content.

So, if you’re searching for some Google love, your resources are limited and you have to make tough choices, invest it content—rich, timely, relevant, optimized content.