Ranking First Is Good, But First With Prerender Is Better
How do you know when you've got a strong hold on the #1 ranking? Contributor Gene McKenna shows how Google Chrome may provide a clue.
So you thought ranking #1 for a search was as good as you could get, right? How about ranking #1 with a strong indicator that your position there is pretty solid? A new browser optimization in search results might be giving us that clue.
Starting around August 26th, our in-house analytics system at Groupon started reporting a big increase in homepage views.
It’s rare for a search marketing team to complain about too much traffic, but all this new traffic was coming only from the Chrome browser, arriving only at our homepage, and much of it was bouncing, it was killing our revenue-per-session metrics, and all of it was from SEO (Organic Search).
And this “Chrome Home” traffic, as we called it, kept growing and growing — until, by September 25th, we had tens of thousands of additional Chrome requests per day, at a time when other browsers were showing relatively no growth at all. And we saw this in every country around the world that we checked all starting about the same time.
What we learned is that Chrome prerender kicked into high gear for us in September as Google search results pages added prerender tags on searches for Groupon.
Let’s Define Prerender
So, what is prerender, and how does it work? Allow me to illustrate by using an example.
If you search for Groupon, Google knows there is a very high likelihood you will click on the Groupon homepage in the search results. This also applies to lots of other highly predictive searches: [cnn], [nytimes], etc.
In these cases, Chrome will fetch the homepage even before you click on anything in the results. If you do and then click on this prerendered result, Chrome will request the page again — presumably with many static items already cached, providing a faster render time for users.
By now, half of readers will have already gone to check their site metrics to look at their Chrome homepage traffic.
Those that use Google Analytics won’t see anything out of the ordinary. Google Analytics doesn’t record a visit due to prerender, which is generally a good thing because it’s not really a visit. (I don’t have data on other analytics packages, but please leave comments if you’ve seen this in your analytics package.)
Google Head Performance Engineer Steve Souders explains what he calls “prebrowsing” in the October 2013 video below. It is also referred to as prerender. In the video, you’ll learn about various tags that tell a browser to pre-fetch DNS, pre-fetch resources, etc. It’s a great resource for understanding how you can make your website faster.
Souders explains the best time to prefetch things is when there is a strong ability to predict what the user will do next.
Certainly, Google can predict when you might be very likely to click on the first search result. And now, if you go to Google and search [groupon], you will see in the source code of the search results page this prerender tag:
<link href=”http://www.groupon.com/” rel=”prerender“>
It doesn’t mean Google does this for the #1 result on every search. Pity the Wham-O corporation which ranks #1 for searches on “frisbee” but does not have the click-through rate necessary to elicit a prerender tag for its homepage on that search — if, indeed, that is how Google is conditioning this.
The Chrome browser has been executing prerender instructions since version 22, and IE since version 11. (There are a number of pre-rendering instructions worth checking out to make your site faster.) But it wasn’t until Google started issuing prerender commands in the search results that we really noticed this in our logs.
When Did This Start?
When this started may vary from search to search. Wham-O may have to wait a long time to get this for frisbee (quick experiment: everyone reading this article, search frisbee and click wham-o and then see if they start getting prerender).
We started seeing it for the search [groupon] in late August and ramping up through about September 25th.
Although we have only seen this in our data from Google SERPs, the video above from Souders states that this could also happen as users start typing into the omnibar (aka address bar) in Chrome if there is a strong prediction about what site you will go to. So, if you go to nytimes.com a lot, by the time you type “ny” in your omnibar, it may already be fetching the New York Times homepage.
And now, SEOs have a new challenge. Ranking #1 is good, but ranking #1 with prerender is even better. Not only will users have a faster experience, but it might be a signal that your hold on the #1 position is strong.
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