I read recently that in the ‘Browser Wars’, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer’s share has dipped below 50% of all users (on all devices, globally). Lest we forget, in 2004, IE’s share was 95%. Firefox was the first real challenger to IE and continues to gain ground, but the big winner is Google Chrome, which positions itself as a new, fast browser.

‘New’ is a familiar advertising copy word which has been proven to be effective (after all, new must be ‘improved’…). But what about ‘fast’? The car manufacturers aren’t allowed to sell ‘speed’ any more but browser makers still can.

Google announced last year that page load speed was going to be ‘a ranking factor’ for a website in its search results. In other words, the faster your page loads, indeed the faster your whole site is to respond to a user’s click, the more likely it is that Google will recommend it when someone searches for a relevant keyword term. Fair enough, we know ‘user experience’ is important and waiting for a site to do what you’ve asked it to is boring; in the Internet Age, we’re all accustomed to instant results and instant gratification. We don’t like to wait: in short, we have a need for speed.

Moreover, as increasingly demanding web users, we don’t want streaming videos to buffer; i.e. if we’re on the web and on YouTube, we want to click on a video and have it play right through, in the highest available definition, perfectly without freezing or stuttering. And we want the same experience on all devices; PC, Tablet, Mobile phone. As you may have noticed, generally speaking, we’re not there yet.
The earliest web connections were via 56kb/ second modems. Anything faster than this was deemed to be ‘broadband’. Now there’s a global dash for speed; countries are vying with each other to provide a better infrastructure and faster average speeds. It’s almost become a matter of national pride (perhaps replacing the flag-flying airlines of the late 20th Century!). The current holy grail is ‘fibre to premises’; ie a fibre optic cable that goes all the way to the user’s computer rather than to a cabinet at the end of the street from which point old copper wires take over (and slow everything down).

Akamai’s State of the Internet report for Q2 2011 makes interesting reading.

In world terms, the leaders (for average Broadband speed) are The Netherlands, South Korea and Japan.
Europe dominates the list of top ten countries with the highest broadband connectivity.However, Asian cities dominate the list of the 100 fastest cities in the world, with 10 South Korean cities and Japan alone having 59 cities.

Brno, in the Czech Republic, is the fastest-ranked city in Europe and is only ranked No. 55. Eighteen U.S. cities are on the top 100 list, with San Jose being the fastest —ranked 9 out of 100. The average speed in San Jose was 13.7 Mbps. San Jose also had the highest peak speed in the U.S., 38.7 Mbps.

The South Korean city of Taegu is the fastest city in the world, with an average Mbps of 15.8 Mbps. South Korea’s Taejon had the highest peak speed, 55.3 Mbps.

The UK is trailing in 25th place.

In mobile, we’re waiting for 4G: the next generation mobile networks which will power a new age of superfast speeds on the move, via smartphones and tablets.

The adoption of these new technologies is patchy and driven by entrepreneurs as well as governments. Trials are underway in an unlikely group of locations (including Russia, Cornwall and Jersey?).
But will broadband speeds ever be ‘enough’? How much bandwidth does a household actually need? Once 4 family members are streaming HD video perfectly, is that sufficient? What about businesses, or travellers on the move? Finland last year made broadband a ‘legal right’ of every citizen, but how fast should this be?

Indeed, will we soon reach the point where we are surrounded by a ubiquitous superfast Wi-Fi cloud so we don’t need to choose a coffee shop, hotel lobby or airport lounge with one eye on the data deal?

In this rush for ever faster speeds, who are the real winners likely to be? Well, in short:
a) the consumer
b) companies who have built and maintain fast websites.

So Google Chrome browser is fast and it’s growing impressively, taking share from Microsoft’s Internet explorer in particular.

Google Chrome Operating System (OS) is perhaps the first real challenger to Windows as a PC operating system and again it’s all about – speed. The first Chromebooks (Samsung, Acer, …) typically boot faster than other machines. With more and more data in the Cloud and not saved on our hard drives, PCs will boot faster and faster. Manufacturers are racing to satisfy the demands of impatient users.

And by the way, how long are we prepared to wait for our computer to ‘boot up’?. Well, now you ask, why should we need to wait at all? After all, how long does it take for an electric light to come on? Or a car to start up? Or a radio or TV set? Even our mobile phone is faster to get started than our PC. But this will change.

So what does all this mean for marketers? Just that the bar has been raised: the best sites are getting faster. Users are starting to expect this level of responsiveness. As Google once said, disloyalty is only one click away; keep them waiting, and the users could easily choose to head back to a site that does what they want it to…So does your site need to be faster than a speeding bullet to have any chance of getting to Page 1 on the Google results? Not necessarily. Content is still king, and relevance is still royal (OK I just made that one up) but speed is certainly getting more and more important.

To see how fast your site is, check out Google Page Speed.

Brands are starting to get the message. Good web designers are now building faster sites and some older sites may find themselves left in the slow lane. So you should check out how your site stacks up. And you’d better be quick…

Mike Berry is an internationally-recognised digital marketing consultant and author