Why TTFB is important and not so important at the same time

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Today we want to look at the TTFB measurement which is one of many metrics in the area of SEO and hosting performance.
TTFB is the abbreviation for “Time-To-First-Byte” and is an often-cited metric when it comes to website performance that can influence search engine ranking.

But before we start; be aware that TTFB is just one metric in the SEO arena related to web hosting performance but not the only one. Back in 2013 MOZ analyzed how TTFB positively impacted websites SEO ranking and found a very close correlation of sites with fast TTFB results and an excellent search engine ranking. Today in 2019, there is supporting evidence that TTFB is not a top-rated search engine metric any longer.

Cloudflare, Nexcess, and Ezoic describe that the time-to-first-byte has little influence on SEO or less then it may have had before. However, our belief at FSS is that you also should not underestimate the TTFB measurement.

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TTFB could be the first performance indicator your customers can experience via the loading of your site:
  • First: It can be viewed as the foundation of a long list of metrics which compose page load time.
  • Second: TTFB can be affected by the technology your website is backed by - e.g. if you are using a complex/traditional CMS (paired with a CDN, code minification and an active load-balancing) vs. a flat-file CMS (with less external resources and optimized images)
  • Third: What percentage of visitors are using mobile devices vs. desktop?

The point is that in some of these cases TTFB is more relevant than in others and you might sacrifice TTFB for better loading times overall.

Let’s first have a look what TTFB means technically.

What is TTFB exactly and how is it measured?

Thanks to our friends at Wikipedia, TTFB is defended as

Time-To-First-Byte measures the duration from the user or client making an HTTP request to the first byte of the page being received by the client's browser. This time is made up of the socket connection time, the time taken to send the HTTP request, and the time taken to get the first byte of the page. Wikipedia

Website Request Process

So far so good, but the actual measuring of your own site can be complicated for two major reasons:**

  1. When measured via the internet from a client/browser the network latency adds up to the TTFB which is diluting the results, and
  2. it actually represents the time it takes the server to deliver an HTTP request which is not yet the actual site content.

You can compare this with the time it takes for a dial tone after picking up your phone so you may make a call. The earlier you can hear the dial tone, the faster you can start dialing.

This basically means that TTFB, from the end user perspective, is rather uninteresting. It is also known that search engine algorithms care more about the total time it takes to access content, having the ability to engage with the content and all associated data loading.

And now we go full circle back to the beginning: TTFB should not be your sole priority BUT you should rather see it as an important piece of the greater whole. Meaning a high TTFB will be INCLUDED in the calculation of your total load time so the lowest possible TTFB can only benefit your overall page load speed. The proof is provided by Google as it displays TTFB as an analyzed metric in their new tool called “Lighthouse” and states it in many of its current developers articles “ThinkitwithGoogle”.

Take a look at the screenshot below, here is a current TTFB value taken from fullsailsystems.com which shows you that TTFB comes before the content loading time (it includes a summary of total loading time). Again part of a greater whole.

TTFB Result from Lighthouse

So, What's the verdict on TTFB?

Yes, the impact of TTFB has become more of an indirect performance indicator and is rather technical. It must be treated as an important piece of the overall loading time of a web presence. Or in other words: With only an awesome TTFB you will not win the game, but without the option to have an excellent TTFB all your best efforts could be negatively affected.

You should not underestimate the importance of a speedy TTFB – even if you decide not to push it to the edge.

As an example: fullsailsystems.com is pushed via a service worker and is treated more like an application (which loads during the first hit) which differs from traditional websites. This technique does have a negative impact during the initial load on TTFB (which is a sacrifice we are willing to accept). However; after the initial load is delivered - our visitors see a blazing-fast, responsive web experience.

So, it is a balancing act between your current technology and the overall experience you would like to provide your visitors. One thing is for sure; only the best technical foundation would be able to provide a fast TTFB - which will ensure improvements to your SEO as a whole.

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