The speed at which a Website loads is paramount to maintaining a positive user experience and, as we learned last year, has a direct impact on the site's organic search rankings on Google.

The search giant's recent beta launch of its Page Speed Service gives us the latest in a long line of products and tools designed to help site owners boost page load speed. In what is by no means a comprehensive list, we've outlined a few such tools worth checking out.

First, Measure Your Site's Speed

The first step toward speeding up your site's load time is to determine what that load time is. What you experience loading the site may be different than somebody on a different Internet connection, using a different browser or in a different physical location. There are quite a few tools out there for page load speed testing.

Pingdom

Pingdom is a site that tests page load time and breaks down how long it takes for every script, CSS file and media asset to load. You can use the resulting chart to make decisions about things like whether to consolidate your CSS files or whether a content delivery network (CDN) might help deliver images faster.

In addition to page load time, Pingdom lets you test your DNS settings for issues and perform a ping or traceroute to test network connectivity to your server.

YSlow

Yahoo's YSlow has been around for a few years but it's no less useful today, even with the arrival of several new competitors on the market. YSlow, which is available as a browser plugin for Firefox and Chrome, clocks page load time and then provides a detailed report card, complete with letter-based grades.

Unlike some other tools of this nature, YSlow goes the extra mile by offering specific, actionable tips about how to improve page load time. Their Best Practices for Speeding Up Your Website is a worthwhile read for any Webmaster or site owner, regardless of whether or not you use Yahoo's tools.

Google Page Speed

Google has been incresingly fixated on speed as of lately, both in its own products (see Chrome and Google Instant) and the Web at large, having announced last year that site speed now plays a role in organic search rankings.

Before releasing a few tools designed to actually speed up your site (more on that below), Google put out its own answer to Yahoo's YSlow called Page Speed. It's available as a browser extension and also a Web-based test. It's pretty similar to YSlow in that it returns a series of specific action items that, if undertaken, would improve a site's load time. It ranks those suggestions by priority, which is helpful in assessing what to tackle first.

Improve Your Site's Load Time

Once you have an idea of how much improvement is needed, you can begin implementing the right solution. Inevitably, some of the necessary changes will require some manual coding, but there are a few turnkey tools that will help.

Google's mod_pagespeed and Page Speed Service

In addition to its site speed measurement tools, Google offers a few ways to actually do something about your sluggish Website. The first is mod_pagespeed, a module for Apache that rewrites the HTML, JavaScript, CSS and image assets on a page and serves them to visitors more efficiently. More recently, Google introduced Page Speed Service, which achieves the same thing through DNS changes. Google may charge for this service in the future, but for now the beta is free.

Other Content Delivery Networks

One of the most effective ways to boost a site's load time is to deliver its static elements over a content delivery network (CDN). There are many CDN's available at different price points.

Some of the better known commercial CDN's include Akamai, Limelight Networks, BitGravity. Here at ReadWriteWeb we use MaxCDN, which is a relatively affordable solution. CloudFlare is a product that specializes in Website security but has content delivery and site speed enhancement features built in. Amazon Web Services customers might want to look into Amazon CloudFront.

Minify and Merge Your Code For Faster Load Time

Another common culprit that drags down a Website's loading speed is code that hasn't been consolidated, especially CSS and JavaScript. While you could manually remove whitespace from the code and consolidate the number of external files, there are a few automated tools to help make it easier.

MinifyJavaScript is a simple, Web-based tool for compressing JavaScript right in the browser. Similarly, this site will do the same thing for JavaScript and CSS using Yahoo's YUI Compressor.

Minify is a PHP-based tool that developers can use to automatically compress and consolidate external scripts and stylesheets. There's also a Wordpress plugin for it.


Photo courtesy of Flicker user Nathan E. Photography