Digital Divide: Are Black-Owned Businesses Ready?

Table of Contents

A recent Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research study revealed catastrophic outcomes for minority-owned businesses because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Between February 2020 and April 2020, 41% of black-owned companies shut down, followed by 32% of Latinx-owned and 26% of Asian-owned companies (Fairlie, 2020). The data from May showed a significant rebound for all demographics. That withstanding, one could not fail to see that minority-owned businesses took and continue to endure a disproportionate hit from the pandemic. 

Graph - COVID-related business closures by race

Concurrently, businesses of all stripes and sizes were left almost exclusively with digital marketing e-commerce channels as the primary consumer engagement vehicle. Traditional brick-and-mortar and face-to-face interaction got squelched by stay-n-place order recommendations.

The “COVID” economy forced significant changes in consumer buying habits and patterns that will likely continue or significantly impact business models long after the pandemic has passed. Compared to any similar period, more consumers have grown comfortable shopping online over these last few months (PYMNTS, 2020).

According to one study, the social implications of COVID with stay-in-place orders and quarantines initiated a 61% increase in social media engagement (KANTAR, 2020). As such, social media is often the go-to channel for many small businesses; 80% of marketing influencers believe that organic search with a combination of social media produces the most beneficial results (Ascend2, 2019). With its low entry barriers, social media provides businesses with a cost-effective vehicle for creating brand awareness and visibility exposure. There are many instances where companies establish social media pages before launching a website. Combining these two platforms can prove advantageous for search engine optimization (SEO). 

After learning of the many black-owned businesses that shut down versus the sizable shift of all small companies that shifted to an e-commerce focus, I began questioning whether most black-owned companies can adapt to the new digital reality. For most companies, virtual transactions will remain the primary medium for revenue and sales. Current and future viability heavily depends upon a web presence that delights consumers with performance and active engagement.

Comparing Page Speed of Black-Owned Businesses to Top Performing Web Sites?

To identify a single determinative metric that credibly demonstrates the performance value of one site versus another is asking for a lot and is likely impossible.

In evaluating various metrics for consideration to use as a baseline for comparative analysis, I opted to use Google’s PageSpeed Insights (PSI). PSI allowed us to evaluate the performance of thousands of sites in an agnostic fashion and provided us with a simple scoring framework applicable to all websites. PSI scores range from 0 (Poor) to 100 (Excellent). 

Why Did I Use PageSpeed Insights to Evaluate Performance Comparisons?

The PSI Score levels the playing field for all websites and businesses. The performance metrics that form the scoring assessments’ foundation use technology and processes available to even the smallest firms.

Using the PSI Score provides additional insight into website user experience (UX). Various research indicates a strong correlation between website speed and bounce rates – the rate users visit a site and leave without taking action.

32% bounce rates increase for 3s load times vs 1s

Google, in 2018, formally announced that “Speed is now a ranking factor.” The implication is clear that page speed has some effect on the ranking position of web content in the search engine results pages (SERPs).

For many sites, this equates to a huge missed opportunity, mostly when more than half of web page visits get abandoned if a mobile page takes over 3 seconds to load (An, 2018).

The PSI scores provided an objective lens to compare our dataset of nearly 1300 black-owned or focused websites to those of our control group, 420 sites, ranked in the top 100 SERPs for high-intent search queries.

Assumptions and Details Regarding Our Test Group

  • The original sample size consisted of 1284 web domains.
  • Sites in the test group came from various black-business directories and relevant organizations.
  • Given the previous statement, I assumed the listed URLs were black-owned or focused on their content. This assertion was undoubtedly not guaranteed as web URLs that are known not to fit the target demographic (i.e., were found and subsequently removed from the dataset.
  • After removing non-relevant domains and domains found to be inactive, the resultant sample size was 1138 websites in our list of black-owned businesses.

Control Group Selection

  • Selected domains that ranked in the top 100 SERPs for distinct transactional queries
  • According to government data, searches were relevant to four of the top 10 industries with high African American participation – Attorneys/Law, Beauty & Healthcare, Retail, and Construction.
  • Our test included score results for both mobile and desktop performance. For our analysis, the focus is on mobile scores.

Does Page Speed and Site Performance Create A Digital Divide for Black-Owned Businesses?

With Google’s increased emphasis on website speed performance, specifically for mobile devices, the data reveal an area of significant concern in user experience (UX) and PageSpeed for the websites of Black-owned businesses and organizations (BOB) in this test.

Google Page Speed Test of Black-owned Businesses Compare versus Websites of Top SERP Performers?

  1. The Top SERP websites outperformed the websites of Black-owned businesses by 22.8% in the PSI.
  2. The median First Contentful-Paint (FCP), a page load time metric, was 4.1 seconds for the BOB group, over 24% higher than the Top SERP group.
  3. The median page weight or size of websites for Black-owned businesses was 2.8 MB, 40% higher than the median Top SERP website.
  4. The median number of page requests for Black-owned companies in this test was 85-page requests versus 108 for the Top SERP, a favorable difference for the BOB group by 21%
  5. 78.6% of the sites in the BOB group ranked “POOR” for mobile speed performance versus 72.6% in the control group

Metric (Medians)Black-owned Businesses
(BOB) Group
(TS) Group
PageSpeed Score22.028.5-22.8%Unfavorable
First Contentful Paint (sec.)4.13.3+24.2%Unfavorable
Total Size (MB)2.82.0+40%Unfavorable
Number of Requests85108-21.3%Favorable

These differences in web performance metrics reveal a new digital divide of sorts. SEO is perhaps one of the most accessible and cost-effective channels for businesses to compete on a relatively level playing field. The data suggest that, on balance, the sites of BOBs likely face higher bounce rates due to their comparatively slower page load times. These two factors – slow-loading web pages and high bounce rates – together contribute to the following:

  • The likelihood of underwhelming website results in the form of lower search traffic.
  • Decreased brand awareness
  • Lower sales attributed to organic search channels.
  • Relative higher costs for SEM/PPC advertising as costs inversely reflect a landing page’s Quality Score (Google Ads). Higher bounce rates negatively impact the Quality Score.

infographic - The Digital Divide for Minority-Owned businesses

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The Importance of SEO

In a 2020 survey by Hubspot, they queried the opinions of 3400 marketing experts from around the globe and 23 different industries. In the study, 64% of the respondents stated they “actively invest time in search engine optimization.” On page speed, optimizing page load time was selected as the number one SEO tactic chosen by these professionals, ahead of keyword research, obtaining backlinks, and various other SEO measures. Optimizing for mobile received the second-highest number of votes from these marketing experts. When appropriately executed, SEO is a proven digital marketing strategy that drives effective and reliable results. 

The discussion of ROI (return on investment) from the various digital marketing channels shows varied results and consensus among the many surveys and studies. However, while the juxtaposition of one channel’s ROI to another varies in all the research, SEO frequently appears within the top five digital strategies in most credible studies.

It is not an overstatement that search engine rankings are not exclusively affected by page load times.  Page load times, as Google describes them, “are a ranking factor,” albeit one which has given increased importance over the last couple of years. In addition to page load times, other ranking factors include, but are not limited to:

  • Site security (https)
  • Domain authority
  • Navigational structure
  • Content relevance
  • Content quality
  • Authoritative backlinks
  • Website crawl ability
  • User experience

Compared to other commonly known ranking factors, page speed is the most impactful factor the website owner has the most control over, regardless of what competitors may do strategically.

Bridging the Divide on Page Speed

It may be perplexing to the uninitiated as to what steps one takes to close the gap in the competition concerning page speed. First, let me warn you that as you begin this short journey for improved page performance, you are embarking on a mission that you can easily find yourself obsessing over every point of your PSI score. My advice to you – is do not obsess. There are diminishing returns on your time and effort the further you go up the point scale. At some point, it is a more effective use of your time to focus on other aspects of SEO, like the Quality of your content. The net positive effects on your page rankings come when you bump your score by 20 or more points.

5 Simple Steps to Improve Your Page Speed & Load Time

  1. Test
  2. It would be best to verify that the steps you are taking to improve your page load performance make measurable improvements. In many instances, you will see the benefits almost immediately. Getting an objective assessment of web page performance before and after taking various steps to increase your page speed is helpful. There are a number of these tests available at no charge. As I have spoken about the PageSpeed Insights score, it makes sense to get your sites’ score to establish a benchmark. Here are three web performance tools that I recommend:
  1. Remove Excess Weight (Page Size)
  2. Excess page weight is the number one killer of page loading performance. The extra weight comes in images not optimized for the web, bloated font files, and excess JavaScript files. A site feature that likely is the biggest culprit of page heft is the slide carousel. Save the slide for the dance floor. Image slides often load multiple oversized image files conjoined by large JavaScript files, which create visual effects.
  3. Enable GZIP
  4. GZIP, in the simplest terms, is a file compression technology enabled by your website server. It mainly takes various files loaded onto and on our web pages, making them smaller and lighter. Access to this setting will vary by hosting providers and platforms. In many instances, this setting is accessible through your control panel. If you are still trying to figure out where to look, contact the support team from hosting providers and ask them to enable GZIP. Any hosting provider unable to assist you with this simple request is not worth your money – find a new web host.
  5. Set Up A CDN
  6. A content delivery network (CDN) is an ancillary service that works with your web server to deliver your content from various global locations. CDNs create mirror images of your site from multiple locations based on several factors, like distance to the requestor.
  7. Utilize Server-Side Caching
  8. Page caching takes snapshots of your pages and delivery them to browsers upon request. The “snapshot” captures the content of the pages and frees up the server from processing all of the coding necessary to deliver the pages. In addition to faster page load times, caching pages reduces the load on your server environment.