Your Website Is Fat & Slow: Resolve To Make It Faster In 2014

The following is a guest post from Future Buzz community member Muhammad Saleem.

There is a plugin I install on any browser I use called Ghostery. I use it to understand scripts a site is loading that may be slowing the site down. As you will learn, website load time is an incredibly important metric that is often looked over when optimizing sites for conversions. To give you an idea of how prevalent these scripts are, here’s a list from one of the most popular tech industry blogs I visit on a regular basis:

1 - ghostery

Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead

Either you don’t realize it, or you may think the benefits outweigh the costs, but every bit of code you add to your site has the potential of slowing it down. As you’ll see in a minute, this slowdown is eroding your business. This include commonly used scripts and page elements such as:

1. Analytics scripts you use to track your visitors and conversion
2. Toolbars you use to add search, sharing, and chatting functionality
3. Trust seals you use to demonstrate privacy, security, and credibility
4. Javascript you use to serve ads from third-party networks and servers
5. Social buttons and plugins such as Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest
6. Rich media such as images, infographics, interactive elements

Before we look at each of the elements individually, let’s get a better understanding of the industry.

Fat is the New Normal

Overweight websites and increasing load times are industry-wide issues. The following graphs from HTTP Archive illustrate the explosion in total transfer size (average for top 1000 websites), and breakdowns by HMTL, Javascript, CSS, and Images – with images accounting for a whopping 55% of page size:

2 - total
3 - html

4 - js

5 - cs

6 - imgs

According to data published by Radarware, the average website load time is approximately 7.25 seconds, up 22% from a year prior. To understand the importance of these numbers, compare them to the expectations of the average website visitor.

Up to 69% of website visitors expect your website to load in 2 seconds or less, according to data from Akamai and up to 57% of visitors will abandon a site if it doesn’t load within 3 seconds. The same is also true in the UK where two-thirds of respondents said they would abandon an online purchase entirely due to slow response times and 52% said a faster website would improve their online shopping experience, according to a Brand Perfect survey.

Fat Websites Finish Last

All of this doesn’t matter unless we can conclusively show how page load times and latency impact specific metrics for your business’s success. I’ve aggregated data across different industries and business sizes to give you a wide frame of reference for most commonly used metrics.

  • 1 second increase in latency reduces page views by 11%.
  • 1 second increase in latency reduces conversions by 7% to 15%.
  • 1 second increase in latency reduces visitor satisfaction by 16%.

Visitor satisfaction is an important metric to consider because it feeds directly into visitor retention (repeat visits / repeat sales) and can also propagate negative word of mouth. Up to 44% of website visitors say they would tell their friends about a bad website experience.

  •  100 millisecond increase in latency reduces sales by 1% according to Amazon.
  • 2 second increase in latency reduces search volume by 1.8% according to Microsoft.
  • 2 second increase in latency reduces click throughs by 3.75% according to Microsoft.
  • 2 second increase in latency reduces revenue per visitor by 4.3% according to Microsoft.
  • 1 second increase in latency reduces Facebook page traffic by 6%.
  • 1 second decrease in latency increases conversions by 2% according to Walmart.
  • 100 millisecond decrease in latency increases incremental revenue by 1% according to Walmart.

You also have to worry about performance on a relative basis – studies show that a 250 millisecond higher latency (that’s a quarter of a second) compared to a competitor’s website drives customers to the competition as reported in NYTimes. There are other, more ambiguous metrics to take into account as well. For example, page load speed is one of the hundreds of signals used by Google for ranking search results.

Since mobile now accounts for over 28% of all website traffic, let’s take a look at some mobile-specific data points collected by Mobile Joomla.

64% of smartphone users expect a site to load in less than 4 seconds and 85% of users expect mobile performance to be on par with desktop performance.

  • Conversion rates decrease by 50% when a website takes more than 6 seconds to load.
  • Bounce rates increase by 100% when a website takes more than 4 seconds to load.
  • Bounce rates increase by 150% when a website takes more than 8 seconds to load.

Now that we understand the wide-ranging impact of a bloated website, let’s circle back to the common elements responsible for such bloat.

6 Things That Are Making Your Website Fat

One mistake that too many websites make is using scripts for multiple services to get marginal benefits. For example, using one analytics script to capture historical data (delayed), and using another script to capture data in real-time. Similarly, using multiple visitor behavior tracking services that are differentiated by only one or two features. First, decide if you’re actually using all the data you’re gathering and analyzing it to make decisions that actually impact the bottom line, and then weigh the benefits of additional data points against the potential latency they add to the user experience before settling on how many scripts you need running on your site.

Analytics Scripts – The most important considerations with analytics scripts are where you place the code, how the code loads, and what the code serves on your website. With a service like Google Analytics this is not much of an issue due to the use of asynchronous tracking code and the fact that Google doesn’t serve any text or images on your page. The same is not true for services that display a live visitor feed or serve maps and charts with visitor data. Unless you need this live data and are using it to improve your bottom line, lose this ‘nicety’ in favor of a more efficient website.

Toolbars – Toolbars are a dying business (or maybe this is just wishful thinking). They offer all-in-one functionality that is either duplicated elsewhere or is better left to a more case-by-case basis. For example, why use a site-wide toolbar when you already have social share buttons on each individual post? Similarly, why use a toolbar for website translation when popular browsers can do this when relevant by detecting the location of a website visitor? Ask yourself if you really need live chat functionality on your site in addition to comments and/or forums.

Trust seals – Baymard institute has done some great research on trust seals – user understanding and perception of trust seals, which ones to use, and how best to use them on your site. The bottom line is, users don’t understand how trust seals work, don’t know which ones are the best, and generally have no preference between the options. Based on their survey results, 36% of respondents chose Norton, with 23% choosing Mcafee, purely on the basis of perceived security rather than technical understanding of what each service offers. Decide whether a security seal is important for your website (for example, do you run a blog or an ecommerce site that will be collecting user information such as credit cards and other personal information) and pick one option.

Ad Network JS – To understand how ad networks slow your site down, start by taking a look at the long and arduous journey of a single ad. As Eric points out in his post, between loading your page and actually serving an ad on your page, an ad call can touch up to 500 different servers – and that’s just for one ad call. In my days of managing ad-supported websites, we would setup chains of multiple ad networks to ensure that the highest paying ad would be served until we exhausted the inventory of that ad and then move down the chain. This of course increases the number of calls and number of servers queried, exacerbating the problem in our quest to maximize revenue.

Social buttons – Do you know who you’re writing for? Do you know where your audience congregates? Do you know what percentage of your audience overlaps across social platforms? These are the questions you need to ask yourself before you plaster Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+, LinkedIn, and every other conceivable social media sharing option on your site. A little bit of research goes a long way in ensuring you’re not stuffing your site with unnecessary javascript calls, slowing it down while not gaining anything in return. Pick a handful of sharing options, optimize them, and hardcode them to your site.

Rich media – Look back at the data from HTTP Archive and you’ll see images are one of the biggest sources of added weight on websites today – driven in part by the growth of infographics as a vehicle for content marketing and link building. Images add a lot of value to a website. If used correctly, images can grab attention, drive search traffic, and increase conversions (especially for ecommerce). If used unwisely, images will bloat up your website, add to latency, and drive visitors away (just read the latency-related metrics provided at the top).

Your Action Plan for 2014

The point of this article is to give you a good sense of the following:

1. Growth in average website size, the primary culprits contributing this, and how this increase in size results in latency.
2. The importance of website load speeds and the wide-ranging impact of latency on the bottom line.
3. Average website visitor expectations and behavior and industry benchmarks.

To help you with the technical implementation of principles discussed here, I’ve compiled a short list of resources. You do not need a dozen tools to get the job done. The three resources below provide the tools necessary for analysis and guides to further educate yourself on improving website performance and creating a strategy for 2014 and beyond.

1. Google’s guide to making the web faster – includes tools for analyzing your website and provides suggestions to make your website faster.
2. Yahoo YSlow Plugin – analyzes your website and suggest improvements along with best practices and rules.
3. Pingdom’s tools – include full website analysis and performance review along with tips for improvement.

Muhammad Saleem is a tech industry observer and digital marketing strategist based in Toronto. You can follow him at @msaleem and contact him at MuhammadSaleem.com.