How fast does your website need to be?
Web performance is a hot button topic so that question is pretty much guaranteed to start an argument. Perhaps this is more because of the answer – which is, “it depends” – than the question. But it’s fair to say that if much of your business either arrives, or is transacted, online then the answer is pretty darned fast. (It’s also fair to say if the speed of your website is the only differentiator you have from your competitors, you may have bigger problems.)
In this post I want to cover the following:
- The relationship between web performance and
- Key business metrics such as retention, conversion rates, and revenue
- Mobile computing
- Ideal benchmark web performance
- How to improve web performance
That’s obviously quite a lot of ground to cover, so let’s get cracking.
Web Performance & Key Business Metrics
It’s a couple of years old now but Tammy Everts’ excellent post on the web “performance poverty line” still rings true. You can find a more recent reworking here, although the graphs are the same.
I’m not going to rehash everything she said because there’s really no point, but is it honestly beyond the bounds of possibility that if she were to redraw the graphs for 2014 then the lines might fall something like this?
No, I don’t think so either. Nobody’s become any more tolerant of slow websites in the last two years.
It’s worth pointing out that the performance poverty line is NOT an absolute line for all websites, in contrast to the way I’ve sometimes seen it presented. Tammy took data for 5 companies that were Strangeloop customers and suggests that you should collect your own data from your own site to find where your performance poverty line is. Nevertheless, I think the line at 8 seconds is a good ballpark figure.
What it means is that for page loads over 8 seconds, relatively small improvements in performance will make little or no difference to key business metrics because you’ve already lost people. For example, you’re unlikely to see any improvement in bounce rate, pages per visit, or conversion rate if you just improve your loading time from 10 seconds to 8 seconds. You need to halve your page load time, or better, to see any real improvement.
Companies like Amazon and Facebook take this very seriously, and have hard numbers for the negative effect poor performance can have on both revenue and engagement.
In 2006 Amazon announced that revenue increased by 1% for every 100ms they were able to shave off page load times: a claim that you can find on slide 10 of their 2009 Make Data Useful presentation. Strangeloop went on to create an infographic illustrating this for Amazon, along with several other major websites:
(Click to see a larger version. NB. They’re happy for people to reproduce this.)
- Shopzilla saw a 12% revenue increase after improving average page load times from 6 seconds to 1.2 seconds.
- Amazon saw 1% revenue increase for every 100ms improvement.
- AOL found visitors in the top ten percentile of site speed view 50% more pages than visitors in the bottom ten percentile.
- Yahoo increased traffic by 9% for every 400ms improvement.
- Mozilla estimated 60 million more Firefox downloads as a result of making page loads 2.2 seconds faster.
I also mentioned Facebook. They’re far from my favourite site, but back in 2010 at Velocity China they revealed that 500ms extra on page load times lead to a 3% drop-off in traffic, and 1000ms lead to 6% drop-off. One suspects that as page loads get slower still that nice linear relationship probably turns into a cliff drop.
And the evidence goes back even further. Remember how, in the late 90s, that search engine nobody had heard of – Google – managed to trounce all opposition? One of the major reasons for that (apart from better search results) was that the homepage was incredibly sparse, such that it loaded very quickly even over the slowest of dial-up connections. This was in stark contrast to the (relatively – remember, slow connections) bloated and content laden homepages of sites such as AltaVista and Yahoo. Here’s AltaVista’s homepage on January 17th, 1999. Ironically they were doing a better job back in 1996.
I’m not seriously suggesting that in the case of your site you’ll definitely lose 1% of revenue for every extra 100ms on page load time. Amazon has an extraordinarily broad customer base, whereas in a niche you might not suffer as badly… alternatively, you might do even worse. If you collect performance metrics from your site you should be able to figure out the real impact for yourself.
What’s true is that you’ll lose out to faster competitors. You need to be amongst the best of them; ideally you want to beat them. (Unfortunately for any business involved in some kind of online retail activity, unless you’re particularly nichey, one of your competitors probably is Amazon. This is a colossal pain in the backside because their page load times are VERY fast.)
Anyway, to summarize: a faster website leads to higher conversion rates and more revenue. Win!
(Btw, I don’t rate AdSense as an income source but, if you do, a faster site should mean higher bids, which means more money for both you and Google.)
Web Performance & Mobile Computing
I’ve touched on this briefly in my aside above but mobile devices, unless they’re being used with WiFi, are notorious for suffering slow, choppy connections. In theory this gets better with 4G, and particularly with LTE-Advanced (see my previous post). In reality bandwidth caps and contention may make the additional speed and reduced latency of 4G a moot point, so don’t bank on better performance just because the headline figures suggest it’s available.
If you expect a lot of customers to access your site from a mobile device, you should make sure you test on these devices, and make any changes necessary to give users a good experience. DON’T test exclusively on the latest greatest hardware. I realise it’s tiresome but make sure you use the kind of low-end/mid-range smartphones that are common currency. There are still plenty of iPhone 3GSs and 4s, along with a gazillion veteran and scuffed Android devices doing good service.
Web Performance & SEO
SEO’s a bit of a tricky topic, because I (sort of) don’t believe in it. I’m not saying it doesn’t work but the problem is, if overdone, it can backfire quite badly. These days it seems barely a month goes by where I don’t read about another legitimate outfit who’ve been boned by a drop in traffic as Google update their search index filters. MetaFilter springs immediately to mind just because it’s been on HN the past few days, but there are others. (That particular story is sad because it’s had such a severe effect that they’ve had to let staff go, but I digress…)
The point is that nowadays the performance of your website does have an effect on its ranking in search results. The faster your site, the higher it will rank, and vice versa. A faster site is one SEO trick that Google won’t penalize you for, so take advantage of it!
Ideal Benchmark Web Performance
This is another slightly tricky area. Some people will give you a hard figure for this as though it’s holy writ, but I don’t necessarily think that’s helpful. Also, whilst it’s important that you get landing page performance right, you shouldn’t focus on that to the exclusion of your site as a whole. If you offer people a crappy experience once they’ve got past the landing page they’re still going to bail.
You need to benchmark against competitors, ideally over a variety of connection speeds, but at the very least check how you fare against them over a low latency connection to get a good idea of baseline performance. If you need to, set up a VM on Azure or EC2 and remote desktop into it, then check speeds from there. You don’t necessarily need to be the fastest site on the web, but you want to be amongst the fastest (or better if you can) as compared to your competitors.
You can use services such as Neustar for more systematic testing under load from a variety of location. You can even use them on your competitors but I wouldn’t recommend it because they probably won’t be very happy with you, and may lawyer up.
If you really want some figures to aim at, the Amazon’s numbers aren’t a bad target:
- <200ms time to first byte,
- <500ms to render above the fold content,
- <2000ms for a complete page load
(NOTE: these measurements were taken on a connection with ~5ms latency. You won’t see this performance over, for example, a home broadband connection, or 3G. The effect of a slower connection compounds on slower sites though, often because of roundtripping. You should test your site over the kinds of connections your target audience will use, and on the kinds of devices they use, especially low-end laptops, cheap tablets, mobiles with no 4G connectivity, etc.)
They actually aren’t that hard to achieve. One situation in which you may find them more of a struggle is if you’re using a CMS: optimisation could require customisation, but you’ll often find plugins that can help you. WordPress, for example, offers plenty.
You want to improve the average page load, so make sure you load test under circumstances that emulate your anticipated usage patterns. This used to be a hassle but nowadays services such as the aforementioned Neustar make it pretty straightforward.
How To Improve Web Performance
There are two key areas for improvement:
- Time to first byte (server-side optimization)
- Client-side processing, loading and rendering
Taking latency out of the picture, time to first byte (TTFB) is a function of how much work you have to do on the server before you start returning page data. Lots of data retrieval or dynamic generation on the server side can have a devastating effect on time to first byte. Web servers are never faster than when serving static content so you want to get as close to this as possible, particularly for landing pages.
For example, if you need to present a lot of user specific information, instead of executing half a dozen SQL queries to execute the data, consider storing a blob of JSON in a key-value store so you can quickly look it up and return it by user ID. You can even use caching and indexing software, such as Endeca, to help if you feel the complexity is warranted. Selective denormalisation of data can really improve performance. You can also offload work after the page load by asynchronously retrieving via AJAX or similar; this will improve the perceived performance of your site even if some page elements aren’t completely rendered immediately (you can often insert placeholder information to help as well).
Note that TTFB is a concept that applies to any request sent over HTTP, so it’s as applicable to any AJAX/web service requests made within your page as it is to the initial page load. Make sure you pay attention to both!
Services such as Google PageSpeed Insights and Yahoo! YSlow can help you do this by telling you exactly what you need to optimise. Just point them at the appropriate URL, or install the extension in the case of YSlow, and set them off.
They’ll often tell you to put static resources, like images, on a CDN but this can be a mixed blessing. You might realise a bit of extra speed, but you’ll also lose out on SEO juice if people post links to these resources because they’ll be linking to files on a CDN, not on your website. (Yeah, I know, I know: I’m supposed to be uncomfortable with SEO, but you do need to give it some consideration.)
All of this is time, effort, and money so, if you’re desperate or lazy (and even if you’re neither) you can cheat…
Google PageSpeed Service claims to be able to improve website performance by 20-60%. Whether you believe that or not you lose nothing by at least giving it a go, even if you’re actively working on other optimisations.
To test it out, visit webpagetest.org and hand over the URL of one of your landing pages. It’ll queue up your test and, when it’s finished, present you with results like this:
(Sorry Autotrader, I’m not picking on you: I’ve just been looking at motorbikes recently and noticed your site could be a bit faster.)
The video comparison is kind of cool. You can see that with www.autotrader.co.uk (which I tested from Dublin, Ireland), the above the fold content on the optimized page appears much more quickly. However, there’s nothing quite like hard numbers, so I like the filmstrip comparison, and this sequence really highlights the differences in above the fold performance:
(You can click through the thumbnails for a larger view.)
I’ve switched to a Thumbnail Interval of 0.1 seconds, which shows that above the fold content begins to render at 0.6 seconds for the optimized version, as opposed to 2.2 seconds for unoptimized. That’s a full 1.6 second improvement, which is massive. Unfortunately it still doesn’t complete until 4.7 seconds, which isn’t great, but still better than 5.4 seconds for the original.
The total load time is only about 10% better for the optimized version – 4.9 seconds vs. 5.5 seconds – but the improvement in above the fold performance is key, because that’s what defines the user’s experience.
So how does this work? Google basically proxies your site. It sits between your server and your users, optimizes your pages and serves the optimized versions, instead of the versions on your servers. It is smart though so it will retrieve dynamic content from your servers whenever it’s needed. The only hassle is that to use it for real you’ll obviously need to update your DNS configuration.
As I say, they claim a 20%-60% improvement, but for dynamic sites you should realistically expect to achieve something at the lower end of that range. Also, what it often can’t overcome is a very poor TTFB because it’s not as if it can make your server any faster. Things will probably be a little better but if you have big problems you’re going to have to do some work yourself (or you could get in touch and hire me to do it for you!).
One surprising outcome of using PageSpeed Service is that sometimes overall page load times can increase. That might sound bad but, as I’ve already said, it’s the user experience that really counts: if above the fold render performance improves you’re still onto a winner.
Another reason you may not see the speed gains you hope for is that non-cacheable resources cannot be proxied by PageSpeed Service. For some resources you won’t be able to do anything about this, but you should make sure any resources that can be set cacheable are.
Final point on PageSpeed Service: you’re probably wondering about cost. Companies like Akamai offer similar services for serious $$$$ but, for now, the good news is that PageSpeed Service is free. Google do plan to charge for it, but they’ve said you’ll get 30 days notice before you have to start forking over cash, and can cancel within that period.
Hopefully it’s clear by now that a focus on performance leads to improvements in key business metrics related to both engagement and revenue. You also understand the need to consider mobile computing, and the potential for improved search ranking through higher performance. Finally you should have a pretty good idea of exactly what you’re aiming for performance-wise, and how to get there, by focussing on specific areas of improvement on both server and client.