Inside: Need For Speed

needspeed(Ping! Zine Issue 69) – Why does a slow website matter so much?

Ranking
For starters it affects your ranking. Google’s preference for faster loading websites is well known. It penalises those that take more than 1.5 seconds to display. In fact page loading time is part of its algorithm, meaning that the longer it takes for your page to load, the more it will penalise you.

User experience
When you meet someone face-to-face they will make a judgement about you in seven seconds. Likewise when someone visits your website the user goes through the same process but you have just two to three seconds to retain your visitor as shown by Akamai, a content delivery and caching service, in a study carried out in 2009 (http://www.akamai.com/html/about/press/releases/2009/press_091409.html)

If your website has not impressed in this small window, 40% of visitors will bounce off the site and a further percentage of visitor may browse but not purchase from you (http://blog.kissmetrics.com/loading-time/). The speed of your website is now a key part of the service that your customers expect; a slow loading site will not only reduce sales but customers are more likely to share a bad experience with your site on social media than a good one (http://about.americanexpress.com/news/pr/2012/gcsb.aspx)

Not only are disappointed visitors more likely to shout about not being able to complete a purchase because of the payment page timing out, but unsurprisingly most visitors won’t return.

The principle way of increasing load speeds is by reducing the number of HTTP requests. Each unique object in a web page requires a round trip to the server (an HTTP request and a reply). Everyone will cause a tiny delay in the web page loading, so the more objects, the bigger the delay.

How to reduce HTTP requests  

Images
Combine your background images into a single file, or use image maps to combine multiple pictures into a one
Optimize your images for web use: Save jpegs at 65% image quality instead of 100%
Keep external images and items minimized.

Content delivery network
Making use of a CDN gives you a collection of servers which are distributed across multiple locations to deliver content more efficiently to visitors. They work by storing a cached copy of your website and the CDN then selects the server that is geographically closest to the user to serve that copy. This helps to keep the latency down for the user and also keep the number of requests on your web servers to a minimum.

  • Cache control
  • Enable a cache configuration for the traffic to your website. The following some aspects of the site that you might want to cache:
  • Company logo
  • Favicon
  • Core CSS files

These types of assets are not likely to change regularly so it is reasonable to cache control them to tell the requestor (an individual computer or tablet) to hold onto their copy of the asset for a while.

In addition:
Try implementing a “Never expire” policy for static components
For dynamic components like dashboards and forums, use an appropriate cache control. You need your visitors to see the most up-to-date information and caching this for long periods will have little benefit.

Gzip components
Use Gzip. This compresses the web pages and style sheets before sending them to the browser, and is one of the most popular and effective compression methods for HTTP reduction. The zipping generally reduces the file size by about 70% and approximately 90% of internet traffic travels through browsers that claim to support Gzip. (http://gtmetrix.com/enable-gzip-compression.html).
Style sheets
Developers at Yahoo discovered that by putting style sheets at the top of the page it allows the web page to render progressively. (http://developer.yahoo.com/blogs/ydn/high-performance-sites-rule-5-put-stylesheets-top-7197.html) If the page loads progressively, the browser will display the content as it comes through. This is important for pages with a lot of content, as it gives the visitor a visual clue that something is happening which will encourage them to stay and wait for it to finish.

In addition:
Don’t put style sheets near the bottom as this will prevent progressive loading in many browsers including Internet Explorer, meaning your visitors will have to wait for all the HTTP requests to complete before they see anything. Use clean and simple style sheets
Use one, or small numbers of style sheets, rather than multiples.

Redirect links
Sites with too many redirect links will affect the page loading speed. However, you would need to redirect a page in order to:

  • Redirect visitors from an old site to a new URL
  • Direct several domains to a single website
  • Direct a website without the ’www’ to the proper site.

To avoid speed loading issues and to still gain the SEO benefit, manually redirect by making your user click through to the new page, rather than setting up auto-redirect links. It may detract from the user experience, but this also will help search engines pick up the new pages and index them so they gain traffic instead.

Graphical text
Graphical text is often used for headers or menu items to achieve a certain look. Search engines cannot read text embedded in graphics and will introduce unnecessary HTTP requests. To reduce these, use CSS to style headers, or consider using an image replacement scheme. By converting to CSS text, you lose some control but gain in speed, potential search engine rankings, and accessibility.

By addressing these areas, you will speed up your site performance and improve the visitors’ experience, thus maximising your sales opportunities. Good luck, and if you have any questions, do get in touch.
Writer’s Bio: David Barker is technical director of 4D Hosting, having founded the company in 1999 when he was 14 and still at school. In 2007 he bought an industrial unit on the outskirts of London and set up 4D Data Centres as a colocation and connectivity supplier for small businesses in the South East of England.
In 2013, 4D Hosting re-launched with a focus on providing premium hosting packages and 24/7 support from its own engineers to technology companies, developers and geeks.

 

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