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Websites Should Be As Fast As Possible, Right? Not So Fast!

The answer to this question, especially for publishers and website owners is likely a resounding, “as fast as possible!” Who wouldn’t want his website to load instantaneously, thus serving the most content in the most efficient way?

After all, we know that 47% of consumers expect that a web page will load in 2 seconds or less. Likewise, know that 40% of visitors will abandon a site that takes more than 3 seconds to load. And, we know that UI load times of 100 milliseconds or less give the user the idea that they are in control of the experience rather than the computer controlling everything. That’s a satisfying feeling, and satisfied users are happy purchasers of products.

For an in-depth look at how shaving off a few load time seconds via web performance optimization can result in large revenue gains, see Building Your Web Performance ROI. Based on 2010 revenue data for Home Depot, if the company had reduced page load time that year from 5.49 seconds to 2.29 seconds, it would have realized a nearly $31 million gain in revenue!

End of article, right?

What if I told you that there are reasons not to pursue the fastest possible page load experience? And, what if I told you that there are perfectly sound business reasons why the page doesn’t need to load as if the browser predicted the user wanted the page and loaded it before the user ever requested it?

That’s not to say your site doesn’t need to be fast. The Home Depot scenario shows that sites ought to perform efficiently in order to raise their bottom lines. It just doesn’t always have to be the fastest, especially if ROI suffers due to an overemphasis on speed.

Variability of Page Load Speeds throughout Web Industry

Let’s first look, broadly, at the variability of web performance in different site categories. Let’s compare websites published by small, owner-operator businesses to bigger online marketplaces.

The expectation, in the site visitor’s mind, for an owner-operator or “boutique” site, is that the site is necessarily going to be a little slower than, say, Amazon.com or Walmart.com. This doesn’t let small businesses off the hook for performance; it’s simply a general feature of user patience.

It would not make sense, financially, for a small site operator to spend huge wads of cash in trying to reach Jakob Nielsen’s 100 millisecond response time. While that might be nice, and quite achievable in the case of a “business card” site with very little content, sub-second response time requires a level of technological sophistication that most small businesses are ill-equipped and underfunded to deal with without impacting their return on investment (ROI). The law of diminishing returns applies in this type of situation.

Definition of “Fast”

The very definition of “fast” comes into question as well. It would be useful to a website owner to ask such things as:

  • How does my customer define “fast”?
  • How do I define “fast”?
  • How does my company define “fast”?
  • If there is “fast” and “fast enough”, what distinguishes the two?

The customer’s definition may vary from what you and/or the company determine are acceptable or within ROI parameters.  Additionally, the type of site matters when defining acceptable page load times.  For example, if it is a streaming media site, which necessarily caters to mobile users watching their shows on-the-go and on limited data plans, the faster the site loads, the better.

If the site is an e-commerce store, where users are browsing and evaluating items for purchase, the visitor’s thought process is less about immediacy than it would be with mobile streaming media. It still needs to be fast enough to avoid frustrating the user into leaving the site, but it doesn’t need to be “instantaneous” as with mobile media. Users who are shopping have a tolerance for slower performance while browsing, scrolling, and looking at lists of items they’re considering, but less tolerance for slowness when completing the purchase.

If the site is a blog, the typical interaction pattern is that the visitor comes to read (scan) the text first, sees images and videos second, and browse other pages third. Since text loads quickly compared to images and video, the priority aspect of the user interaction is quickly available to meet the user’s primary goal.

Where a user lives can also be a factor in their tolerance for slower response times. Visitors in the U.S., being “spoiled” in having generally fast Internet speeds will expect load times to be fairly snappy, while visitors in Australia are used to latency due to geographic isolation, and they will tend to be more patient.

How Fast is Too Fast?

Is it possible to have a site that is “too fast”? According to Jakob Nielsen, in rare cases, it can be. If a site is loading too quickly, then, just as with a slow site, you could experience an ROI problem.  In Nielsen’s example, a tablet user had been trying to access a network connection on a tablet in a set of selections that updated too quickly. Each time the user tried to tap the connection item, it would update too quickly and result in the wrong connection being tapped.

Similarly, on a website, if a form element or other UI widget updates itself too quickly, or moves around the page as other elements are still loading and positioning, as some ads do, this may frustrate the user. Frustration leads to abandonment, which is not good for your brand.

But…and it’s a big “but”, these types of scenarios are incredibly rare in the web performance optimization space. The vast majority of websites are in need of more optimization, not less.

How to Figure Out the “Sweet Spot”

There are two metrics to pay attention to when you want to see the ROI impact of a site: Bounce Rate and Page Speed.

Bounce Rate is the measure of the number of users who immediately leave a page after accessing it.

Page Speed is the average amount of time (in seconds) it takes for pages to load, from initiation of the pageview (e.g. click on a page link) to load completion in the browser.

If you see the bounce rate increase as the page speed increases, that can be an indicator that something about the page is causing users to click away from the site.

Conversion Rate is another metric to consider, especially as compared to page speed. We’re used to looking for drops in conversions when page speed becomes very large. When it comes to knowing when we’ve hit the “sweet spot” of optimization, sometimes it’s useful to look for gaps and drop-offs in impressions vs. conversions at points where the page speed goes from zero and approaches, say, one or two seconds. Gaps and drop-offs when the page is arguably “fast” are where we can stop worrying so much about optimization and focus our ROI efforts for that resource and move on to optimizing other parts of the site or business.

To verify assumptions about speed (or lack thereof), design an experiment inviting some in-person observation of a typical user accessing the page under conditions that will cause the page speed to be at or approach what the metrics are showing. Don’t let the user in on the fact that you want to observe bounce rate and page speed, but give them the option to browse freely.

Watch for user interface issues, particularly where the user is frustrated with trying to do something on a page that has loaded too quickly or too slowly for them to complete a task, see a message, or view a visual. For example, a slideshow widget that changes too quickly, or not quickly enough, might cause the user to miss the main call to action and, therefore, wonder why the site is relevant or what they’re supposed to do. Such moments of questioning often lead users to leave the page.  Awareness of these pain points in the UI will prove invaluable as you adjust your web performance to create the best site experience for your users.

Conclusion: How to Determine “Fast Enough”

  1. As mentioned at the top of the article, determine what “fast” means.
  2. Then, determine how long it takes for key conversion pages to load and whether those load times are causing problems for users or your bottom line.
  3. Through testing and observation, figure out which items on the page are causing the user’s expectation to be unmet, then take steps to remedy the problem.

Interested in addressing the sweet spot in load speed for your users? Then you’ll love Rigor’s performance monitoring and analysis platform. Rigor tests your entire website and identifies over 420 performance defects that are slowing it down. Our continuous monitoring provides 24/7 performance visibility of your website’s performance and availability and allows you to understand exactly what you can do to make it faster. To learn more about Rigor’s web performance products, contact us today.

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