We all know we live in a world where everything needs to be fast – we don’t have time to waste anymore and we love fast and well-working websites exactly because they match our purpose: give information right on time and don’t waste too much time out of our schedule. There is no doubt about the fact that website performance is incredibly important. But to prove this point even more, I gathered some articles from all over the internet and will try to tell more about them in one of this week’s issues.

Google Maps and Gmail

The first example is Google and Marissa Mayer (foto). She is the Vice President of Location and Local Services at Google and was the first female engineer hired by the American giant. This happened back in June 1999 and since then she became one of Google’s public faces.

Back in 2006 she went out publicly to explain the recent speed improvements on some of the products Google featured. It all started from Google search, which kind of started to have less visits due to high waiting times for bigger queries. She said that with Google becoming more popular and indexing many websites, the search queries take more time to display. Therefore Google had to do something about it as they knew “users really respond to speed“, Mayer’s words.

The example she used was about two of Google’s applications, Gmail and Google Maps, which both benefited from speed tweaks back then. They used Javascript for the e-mail interface and this resulted into almost instantaneous action when a user performed a task such as deleting or moving messages. The Google Maps page was also shrunk from about 100K to 70-80K and this improved their traffic with around 10 percent in the first week and up to 25 in the following three.

If speed was that important for one of the web’s giants, I suppose you can say it would do a lot of good for your website too. As Mayer said, people respond to speed and there is no reason for not trying to improve it.

Load times and conversion rates

Conversion rate is the percentage of visitors who buy your product or subscribe to your feed (which equals to taking a desired action on your webpage). The conversion rate is obviously important because it is what makes your business a success or a failure. If you are interested in some brief statistics from 2008, regarding speed and conversion rate, then there you go:

Back then Google’s traffic and revenues decreased by an incredible 20% when page load time decreased from 0.4 to 0.9 seconds. Just half a second and so much money lost. Amazon is not an exception either. For every 100ms (!) increase in page load time, the sales decreased with 1%. In spite of relatively small changes, the impact on the conversion rate is massive.

Bing and Google tests in 2009

Microsoft Bing and Google Search did long-term tests three years ago to see not only how important speed is, but what aspects of performance is more important. They came to the same conclusion: slow page load loses users. These two are one of the first performance test results which were published. Although some of the numbers might seem really small and unimportant, when working in billions they add up quickly.

Although always rivals, both internet giants came with five common final points:

  • Delays under half a second impact business metrics
  • The cost of delay increases over time and persists
  • Use progressive rendering
  • Number of bytes in response is less important than what they are and when they are sent
  • “Speed matters” is not just lip service.

Bing’s main conclusion was that with page loading time increasing, the user gets unengaged in the page or distracted and therefore they get lost. Their full attention shifts somewhere else and it needs to be brought back in some way. Bing actually got such clear results that they ended the test earlier than planned. There was no doubt anymore about the impact of speed.

Google tested the users for 7 weeks and tracked them for 5 more. A stunning conclusion is that some of the users who had longer delays than of 400ms never recovered.

Both giants came with a common improving idea: progressive rendering. It was also tested and it increases user satisfaction even under slow loading page. Progressive rendering means a page loads elements one by one, in a progressive order. Search results might not be visible yet for one second, but the header and sidebar are already loaded, as they are only HTML elements. Although the search results are not visible immediately, users responded well to the immediate visual response. The test showed users clicked around 9% faster, the percent of overall clicks was +0.7%, pagination +2.3% and satisfaction +0.7%.

The Shopzilla case

Shopzilla was represented by Phil Dixon at the Velocity 2009 Conference in San Jose. They came up with the most takeaway statistics about how important page loading speed is. They had a year-long performance redesign prior to the conference and came up with stunning numbers. An increased loading speed of around 5 seconds (from ~7 to ~2) resulted in a 25% increase in page views and a 7-12% increase in revenue. They also managed to increase revenue while driving down operating costs.

At the same conference, Matt Mullenweg (Wordpres founder and guru), said:

“That’s why [performance] is important and why we should be obsessed and not be discouraged when it doesn’t change the funnel. My theory here is when an interface is faster, you feel good. And ultimately what that comes down to is you feel in control. The web app isn’t controlling me, I’m controlling it. Ultimately that feeling of control translates to happiness in everyone. In order to increase the happiness in the world, we all have to keep working on this.”

Strangeloop Networks research

Even after the clear results and conclusions of Velocity 2009 (foto), some web experts decided to carry on with the tests. Strangeloop Networks, leader in advanced front-end optimization for web and mobile, makes acceleration appliances that optimize dynamic web apps in real time. What was it they did? They left the appliance off for half of their visitors and turned it on for the other half. In the end, they compared the results, and here are the highlights of what they came up with:

  • pages per visit increased from ~11 to ~15.60
  • time spent on the site went from 23:50 to 30:10
  • conversion rate increased by 16.07%
  • order value increased by 5.51%

Decreasing loading time

Improving the loading speed of your site can be done in different ways. You can, for example, use GZIP compression. These are two techniques that can speed up a site by reducing the file sizes by up to 70% without degrading the qualities of images, video or any other media. You could also let go of using way too many JavaScripts, we all know most of these decrease page loading time.

Optimizing images in Photoshop or Fireworks is something that you should do all the time. Instead of exporting the images like you usually do, export them for the web. There should be a “Save for Web” option somewhere there. This drastically reduces image size and allows you to see the quality of the images before exporting and using them.

Don’t rely on WordPress to drastically reduce the size of your images. They say WordPress does it, but just because the user loads a smaller size, it doesn’t mean the server space is smaller. The browser still loads the whole image and only after this checks the width and height and displays it accordingly. Before uploading the image, make sure to export it for web.

However, many content management systems including WordPress have plugins that will cache the latest version of your pages and display it to the users. This means the browser is not forced to dynamically generate that page every single time. WP Super Cache is one of these great plugins.

Bottom line

The conclusion of this article can’t be another one that the one I mentioned few times before. Loading speed is tremendously important and you should pay attention to it. If you think your website is slow, then do everything in your power to change that. If giants like Google, Bing or Shopzilla encountered issues because of loading speed, it is easy to understand that every one of us can benefit form having a website which loads right away.

Until next time… how important you think loading speed is? How fast is your website and what did you do in order for it to be like that?