Let’s Make The Web Faster

Photography Credit: Made U Look Photography

At the School of Rock Kat talks about the importance of serving up a snappy website experience to your visitors. A statistic from Mashable claims that one in four visitors will abandon a website that takes over four seconds to load. While visitors do tend to be more tolerant of slower websites in image-heavy markets such as photography the underlying message is still important for us to hear.

Personally, I hate waiting for really slow sites to load. If I need to see their content bad enough I’ll usually wait it out but I will rarely return and I certainly will not spend any time poking around the archives for more hidden gems, or checking out their advertisers. Instead, it’s right back to Google to click on the next search result.

The time you keep somebody waiting while loading your site on their computer is part of that first impression package, along with branding and layout. Most people understand the importance of the last two but rarely consider page speed along with them. I was looking at a photographer’s blog recently which actually took over three minutes to finish downloading, I’m not even exaggerating. I was so shocked I refreshed it to make sure it wasn’t a fluke. I’m a sucker for punishment, right?

The reason I bring this up is because I recently discovered our own page load times had gone from speedy to slouchy. This discovery flew in the face of our internal motto: Serve beautiful photography, fast.

I’ve since come to realise our website had been getting marginally slower month by month. But because Team Rock n Roll Bride has reasonably powerful computers and super-fast Internet access we never noticed it directly. It wasn’t until I was trying to load the site on a slightly outdated laptop and over a slower connection that I first became aware. And just think, as smart phones, tablets and 3G become more prevalent a light-weight, blazing-fast website is increasingly important.

So, over the last month I have been up to my elbows learning about the surprisingly complex world of page load times and I’ve picked up a few tricks which I think almost every small business could benefit from.

Benchmarking

To find out how fast (or slow) your website really is you need to gather some data. My two favourite tools for this job are Google Analytics and Google Chrome. This is where it starts to get interesting, or tricky… depending on your perspective.

Google Analytics

Around November 2011 Google Analytics started collecting page load times from approximately 1% of all visitors. This means, as long as you are using Analytics, you have some data available to you right now! Just go into your reports and choose Content > Site Speed > Overview to see the graph. The problem with this is, even with our not-insignificant traffic, a 1% sample rate creates a very erratic graph. A visitor from Uganda is going to have a much slow experience than one from the UK, for example.

The only way to get anything useful out of this data is to aggregate it by month rather than day. Fortunately, Google give us the ability to increase the sample rate up to 100%. To make this change you will need to add a line to your Analytics code. Let’s take a look at a typical Analytics tracking script with the extra option defined:

The new option can be seen on the fourth line and is called ‘_setSiteSpeedSampleRate’. For the more technically inclined further information about this method is available from the Google Developers site. If your Analytics tracking code was added