5 Key Considerations for Addressing Website Speed

Delivering a satisfying online experience these days is no easy feat. On the one hand, consumers demand rich graphics, video, and a wealth of information – presented in a clean, non-cluttered way. On the other hand, with an ever-increasing shortage of time, website visitors want pages to load extremely fast. Yet all those rich graphics – as well as the popular social media plug-ins people like – contribute to latency. And just a one- or two-second delay means they may jump to a competitor’s site, possibly never to return.

One study by KISSMetrics estimates that 40% of visitors abandon a site if it takes more than three seconds for its pages to load (1). And site speed has an impact on SEO, as Google factors website speed into its ranking algorithm. It’s important to address page load speed to improve the customer experience while also ensuring your site isn’t dinged by the search engines. But it’s also important to include the types of multimedia and other content people expect.

So how do you find the right balance between a site that is sophisticated and visually appealing and one that loads ultra-fast?

In a recent survey we conducted, 80% of respondents admitted they are concerned or very concerned about page load times, yet only 14% feel they have optimized their site speed; and 25% of respondents said they have not taken any steps to improve site speed, while the majority have taken some steps but feel they could do more. The reasons most site owners and marketers haven’t taken adequate measures may include a deficit of time and resources, and budget constraints that prevent them from purchasing tools and technologies. Most likely a general lack of understanding about what corrective measures to take is also a contributor.

As you work toward addressing these issues, below are five considerations to keep in mind as you devise the right strategy.

1. Is speed important to my online conversion rate?

For some types of online businesses, like travel sites, a slower website may not have much impact on conversions. For example, if visitors are conducting a search involving lots of information, such as for planning a trip, they may understand the extra time needed to process information. But for industries like online retail, the impact on conversions can be significant.

In a recent study we did with our own customer and leading UK glasses e-tailer GlassesDirect, we saw a strong correlation between page-load time and conversions. When measuring the average page load speed for converters and non-converters, we discovered that page-load time for visitors who abandoned the site was three to four times higher than it was for those who made a purchase.

Since new visitors to your site will likely have higher expectations (since they aren’t familiar with the quality of your service and products), it’s important to make a good first impression. (Be sure to keep site speed in mind when launching new campaigns intended to generate new customers and lots of traffic to your site.)

2. Where are my customers and what browsers are they using?

Visitors in your backyard may have a much different experience than visitors from across the country or even overseas. You should use testing services that show site performance for various access nodes and paths, so you can tell if your site performs well for local traffic but is quite a bit slower for traffic coming from other, far-off places. This might tell you that you need to have platform servers in other locations to accommodate those visitors.

Also, look at how quickly pages load for different browsers and on different devices. You can work with your web designer to overcome some of those problems. Be sure to also look at the variations in traffic load that your site can accommodate, and when are you more likely to see peak traffic numbers. If you can pinpoint certain times of day when traffic volumes spike, you can enact temporary adjustments to improve performance just during those times – but keep your site intact during other, less busy periods.

3. How many 3rd party tags are on my site, and what is the impact on latency?

Every online marketing application or campaign includes a tiny piece of tracking code – or a “tag” – that sits on your site. There are tags for display ads, paid search, SEO, retargeting, and site analytics, as well as for social media plug-ins – like Facebook “likes” and Google “+1s” – that contribute to viral sharing of your products and content.

As marketers invest more in online marketing, their need to accurately track performance has increased the proliferation of tags, which contributes greatly to latency in site performance. The average e-commerce website has more than 20 different tags, and five to seven per page. Each individual tag can take up to 100 milliseconds to load.

Rather than reducing or removing tags altogether, which compromises the valuable tracking data they provide, a better approach is to optimize them.

There are several ways to optimize your tags; for example, you can set limits so that any tags exceeding a certain amount of time to load can be timed out, and set your system so that only tags relevant to particular visitors are loaded, rather than loading them all every single time. (You wouldn’t want to load a retargeting tag if the user has already been given a cookie.) Finally, you should make sure any old tags that are no longer in use are removed from your site. Often, tags get put on a site and are then forgotten about, and the accumulation of them can drag down performance.

4. Should I consider a tag management system?

As stated above, the average website has 15-20 marketing tags. When this is the case, a tag management system can provide significant performance benefits – in addition to better campaign management and tracking, reduced involvement from IT, and the ability to reduce costs on less effective marketing campaigns. Websites that have a high number of tags along with a high volume of traffic should consider tag management. Analyst firms Forrester and Gartner have more recently taken a closer look at tag management systems and vendors, validating the importance of this type of solution, and can also offer guidelines on how to determine if one is necessary for a particular site.

5. Does the web analytics supplier guarantee a certain speed, and if so, how do they ensure it?

In looking at your marketing tags, it’s important to ask your current and potential suppliers how long their tag takes to load and what guarantees they offer – as many do not. This applies to all your marketing tags, like: affiliates, display, email marketing, paid search, retargeting, shopping comparison engines, website optimization, web analytics, and more.

Also, when looking at adding a tag on your page, be sure to ask if the vendor provides “asynchronous tag loading,” which means tags load independently of other tags in order to avoid traffic jams. When tags load synchronously, if one tag is taking a long time to load, it holds up all the rest, which means the entire page loads much slower. Not only does the ability to offer asynchronous tag loading directly impact page load speed, it also can have an impact on how effective your other efforts are. In other words, if you’ve taken steps to remove the causes of latency on your site but your marketing tags still cause bottlenecks, then your efforts won’t amount to much.

If your suppliers don’t offer asynchronous tags, check whether your tag management system can help. We just signed an exclusive agreement with DigitalFulcrum so now we can load all vendor tags asynchronously – but not all tag management systems can do this.

As you work out your plan to speed up your site, be sure to measure your site’s performance regularly, particularly when you’re about to launch a new campaign – as well as for different browsers and different locations – so you’re able to ward off problems before they arise. This will ensure you’re optimizing performance of your site for everyone who comes to your site, and that as your campaigns drive new customers to your site, they’re more likely to become repeat visitors.

1. Source: KISSMetrics, “How Loading Time Affects Your Bottom Line,” April 2011