How to Build Your Website for Speed

Jun 15, 2010 2:15 AM  By

How do you know if your site is too slow, and what steps should you take to make it faster?

The key is monitoring and understanding Web speed from the real perspective of end-users. This gives you a proactive, bird’s-eye view into which end-user segments may be experiencing a slow-down, and helps guide decisions to optimize speed.

You can get a true understanding of the end-user experience by monitoring Website and application speed from hundreds of global Internet backbone locations, as well as hundreds of thousands of end-user last mile locations around the world.

Specifically, the last mile measures Website and application speed from real consumer-grade desktops connected to thousands of local ISPs and wireless carriers in hundreds of countries.

Available in a software as a service (SaaS) model, these monitoring systems feature advanced diagnostic capabilities. These can help you understand how a wide variety of variables – including content and functionality from your own data center, as well as all third-party partners and network elements – ultimately contribute to end-users’ Web experiences.

In the event that you identify a slowdown for particular user segment, online merchants can pinpoint the faulty component (whether inside or outside their own firewall) and implement solutions that help maintain speed.

For example, you may find a slow regional ISP to be the culprit. In this case, you might remove unnecessary features in order to lighten a particular Web page.

Or, you might find a particular browser technology to be the cause. In this instance, you can optimize your Web page elements to load in a certain order on the browser, emphasizing improvements in perceived load times (“above the fold,” immediately visible elements that make an end-user believe they’ve successfully accessed the page) vs. overall load time (how long it takes for all the elements on a page to load, including those elements that are “below the fold” and not immediately visible to Website visitors).

Keeping an eye on your site’s speed is critical today, as more-complex Websites have evolved from static pages to a complex mixture of tools and features. Many of these features now come from third-party partners who provide Web analytics, shopping carts, virtual catalogs, advertisements, dynamic imaging and other capabilities.

In fact, it’s estimated that the average Website today incorporates at least six third-party components from beyond the data center.

What’s more, it’s likely your Web applications traverse a long and complex path of network elements, including ISPs, CDNs and carriers, before ultimately reaching online shoppers in different geographies. These elements, along with third party services, comprise a complex Web application delivery chain.

Poor performance anywhere in the chain will degrade the end-user experience and reflect poorly on no one but you. So you need to manage performance across all the elements that affect end-users’ experiences, including those beyond your own firewall.

Speed optimization efforts must begin with a true understanding of the user experience – known as an “outside-in” approach. Only then can you trace back through the Web application delivery chain to identify problem areas for particular end-user segments and stave off reputation-damaging lapses.

Going a step further, online merchants are correlating the speed of their revenue-generating applications with key revenue indicators and business outcomes (like pages per visit, average time spent on site, abandoned shopping carts and click-through rates, for example). This helps online merchants prioritize areas for improvement.

For example, Coolibar, a sun-protective clothing company, was able to trace abandoned checkouts – a clear indication of revenue loss – to page loads delays caused by its dependence on underperforming third-party service providers.

The need for speed in e-commerce may be constantly increasing. But at least you can attain speed improvements quicker and easier than in the past. And even seemingly small improvements can take online shopper behavior in a more positive, revenue-generating direction.

Matt Poepsel is vice president, performance strategies at Gomez, the Web performance division of Compuware.