Commentary - Given two competitive sites that are identical in practically every other way, the faster site will be more successful. Site speed is associated, in the mind of the end user, with a site’s reliability, credibility, security, and stability. Because faster web sites provide a better user experience, they typically result in higher conversion rates, average order values, and site stickiness. In fact, according to the web site performance measurement firm Gomez, the average online visitor expects pages to load in two seconds or less -- and after three short seconds, as many as 40 percent of visitors will abandon your site. So what can you do to accelerate your site performance?
Web Performance Optimization (WPO) is a relatively new discipline focused on improving the web user experience by making pages load faster. This is done through a variety of front-end optimization techniques that make it easier for web browsers, as well as networks that deliver traffic, to load and render web page content. These techniques include front-end optimization techniques such as minification, concatenation, subdomain sharding, and content compression (collectively referred to as Front End Optimization or “FEO”); cache optimization such as expires-time extension, and network optimization utilizing real-time network measurements to determine fastest paths from any end-user location, for example.
Perhaps the most common mistake that companies make when working to optimize site performance is to assume that there is a “one size fits all” solution. This is rarely is the case, since designing and delivering different performance optimizations to different browsers, operating systems, geographies, devices, and visitor types is very difficult to do manually. Unless, of course, you have an automated WPO solution that allows you to target and test different performance optimization techniques in real-time in an otherwise non-intrusive way. The non-intrusive part is important because it relieves your site developers and IT staff from having to spend a lot of time making code changes.
This kind of WPO solution allows site operators to test and target the delivery of performance optimization techniques to different site visitors based on their geography, device, browser, or relationship with your online business. What’s more, these solutions help you understand the impact of performance on the user experience — as well as marketing and financial goals — of the entire blend of optimizations that are being tested. In other words, measuring not only speed but also specific KPIs (key performance indicators) that are important to your online business, including bounce rate, conversion rate, average order value, abandonment, and compound metrics that look at multiple behaviors both within and across multiple visits.
Now, unless you have IT staff with cycles to burn, or are able to dedicate resources to focus on ongoing performance optimization, you may want to consider outsourcing your WPO efforts. Given the relative complexity of performance optimization and a rapidly changing landscape, Web Performance Optimization is in many ways similar to Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Both require specific domain knowledge, and both require ongoing management and refinement to realize and maintain value.
By outsourcing your performance optimization efforts, you can simultaneously stay current on emerging WPO approaches including domain SPDY, HTML5 localStorage, TCP optimizations, mobile-specific optimizations, and more. Outsourcing can create an advantage in that it allows your existing developers to stay focused on the task at hand -- building great sites.
Eric J. Hansen is the founder and CEO of web optimization firm SiteSpect, and the chief architect of the firm's non-intrusive technology for multivariate testing, behavioral targeting and web performance optimization.