How Web savvy are Romney, Gingrich and Obama?

Barack Obama and the Republican presidential candidates' all claim to be pretty pro-technology, so Strangeloop, a Web site optimization company, took a dive into their Websites and mobile strategies to see how they really stack up.

In politics, the faster the Web site, the more votes you get? Could be!

In politics, the faster the Web site, the more votes you get? Could be!

President Barack Obama recently held a Google+ video Hangout; Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich promised to have a permanent U.S. moon-base by 2020; and fellow Republican Mitt Romney, along with Gingrich and Obama, are against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and PROTECT-IP Act (PIPA). So, as politicians go, these guys are all pretty tech-savvy right? Well, yes and no. If you look at their Web sites, which is what Strangeloop, a Web site optimization company, did, you'll find that neither Republicans nor Democrats are as up to speed as you might like.

According to Strangeloop president, Joshua Bixby, "I wanted to see if [their] pro-tech stance extends to Web performance, so I decided to take a shallow dive into their websites and mobile strategies. I was actually kind of surprised to see some interesting patterns emerge."

First, "Web site speed correlates (mostly) to position in the primaries. At 46.4% and 31.9%, respectively, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich led the Florida primary. Interestingly, both also lead when it came to site speed. Gingrich's site is fastest, with a load time of 7.7 seconds (maybe we shouldn't be so quick to laugh at his plans to colonize the moon), while Romney's loaded in 9.3 seconds. Rick Santorum and Ron Paul lagged in both areas, trailing far behind in votes and suffering load times of 10.7 and 13.5 seconds, respectively. (Interesting to note: President Obama's site fared worst of all, with a load time of 13.6 seconds.)" But, then Obama's not really running yet either.

But, when it came to supporting smartphones and tablets, no one did very well. As Bixby states, "one-third of mobile users want to access a site's full content, not just a stripped-down "mobile" version." I agree.

As Bixby said in an earlier interview with O'Reilly Radar, "We talk about 'the Web' and 'the mobile Web' as if the two are different, but they aren't. I'm the first to admit that I'm as guilty of doing this as the next person. Using these terms is helpful for discussing differences in how people browse via different devices, but at the end of the day, it's all one web. Users want the same breadth and depth of content, no matter what device they're using. They want a consistent, reliable user experience. They don't want to interact with your site one way at their desks, then learn a whole new way when they're tablet-surfing on the couch, and then learn a third way when they're roaming around with their phones."

True, "making a full site usable on a mobile device is a major challenge - a challenge that none of the candidates rose to. Romney is the only candidate to serve a mobile site, which, to his credit, did link to the full site. The other candidates all deliver their full websites to mobile" But, "Mobile experiences ranged from poor to terrible on Android over 3G."

Bixby explained, "I visited each of the candidates' sites using two mobile devices and networks: my iPhone over wifi, and a borrowed Android over 3G. While all the sites loaded within 10-20 seconds on my iPhone, their performance on the Android via 3G ranged from slow to unbearable. Romney's site was fastest, at 21 seconds, but it failed to size properly (see below) in the browser. The full sites for Gingrich, Santorum, and Paul each took several minutes to load."

Even over the far faster Wi-Fi connection, "On every site, the primary call to action - donate - was either lost or ineffective for mobile users. On all the non-optimized sites, the 'Donate' button was lost on the screen. Romney's mobile-optimized site made it easy to find the "Donate" button, but on the Android it kept generating an error message saying there was a problem with the security certificate - not something a potential donor wants to read right before handing over their credit card information."

No, no it's not.

Why should any of this matter though except to tech. geeks? Bixby points out that "there are a couple of obvious, self-serving reasons to walk the walk when it comes to your Web presence: it makes it easier for you to reach more people, and it makes it easier for your supporters to, you know, support you. Candidates may not care about this beyond the lip-service stage right now, but a few things to bear in mind down the road, when campaigning really heats up:

  • 25% of Americans who have mobile devices use mobile exclusively. This means 1 out of every 4 voters expects to be able to access the full site via their device.
  • According to the Pew Research's 35% of American Adults Own a Smartphone report many members of the mobile-only group are technology late adopters, skewing toward older people and those with lower incomes. These groups have traditionally been heavily targeted by Republican candidates
  • By the same token, people with lower incomes are more likely to be users of Androids and non-iPhone devices, and more likely to access the Internet via 3G.
  • Only 28% of smartphone owners use an iPhone, according to Nielsen. Having a mobile site optimized only for iPhone users is like slamming the door on almost three-quarters of voters.

True, iOS is gaining in popularity to Android but does a candidate really want to close the door on any significant number of potential voters? The presidential campaigns need to support both Android and iOS on their Web sites at speeds at least as low as those provided by 3G.

Presidential candidate/Web site speed image courtesy of Strangeloop.

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