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Web page load time optimization - improving site speed

In the relatively early days of web site development, optimizing page load times was a very important issue that you'd read about every other day through various development resources.

After a while, reminders about the importance of fast loading pages faded into the background given the uptake of broadband.

However, many designers took advantage of increased bandwidth and speed available to users to create eye-popping designs that took as long to load as simpler pages did over a 56k (or even 28.8k) connection. Yes, it was nice to be able show off artistic skill, but where was the advantage to the user? Often there was none.

Other sites became so technically complex, with multiple database connections needing to be made each time a page is loaded. 

These problems persist today. It just doesn't make sense to be using faster access speeds to create the same problems that we've all endured on the web in years gone by. 

While a user now has a faster connection (in theory), it doesn't mean that their attention span has increased - in fact, it's probably lessened over the years.

The other issue is that many site owners seemed to have forgotten is that there are still some dialup users out there and just because someone has broadband, it doesn't mean their connection is particularly fast. Some of these people will be your potential customers.

Don't alienate those users. They may have a slow connection, but it doesn't mean they don't have money to spend on your products. I work from 2 offices; one in suburbia, another in a relatively remote rural region. The rural office has a comparatively slow wireless broadband connection and believe me, if I'm looking to buy something and the page doesn't load quickly enough - I go elsewhere.

Page load speeds and search engine ranking

Up until relatively recently, page loading speeds haven't factored in to organic search ranking calculations - but that changed with Google working the site speed factor into their ranking algorithm in 2010.

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Page loading speed - maximum

While 5 seconds load time on a broadband connection where possible is desirable (some would say even this is too slow), I think these days 10 seconds is the absolute most you can get away with - and by "get away with", I mean you are still probably missing out on some revenue as a result.

There are some handy free tools available gauge page loading speed. One appropriately called PageSpeed is a free Firefox/Firebug add-on to evaluate the performance of of web pages and to get suggestions on how to improve them.
 
Google also offers a tool called Page Speed Service.  

Optimizing page loading speed

The following are a series of optimization tips that can substantially decrease load times, and make general site management a simpler task overall.

Optimize images

This used to be a difficult task, but now almost all graphics editors have features to optimize images for the web - use them. With a few clicks of a button, you can turn a 100kb file into 20kb, without any noticeable loss of quality. 

I notice some site owners also take a large image and "resize" it using width and height tags. While this makes it visibly smaller in the browser, the image size remains the same and therefore is likely a lot more kilobyte heavy than the same image properly sized using graphics software.

Use thumbnails

Do you really need to have an image that takes up half a page? If it's a product, consider using thumbnails. A thumbnail is just a smaller representation of an image that a user can click on if they wish to see the larger version.

Many modern web site building software packages have an automated thumbnailing option. Check the help files of yours to see if it's available. 

Animations

Cute, but are they effective? What are they conveying? If they have no practical use, get rid of them. Use a static image instead. If you need to keep an animation, run it through the optimization tool in your graphics package.

Use a common image folder

I've seen some sites that have the same image on a number of pages and in different sections; but the image has a different filename. This means that the browser has to fetch it from the server instead of just reloading it from the cache. By using a common image folder, you lessen the chances of having duplicates. It's not only a good tip to improve page load times, but it's part of good file base structure.

Use tables wisely

This is something that I should have done many years ago for Taming the Beast.net. The way browsers work is that they "wait" until all the items in a table are loaded before rendering the content. So, if your entire page content is sitting between a <table> and </table> tag, the user sees nothing until all the items are loaded and then suddenly the page appears. If the user is waiting too long, they may think that there's something wrong with the page and click off somewhere else.

If you use tables as the framework of your site, it's best to split up the content into header, "middle" and footer tables. That way the user will at least see something while the page is loading and you increase your chances of them hanging around long enough to purchase something from you.

Tables??? What about CSS!

... I hear the purists yell. I don't claim to be any sort of expert in using CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) for element positioning without tables, but there are many fine resources out there for learning more, including the book/ebook Designing without tables (free chapters for download).

Other benefits of CSS

While I may not be overly familiar with positioning without tables using CSS, I do use it extensively for text formatting. If you're not using Cascading Style Sheets, your page coding probably looks something like this:

<h2><font face="Arial" color="#008000">Here is a heading</font></h2>

<p><font face="Verdana" size="2">This is a sentence</font></p>

This repeated dozens or perhaps even hundreds of times on a page creates substantial code bloat - but this is an issue that's also easy to optimize.

By using a linked Cascading Style Sheet, which is basically just a set of instructions of how to represent elements your source code will be a lot lighter, therefore download faster. CSS has the added benefit of making site-wide formatting updates a lot faster too - change one file and all your pages will change to the new format. You can learn more about Cascading Style Sheets in my beginners guide to CSS.

Press release tips

Press releases aren't just for big companies - small online businesses can benefit too! Free tips on how to write a press release, learn where to submit them and grab a free press release template.

Do you really need it? - cutesy scripts

Look at your pages objectively - do you really need that groovy little javascript code snippet that displays the users current time? If it's not necessary, lose it. It will not only speed up the load time, but also allow for a less cluttered environment. If your visitor wants to know the time, they can shift their eyes a few inches and see it in their system tray :).

Too many database queries

With so many sites now powered by database applications, and complex ones at that, the more queries or calls to a database that need to be made in order to generate a page, the slower it will load, and not only that, the more load it will put on the server your site is hosted on. 

Aside from the annoyance to your potential customers, server resource hogs tend to get zapped by hosting companies. While you may be somewhat limited in what you can do about this as it can be the fault of the software vendor, applications like shopping carts that allow you display X number of items per page should be configured to show only the number of items on each page that can be loaded in a reasonable amount of time. Yes, people hate clicking to get to the next page, but they hate waiting for a page to load even more :).

If your pages suffer seriously from bloat, try some of these tips out. You'll be amazed at how many seconds you can shave off a page that hasn't been optimized and I'm sure that you'll reap the rewards - increased site stickiness, page views and ultimately, revenue!

Off page factors and site speed

One other point - sometimes your site's speed won't always be about what's on your pages. Some hosting company servers are notoriously slow in responding, particularly in a shared hosting environment where there may be dozens or even hundreds of sites on the same server. You can test out your server's response time here. A quarter to half a second response time is very good, a few seconds is just too long.

Michael Bloch
Taming the Beast
http://www.tamingthebeast.net 
Tutorials, web content, tools and software.
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