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Websites - the need for speed (optimisation)

Published: 27th March 2009

Addition: 19th November 2009

Author: Andrew Hart

Speed, a requirement for delivering excellent user experience

tuning your website for speed

The Web has come a long way since it was first a glint in Tim Berners-Lee eye back in '89. Many things have changed since then and the speed with which we can access it has led to expectations rising considerably. If your users can't find what they are looking for and load it quickly don't expect them to be patient!

Every website is different but there are a number of common factors that are critical for success. The basics of any good website are:

  • Easy to find (e.g. via a search engine)
  • Good content
  • Well presented
  • Easy to use
  • Fast to load

Since the conception of the Web many of these basics have not changed, however, the need for speed continues to grow in importance. As technology develops at an ever increasing pace so do user expectations: your visitors are no longer going to wait the 20/30 seconds that it used to take a web page to load back in the early days.

If your website is a critical part of your business then you need to speed it up. Let's pop the hood and start tuning.

Contents at a Glance

Search Engine Optimisation (SEO)

Getting to the right information fast

getting results fast

Getting your website highly visible on a search engines is vital to success. Companies recognise this and spend thousands getting their "keywords/phrases" to the top of search result, and yet some fundamental basics are being missed.

All too often the focus of SEO begins at bringing visitors to the website…and ends there. Whilst this will undoubtedly bring visitors into the site it does not necessarily deliver them to the exact information they were looking for.

The sad truth is that people clicking through to your website from a link in a search engine results page will scan the page for what they are looking for. If they don't locate this in the first few seconds the result is usually them pressing the "back" button and trying a different site. You got your visitor into your site but then failed to keep them there as they didn't see what they wanted.

Sure, an attractive design can help keep a visitor interested for a little longer but you don't go shopping to look at the shop, you go to buy something. No matter how much you like a store if it hasn't got what you are looking for on display you walk back out. Websites are no different except you have seconds, not minutes to get the user to the item they are looking for.

SEO can't simply be done when you get your website designed, it has to be an integral part of your publishing process. Understanding SEO will help make the 'landing page' (the page your visitor comes to via the search engine) the right one for them.

…just imagine walking into a shop to find the first item you see is the one you came to buy. Sale!

Update 19th November 2009
Page loading speed may be the next factor for Google ranking in 2010

Matt Cutts hinted strongly at a recent convention that Google is considering page load speed as the next metric to be included in it's algorithm. This seems a natural progression for the algorithm which already encourages best practices that have positive impacts on the user experience.

If your website already loads quickly then there is not a great deal to worry about, but you should never overlook loading speed:

  • Good ranking often relies upon paying attention to small details, especially when it comes to highly-competitive search terms - any small 'edge' can make a difference. Loading time may only be a minor factor in how well your website ranks, but it is one that you have control over.
  • Loading time is also an important factor for many reasons other than SEO as you will hopefully see from the rest of this article.

Want to test your website objectively? Try: Web Page Analyzer from WebsiteOptimization.Com. Not a teccie? Simply look to the bottom of the report for the green/amber/red ratings for an overview of how your website performs.

Usability

Making your site fast to use

don't frustrate your users

There are 6 main areas to consider here:

  1. Keep navigation simple and design it around how your users needs. Don't base it around your company structure - visitors don't care how you operate, they just want to achieve what they came for.
  2. Not crowding the page. Using too many columns, images, font-styles etc will achieve one thing...slowing your visitor down. Even using too much text can be an issue. Keep the page clean and the users eye will locate what they are looking for much faster.
    If in doubt consider the single biggest success on the Web: the Google search engine. Before Google all search engines delivered their search results on a page crammed full of banners, ads, buttons, all flashing at you vying for your attention. Now pages are minimalist and focused.
  3. Consistency. Familiarity is a powerful tool. Using many different layouts throughout your website or moving elements around from page to page you will do one thing - confuse your users.
  4. Clarity. Use simple language appropriate to your target audience. Don't try to be clever by calling your "contact us" page "buzz us" unless this is really the language used by your desired visitors.
  5. Don't over publish. Sure you may have a lot of information but by adding too much of it to your website you may end up hiding what is really important. Navigation can become cluttered, search engine results can get watered down and users will not be able to find what they are looking for.
  6. Use advanced functionality only if it is necessary. How often I have seen databases with advanced search options used to display a stock list of perhaps 20 items. Don't make your visitors think (see "Don't make me think" in the book section below).

Simplicity and clarity are more important than trying to impress by cramming pages full of information. Remember - less is more!

Tuning for performance

Tweaking your website to deliver its content fast

does your website break the lightspeed barrier?

People surfing the web used to accept that pages took around 20 seconds to load. With the emergence of broadband expectations have risen and this tolerance has dropped dramatically. Users will often wait no longer than 2-3 seconds for a page.

If your website does not load very quickly you will be losing visitors!

There are a great many factors that influence the speed your website but for the now let's look at the basics of building a fast site.

Start with clean, lean code. When designing your website (or commissioning a design) ensure that the base template is as lean as possible. This means:

  • Do not use tables for layout
  • Do not use inline styles
  • Do not use images to create buttons on your navigation
  • Do not use JavaScript or Flash unless they are really needed
  • Do plan the page layout carefully
  • Do use CSS for ALL of the page styling
  • Do use semantic mark-up
  • Do use images sparingly and optimise them

These are just the basics and any good web designer will know how to make the most of every byte of data.

The key things to remember are:

  • Use as few page objects (images, CSS, scripts etc) as possible
  • Optimise each and every one of your objects
  • Use a speed optimisation checker once you have finished creating your page (e.g. http://www.websiteoptimization.com/services/analyze/)

Reduce, merge and optimise. Speed is vital and websites that do 0-100 MPH in 2 seconds win the race for visitors.

Update: In case you skipped over the section on SEO above you may like to read: "Page loading speed may be the next factor for Google ranking in 2010".

Maintaining your speed

Keeping your website running fast

maintaing your vechicle so it can handle the speed

I choose the title "need for speed" for a very good reason:

A website is very much like a Formula 1 race team. It requires professionals to design the vehicle, engineers to build it, technicians to test every component, mechanics to maintain it, a team of managers to co-ordinate, and of course, a driver. No Formula 1 team has all this and then chooses to put Dave from marketing behind the wheel just because he drives a flash car to work.

Once you have a fast site do not make the mistake of putting it in the wrong hands. Sure, it might be cheaper to run it yourself or to push it onto the IT department (please…websites are not about IT!!) to do alongside their day-job, but just stop and ask if your website important to you. If so then why risk all the investment you put into attaining a high performance website by having it managed by unqualified people.

How Simius Web can help you

Slow websites lose out. As broadband and related technologies cause expectations to rise, if you have a slow website your visitors will leave and move to a competitor with a faster website.

With years of experience in the industry we have worked with many different techniques as the Web has evolved. We know what factors are involved in making websites fast, how each factor influences speed, and generally how to turn an old banger of a website into a streamlined vehicle, ideal for delivering your content.

Would you like your website speed assessed or tuned? Contact us today.