Webmasters face new site optimization challenges

The inclusion of more and more third-party components is slowing down websites

From the Web's early days, companies have struggled to make their sites faster, but the problem remains a thorny one, with new challenges emerging regularly as technology advances.

Current issues include the rising number of third-party content feeds, ads and social gadgets, which can significantly drag down a Web page's performance, speed and load time.

Webmasters are also grappling with an increasing number and variety of browsers, including those for mobile devices, which force designers to adapt their sites in multiple ways so that they will render properly for all users.

And as websites age, with many having gone through waves of major overhauls over the course of 10 years or more, Web developers and designers often encounter layers of legacy coding that often require extensive revising and complicated revamping.

Turning a blind eye to this issue isn't an option for companies, whether their websites are corporate sites, e-commerce stores, online media publications or internal portals.

Sites must be optimized for speed and performance, because clunky, slow pages hurt business. They repel users, dilute the effectiveness of advertising, weaken sales conversions, damage brands and increase bandwidth, hosting and IT maintenance costs.

As if that were not enough, search engine king Google last year began factoring calculations about the speed and performance of websites into its website rankings.

Jeremiah Wilson has been dealing with this issue head-on for years at his current job as senior user experience manager of Cars.com and for previous employers. "Website speed is a consumer benefit," he said.

In a previous job at a real estate website, he saw first-hand how improving its speed and performance had a dramatic effect on usage and revenue.

And he has seen how a poorly optimized website can suck financial and human resources, elevating internal expenses at companies. "The slower a site is, the more it costs to maintain and fix, and becomes a big cost to the organization," Wilson said.

With organizations' websites playing a bigger role in sales, marketing, customer support, employee collaboration and other operations, the stakes are higher.

"Website performance as a whole is becoming more and more important to the success of businesses," said Michael Weider, CEO of Blaze, a startup founded last year that recently launched a cloud-based Web optimization service.

Traditionally, improving website performance focused on beefing up back-end elements, such as acquiring newer, more powerful servers and increasing bandwidth.

Today, however, most bottlenecks happen at the front end, caused by "third-party content bloat," as described by Dave Karow, a senior product manager of Internet Test & Measurement at Keynote Systems, a provider of on-demand test and measurement products for mobile communications and Internet performance.

"It snuck up on people slowly, this third-party content, until they realized they were in a whole lot of trouble when they tried to optimize the performance of their Web pages and couldn't do it," Karow said.

This "bloat" is caused by the rising number of external elements that Web publishers have loaded their pages with, he said. Those include rich media applications, social media feeds, photos and video coming from content delivery networks and ads.

A site today can have 200 or more of these third-party components, and that trend isn't fading, because end users expect sites to have increasingly richer functionality and content, Karow said.

To stay on stop of the site's performance at Cars.com, Wilson's team uses Web monitoring software and tools from various sources, including Keynote, Google and Yahoo.

With this data, Wilson can make sure that providers of third-party content, ads and gadgets are fulfilling their service-level agreements, and hold their feet to the fire if they're not.

"If you're paying the third party, you can set SLAs and be aggressive about them, because those providers are making revenue off of you," he said.

He finds Google's PageSpeed and Yahoo's YSlow tools very convenient to measure front-end issues, as well as Keynote's Virtual Pages, which dissects pages into their components, letting administrators isolate and identify performance jams.

"You have to make sure you have the right analytics set, and that you're measuring the right things," Wilson said.

If vendor activity is any indication, it seems clear that this issue remains problematic. Google has been growing the Page Speed family of tools and upgrading them regularly, and specialty vendors like Keynote Systems continue sharpening and extending their products. On the same week that Blaze launched its service, another company called Yottaa unveiled a private beta version of a competing cloud-based product.

In Wilson's experience, sometimes the slowdowns caused by external components are only the straw that break the camel's back, and the main problem lies deep within the site's legacy code and design. "In that case, you have to get your hands dirty with the logic that happened over time," Wilson said.

Along the same lines, Web designers and developers need to keep front and center this issue when creating or extending sites. "It's important for Web page developers to put themselves in their customers' shoes and remember that DSL isn't extremely fast, and that many people in emerging markets don't have the connectivity that some people have in Silicon Valley," said Richard Rabbat, a Google product manager who is the product lead for the company's Lets Make the Web Faster initiative.

"Make sure your Web pages are accessible to all your current and potential users, not just to people with very fast connections," he added.

Another issue complicating matters is the skyrocketing usage of mobile browsers in smartphones and tablet devices, which is forcing website owners to pay much closer attention that in the past to mobile versions of their sites.

"That has put a lot of pressure on web designers to think about how to build web pages that [mobile users] can access, interact with and get the data and information they're looking for," Rabbat said

In response to this, Google has extended Page Speed's functionality so that it can be used tomonitor website performance in mobile devices as well.

"This front-end bottleneck problem is worse in mobile devices," said Blaze's Weider, whose company has also built mobile capabilities into its cloud-hosted website testing and optimization software.

Of course, part of the responsibility falls on providers of third-party website components and content, and Google has been banging the drum on this issue for several years now, as well as trying to lead by example through optimization of its own site feeds and components, like its ads.

"We're very happy with the progress of the industry overall, which is great because it makes the whole Web faster," Rabbat said.

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Tags diagnosticsmaintenanceUtilitiessoftwareinternetcloud computingSoftware as a serviceTune-up / optimizationanalytics

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