Planning a New Website? Performance Should be Considered Early

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As a website support company, we see the good, the bad, the ugly (and the really ugly). We hope to help organizations make the right hiring choices when it comes to having their next website built.

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Planning for a High Performance Website

When we talk about “performance” in regards to a website we are typically talking about speed, speed of loading pages.

When I first started developing for the web, computers were large and storage was small. A megabyte used to be a big thing (anyone remember 1.44” floppies?). We were all on dial-ups at home and fast was a T-1 line at the office. Web pages were simple things and we expected things to be slow. Today, at least in North America, we are dealing with an audience that is assumed to be on broadband, and this has allowed us to load up web pages with high-resolution images and scripts that give them various visual effects and integrations with social media channels and the like. The problem: this slows things down… way down. However, there is a way to develop a website so that you can have all (or at least most) of those things and still have a high level of performance.

Website Performance Should Not be an Afterthought

The problem we most often see is that performance is an afterthought. More times than not a client will get a new website built and it is not until it is built that they run speed tests and ask what can be done to improve performance. If performance is important to you (and it probably should be) then you should make performance a requirement of the project from day one. Ensure your developer understands what performance is, and the best practices of performance based development.

Why it Matters

There are two basic reasons to why performance matters. The first, and in my opinion the most important, is user experience. Users today expect things to be fast. They don’t care that an image is slow to display because of its stunning high resolution beauty, they may appreciate the beauty but they don’t care to wait for it. Studies by Google, Amazon and others show that bounce rates soar (the rate at which people abandon a website quickly without waiting for the full page to load or visiting a second page) as pages get slower.

The second is SEO ranking. Google and other search engines and directories have stated that they take performance (web page load time) into consideration of their rankings. Put simply, a faster loading page has a better chance of ranking well in the search engines and this can greatly effect overall traffic levels. Now with that said, Google will not say exactly how much performance affects ranking and it’s my opinion that it’s not uncommon for site owners and managers to focus on page speed too much while ignoring what really counts: content. Regardless, performance matters.

What Affects Website Performance

Remember when we are talking about performance, we are talking about speed. There are a plethora of articles out there that will tell you how to optimize your site and have tips that stretch from server configuration to using CDNs and caching technologies. Here is the deal, from a development standpoint, there are two things that have the absolute biggest impact on performance: number of connections (requests) required and total page size.

For each and every file on your page, a call has to be made back to the server. This means for every single image, javascript file, stylesheet, font, etc., the browser must make a call back to a server. A web page with 20 required connections is going to perform better than a page with 120. Read all the optimization articles you want, yell at the server guy to make things faster… none of it’s going to matter if your web page requires a lot of connections – it is going to be slow.

Now comes page size. A page with a lot of text and few images, each only a few kilobytes in size, is going to be much faster than a page with a lot of images in that totals megabytes. It takes time for the server to send large images and for your visitor to download images. And images are only part of it. Stylesheets, javascript files, fonts etc. All add up in terms of bandwidth required to render your web page.

Website Performance as it Relates to Development

So what does this have to do with development? A site built with a lot of plugins or modules, each with their own stylesheets, javascript, fonts, etc., is going to be slower than a site the relies more heavily on good custom code. Now consider the use of commercial themes whereby the theme author has focused on providing the most number of variations, styles, features, etc. These things are notoriously heavy and typically do not perform well.

Another thing to consider is eye-candy; or visual effects and fanciness. These require scripts to run, which add to the total weight and the number of connections required to render the page. A slider, a slide show, fancy shadow boxes, video players, stuff that moves … it all adds up in a real hurry.

One of the most frustrating points in our job is working with clients that are working with script and image bloated websites and yet are demanding a high performance out of them. We have had clients whose web pages have come in at over 50MB and have hundreds of scripts to load. Educating them on the fact that their sites can be improved but will never load under a set number of seconds is tough lesson, especially after they may have just spent thousands having a new website built.

Of course, there are other factors in website performance to consider, but from a development perspective, be sure to make performance a focal point of your project. Challenge your developer on how they will build the site. Point out that you are very much aware that the use of commercial themes and plugins are notorious performance killers. Ask that they optimize/minimize all your scripts and images and maybe even demand a performance report prior to launch.

A good developer will be able to advise on how to integrate all the features you are looking for while still providing a high performance website. A bad developer will load your site up with heavy themes, plugins, modules, and unoptimized images that will cause your site to be slow and heavy. Be sure to also discuss the pros and cons of any one feature as it relates to site performance.

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