In An Era Of Decline, News Sites Can’t Afford Poor Web Performance
For all industries, web performance is an essential part of the online equation, and if there’s an industry that’s been disrupted by the web as greatly as the retail sector, it has to be news and media, making every aspect of the online experience even more important.
At the turn of this century, one of the key terms and concepts in university news and media courses was “media convergence” – that is, all things media coming together via the internet and web-enabled devices to an exploding user base.
The thought (for some) was that all these new avenues for consuming media would lead to a “bigger ocean” of potential consumers, and that the reach of news and media companies (including newspapers) would expand. Others were concerned about keeping up with the 24-hour news cycle.
That idea was only partly true, however. Yes, there is a dizzying amount of media available at the fingertips of the masses, but it’s incredibly fragmented, and readership is down.
In fact, even as print readership declines, so is the readership of online publications. A new research paper finds that over the past eight years the websites of 51 major metropolitan newspapers have not seen appreciable readership gains on average, as reported by Media Life magazine.
With revenue streams having shifted primarily from subscriptions to online ad delivery, and with so many avenues available for web surfers to consume news, from Facebook to YouTube, blogs and yes, online newspapers, anything that can be done to keeps readers reading is essential, and there’s just no room left for slow-loading websites.
After just three seconds, the bounce rate increases, and those that leave are unlikely to bounce back.
As part of our web performance report, Multi-Industry Web Performance 2016 State of the Union – Desktop Edition, we analyzed the real user experience of the top 50 online news and media sites, as ranked by information technology company SimilarWeb, to see what’s really going on.
- The top news and media sites had a median Time to Interact of 4.1 seconds, 1.1 seconds outside the 3-second target. Twenty-two percent of the sites fell within that target, with 78% failing to do so.
- Thirty percent of sites tested scored an “F” for image compression on WebPagetest.org, with just 8% earning an “A” grade.
- Central “hero” images were often delayed due to other elements taking up the HTTP connections and those requests having to wait in line.
- Third-party scripts took up valuable bandwidth, contributing to slowdown.
The impact of all of this just adds to the downward pressure on the financial strains news and media sites face. While there are a few notable standouts, including the Huffington Post (which we detailed in our report), there are other hugely influential sites and publications where the user experience is taking a nosedive.
Breaking Down The Slowdown Of A Major News Site
The site of one of the world’s foremost newspapers, which we analyzed for our report, didn’t have anything rendered visibly until 4.6 seconds, as seen below.
Upon closer inspection, the navigation buttons and other key content didn’t display until the 5.8 second mark.
Looking at the waterfall chart shows exactly what loaded when, and there are a slew of images taking up valuable round trips to the server. While the images requests are small, they add up in significant numbers.
Note: The red vertical line on the chart indicates the 5.8 second mark.
Digging into what was loaded within the first four seconds, while there were a good number of image files loaded (the vast bulk of the initial requests), some of the requests for custom fonts added up to several seconds of the initial load time.
While there are a number of simultaneous connections that can be open in HTTP 1.1 (typically six for most major browsers), every request takes up time and bandwidth of those individual connections.
Looking more closely at those first four seconds in the waterfall chart shows just how much time those requests take:
Overall, this site weighed in at over 6.5 MB and took over 32 seconds to fully load. According to the stats generated by the WebPagetest tool, the time to start render was 3.471 seconds.
For this site, the Time to Interact, where the feature content is up an accessible, was a painful 5.8 seconds – well outside the three-second target users expect.
Thankfully, there are techniques that can get this site – and the rest – back into the green.
Use These Web Performance Optimization Techniques To Get Your Content Up Faster
If content is king, then getting that content in front of eyeballs as quickly as possible is paramount. Give these techniques a try – your readers and viewers will thank you.
COMPRESS AND REFORMAT IMAGES
Image compression is a performance technique that minimizes the size (in bytes) of a graphics file without degrading the quality of the image to an unacceptable level. Reducing an image’s file size has two benefits:
- reducing the amount of time required for images to be sent over the internet or downloaded, and
- increasing the number of images that can be stored in the browser cache, thereby improving page render time on repeat visits to the same page.
Additionally, inappropriate image formatting is an extremely common performance culprit. An image that is saved to the wrong format can be several times larger than it would be if saved to the optimal format. Images with unnecessarily high resolution waste bandwidth, processing time, and cache space.
As a general rule of thumb, these are the optimal formats for common image types:
- Photos – JPEG, PNG-24
- Low complexity (few colors) – GIF, PNG-8
- Low complexity with transparency – GIF, PNG-8
- High complexity with transparency – PNG-24
- Line art – SVG
Fonts can eat up bandwidth and contribute to slowdown. As the Google Developers blog notes, they can be compressed with GZIP, or a compatible processor.
From the Google Developers blog:
- EOT, and TTF formats are not compressed by default: ensure that your servers are configured to apply GZIP compression when delivering these formats.
- WOFF has built-in compression – ensure that your WOFF compressor is using optimal compression settings.
- WOFF2 uses custom preprocessing and compression algorithms to deliver ~30% filesize reduction over other formats.
Compressing fonts will reduce the footprint and help keep things moving along.
- Redundant script downloads are especially likely when large teams or multiple teams collaborate on page development.
Hope For the Future
While the news and media industry has seen great changes over in time since the world has gone online, there will always be “news,” even as more of the world’s population takes to the web. While there are many factors in play, delivering a site with timely content delivered in a timely manner can help keep users engaged.
Remember, people get their news somewhere, and removing any obstacles from the process just might help your site deliver the content people want in the way they expect.
There are more techniques in our report which you can employ to nail down your site’s performance bottlenecks.