It’s difficult to overstate just how important website performance is to a modern business. Across the board, commercial and corporate websites are now the number one point of contact between businesses and customers.
Anyone who lands on your website expects it to work, and work well. Whether they intend to make a purchase, are browsing for ideas, or have simply arrived out of curiosity, visitors to any website bring with them a whole set of expectations about how the platform should behave.
The challenge for businesses is that most people set the bar pretty high on how they expect a web site or page to perform these days. If it doesn’t meet those standards, they will go elsewhere.
For example, the maximum amount of time most people will tolerate a web page taking to load is just two seconds. Anything longer, and the majority get frustrated and head elsewhere. That’s just the nature of the on-demand world we now live in. It’s the legacy of fibre broadband, 4G (and now 5G) mobile internet, tech giants like Google, Facebook and Amazon investing billions in making sure their online content loads nearly instantaneously.
In short, website performance matters. Let it slip and it will cost you business. Regular performance testing is therefore critical to making sure you shape up to what your customers expect. Here’s how to do it.
As we’ve hinted at already, speed is by far and away the most important metric when it comes to website performance. People simply do not tolerate sluggish page loads anymore. Some of the frankly staggering stats around page load speeds include the fact that bounce rates (people leaving your site) increase by 32% when load speeds increase from one to three seconds, and conversion rates fall by 4.42% for each additional second.
Page speed isn’t a straightforward thing. It is determined by several different factors and can be influenced by a range of variables. Time of day, location, server traffic and much more can affect the results of a speed test. That’s why it’s important to run more than one to get as complete and balanced a picture as possible.
These days you should certainly test on both desktop and mobile. A tool like WebPageTest lets you configure tests for different mobile network speeds, while Uptrends lets you test speeds in different browsers.
It’s a good idea generally to use different testing tools. Although most of the main services test for a broadly similar set of metrics, you get little nuanced differences that help to build up a more accurate picture. You also get a different UX. Google Pagespeed Insights, for example, is well regarded as one of the most thorough testing tools out there, but it’s in-depth analytics are aimed at web developers and aren’t easy for non-specialist users to fathom. The free isitwp tool, on the other hand, is extremely user-friendly and ideal for non-specialists.
As we’ve said, page speed can’t be distilled down into a single universal measurement (although lots of page speed testing tools will give an overall ‘score’, put together from a variety of measurements). There are lots of factors involved. Some of which are more worthy of more attention than others.
Two you should definitely look at are server response time and time to first byte (TTFB). These are basically measures of how long it takes a web server to respond to a request from your page, and how long it takes the data to start arriving back at the front end. There are specialised tools dedicated to these specific metrics, like Byte Check for TTFB.
The reasons why these metrics are important is because they are particularly liable to change by location (see below). They will also give you an indication that your web server is not meeting your needs and it’s time for an upgrade.
When looking at page speeds, location matters. The further away your visitors are (which really means, how far they are from your web server), the more likely they are to experience slower performance. This is partly because it will take longer for responses to reach the server, and for data to arrive back, as discussed above.
There’s not a great deal of value in testing page speeds where you are - you want to understand performance from your customers’ perspective. So first of all, use something like Google Analytics to check where your web visitors are located. Then pick a testing tool like Pingdom which will simulate performance from multiple different places across the globe.
Something else that affects web page speed is how many people are using a page or site at any one time. High traffic volumes create a lot of server requests at once. This can lead to bottlenecks and sluggish response times.
Many testing tools will measure a metric known as Peak Response Time (PRT), which is the longest time it takes to respond to a set of requests. High PRT tells you that, at busy times, at least some visitors are getting a poor experience. Tools such as k6 are designed to simulate large traffic loads and tell you how your site performs.
Another thing that adds time to page loading is a Domain Name System (DNS) Lookup. People land on your site either by clicking a link or typing in the name of your website. In both cases, a text name is used, like keyelement.co.uk. But that name isn’t the handle your site goes by in cyberspace. Websites are instead identified by a number - the IP address.
The DNS is like an address book that matches the text names people use to the IP addresses the internet uses. A DNS Lookup is the process of making that match when someone clicks a link or types in a web page name. It’s crucial to loading the right content.
But a DNS Lookup can take time. It depends on your DNS provider, it depends on where the domain server is relative to the search. It depends on how many DNS lookup requests are hitting that server at any one time. Tools like DNSMap.io show you the best performing providers by location, while dnsperf.com tests the lookup speed of a site from 200 different locations.
Most page speed testing services will highlight reasons why your site is performing sluggishly. Prime culprits are large files on your pages, such as images, videos and stylesheets.
The best way to load large files faster is to enable caching. A cache stores temporary files locally to speed up load times. But caching is only effective for repeat visits - someone has to land on your page at least once to create a cache. In many ways, the first load is the crucial one. Too slow, and that person might not bother coming back.
To speed that up, make sure browser compression is working. Just like you often have to compress large files to send them in an email, compression reduces file sizes for transfer between your server and the user’s browser. This speeds up the load process.
Finally, another critical reason why websites perform at a less than optimum speed is down to cyber attacks. We tend to think of hacking in terms of large scale data theft or bringing entire websites down completely. But the majority of cybercrime is far more low key and insidious. Attacks lurk in the background unseen. Astonishingly, it takes 280 days on average for a cyber breach to even be identified.
One telltale sign is that your web site is not performing the way it should. If you run a test that shows up poor loading speeds without any obvious signs of why things are running slowly, you may well be experiencing some kind of cyber attack. Malware, DDOS attacks, SQL injections, cross-site scripting and more can all result in slow page speeds.
As well as testing page speed performance regularly, it is equally important to run thorough cybersecurity scans and test your firewall.
In this day and age, no business can afford to leave website performance to chance. How your site behaves is a reflection of your brand. Fail to live up to expectations and you will drive visitors away, lose customers and see sales fall.
The best way to guarantee optimised website performance at all times is to outsource responsibility to a specialist. At Key Element, we provide end-to-end support that includes comprehensive website analytics, managed web hosting and on-call technical support. Contact us today to find out more.