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Summary:

The mobile web is growing rapidly, but in stark contrast to the pace of the mobile web’s growth, the speed at which it performs has lagged behind consumer expectations. The gap poses a great risk to mobile commerce sites, and those that rely on advertisements for revenue.

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The mobile web is growing rapidly, but in stark contrast to the pace of the mobile web’s growth, the speed at which it performs has lagged behind most consumer expectations. The performance gap poses a great risk to mobile-commerce sites, as well as mobile sites that rely on advertisements for revenue.

So long as the astronomical growth in mobile web surfing continues, it’s quite possible that many will overlook the performance issues of their mobile sites and content. But a site owner can’t rely on the carrier networks to deliver a clunky, un-optimized mobile site at desktop speeds. If a company isn’t optimizing its site for mobile performance, it’s literally throwing money out the window.

How much money could mobile possibly be worth? Well, eBay reported $2 billion in mobile sales in 2010, up from $600 million in 2009, and eBay isn’t an outlier. Reports indicate that mobile commerce more than doubled in 2010 to $3.4 billion, and that didn’t include travel sales, like buying plane tickets online, which added another $1.5 billion.

That’s the opportunity — the upside. But there’s also a downside if a developer doesn’t choose to improve a site’s performance. The e-commerce world has long been familiar with abandonment rates, particularly when the abandonment happens in the shopping cart. The same issue is presenting itself in mobile commerce as well – with data indicating that after three seconds of waiting, mobile abandonment rates behave much like their desktop counterparts.

Now, consumers abandon shopping carts for many reasons, and slow load times aren’t the most common reason. But load times are one of the few factors that are within a site owner’s control. An e-commerce site may not necessarily be able to offer free shipping (shipping costs are the top reason for cart abandonment) but it can drastically reduce the amount of abandonment that results from slow performance.

Don’t Wait for 4G, 6G, 10G or LTE – Speed Is Relative, and Upgrades Are a Red Herring

Verizon, AT&T and Sprint aren’t going to fix site load time problems with the fastest mobile networks the world has ever seen. It’s not just about how many seconds it takes for a site to load. It’s also how those load times compare relative to competitors’ sites. This is about owning up and taking control and differentiating against a widespread pain point – speed (indeed, the lack thereof).

Customers have come to expect that a site will load at the same speed as other sites they visit. So if Amazon’s mobile site loads twice as fast as Overstock.com’s, consumers will spend their time shopping on Amazon on their mobile devices. The top complaint from consumers about mobiles sites is that they take too long to load. Speed is a fundamental part of the user experience.

That’s precisely why you can’t count on the networks. Any performance improvements they make will generally improve both your site and your competitor’s site equally. Thus, it all falls back to you to create the ideal experience for your customers; it’s a competitive advantage for any business. The majority of mobile sites are still sized for laptop and desktop screens, with media functionality that’s not even supported on most mobile devices.

For example, mobile Safari still downloads desktop-sized images, then converts them to mobile resolution at the point of consumption on an iPhone. It’s no wonder the phone and the network are slow: We’re downloading 2 – 3 times what we need to download. That’s not a mandate for bigger pipes; instead, it’s an efficiency issue that isn’t going away. We need to better utilize what we already have.

We’ve been wasteful. Our sites are bloated, and we don’t think critically about the mobile experience in terms of speed, even though speed matters even more on the go than it matters in the home.

How You Can Do Better, Starting Today

There are a variety of techniques to optimize a mobile site for performance, and it’s best to combine a variety of methods such as optimizations on the server side with content delivery optimizations. A developer can even adapt a design to be more lightweight. For example, the Google homepage is nearly a blank page, and that’s a big time-saver for its average load time.

Even without redesigning, some basic adjustments to a site can make a big difference right away — and this low-hanging fruit can provide some of the biggest gains of anything you do to improve performance. The trick is in understanding how mobile sites are different from the standard site that’s designed for the desktop.

First, understand that most websites are built for the large screen.

Let me make this point again: A visitor’s iPhone is literally downloading giant desktop files and resizing them for their 3.5-inch screen once the files reach the smartphone. Needless to say, smartphones and their browsers don’t have the processing power to make this a quick procedure. This is particularly noticeable with images on your site, which should be re-sampled to reduce their size for mobile devices.

Second, optimize even the seemingly “lightweight” components of your site, like the text-based HTML, XML and stylesheet files. All these can be compressed before being sent to the browser, and it can shave a good chunk off of load times when optimized in aggregate, particularly if the site is heavy with these types of files (media sites and other content-rich properties are prime examples).

Third, consider a more aggressive approach to caching settings. If a site owner sets his caching for far-future expires, it will dramatically lower load times, and the site owner will reduce the data traffic between the server and the user’s mobile device: a win on both sides.

The Big Performance Picture

Ultimately, this issue is all about perception. Web performance has long been perceived to be a network issue, an infrastructure issue or a hardware issue. However, web performance has as much to do with the way someone codes and optimizes a site as any other factor in delivering it to the end-user’s device.

This misperception has also masked the fact that load times are about much more than just “being fast.”

Load times directly impact your customers’ experience of your brand and your service. They dramatically impact revenue and sales on both mobile and desktop devices. And load times can make an advertising revenue model much more effective for your business. We have empirical data on top of empirical data to support this.

With the dramatic rise of the mobile web upon us, it’s about time site owners stop ignoring performance woes, and start providing better experiences to users, while also fuelling revenue growth. These are multi-billion-dollar market opportunities.

Taking control of a mobile site’s performance issues is responsible business decision-making in today’s mobile world. You’re just kidding yourself if you think otherwise.

Ed Robinson is the CEO of Aptimize, a company that produces software to accelerate websites.

Image courtesy of EraPhernalia Vintage . . . here only occasionally.

  1. Ed,

    Great article and touches on a focus of ours. As the inventors of mod_gzip we know only too well what performance means to the end user. The problem with Mobile is that “there’s no known way to measure HTTP traffic performance” inside the mobile browser.

    Well until now. In a few short weeks we’ll be releasing a set of tools that allows you to measure not only your web sites performance on mobile but also your competitors web site on Mobile. We’ve included additional context like your real time geo-location, your device capabilities and even the carrier your using.

    Ultimately though it comes down to how “fast” does this page feel on Mobile. And we’ll be including timing measurements for that as well. Mobile performance is going to be a big deal – but it starts with measuring it. Look for 5o9ezmobile.com coming soon.

    Cheers,

    Peter
    5o9 Inc.

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  2. Speed is key. I won’t go back to a site that was severely slow processing input.

    And sites / apps that incorrectly process commands / requests are deleted. Imagine having an app that allows one to determine the status of his account with his carrier. Except that it doesn’t work, and e-mail to the provider provides NO assistance. As a matter of fact, the app’s developers have ignored my requests for an app that functions as it is advertised. I am left with little choice in the matter since I will not do business with ATT or MCI/Verizon after they screwed with my finances.

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  3. Couldn’t agree more. Even optimized sites are too slow. In face-to-face business dealings you need virtually instantaneous response for it not to be a drag. I’m waiting for LTE hoping it will be fast enough for me to use my smart phone web access in my business.

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  4. The speed issue is not too dissimilar from the same reaction users had way-back-when on a fixed device. The slowness allows for “responsibility-creep.”

    In other words, the user clicks “submit” and the site takes so long to load the user’s other responsibilities creep to the front of mind. And since it’s taking “so damned long” to load the user abandons the transaction and moves on to the other responsibility they just thought about.

    The solution resides not only in “really” mobile optimized sites but also in the way the site handles the user’s experience leading up to the transaction.

    Performance Based Mobile Advertising

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    1. MobiDeviceAds,

      Well said. Performance is not only about getting the data to the consumers device, but also “how the experience feels” to the consumer. Failing to measure both will result in a lack value.

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  5. You bring up a critical issue about the ongoing development of the mobile web, Ed.

    While the structural elements can be addressed by better mobile web site design, carrier upgrades to HSPA+ & LTE, and faster App processors in handsets/tablets, it should be noted that Opera has solved this problem already with their very innovative OPML server compression technology.

    If you haven’t tried Opera Mini on your iPhone or Blackberry (or Opera Mobile with Turbo on your Android phone), you should see the HUGE difference in loading times. And, it seems to work quite well on complex sites also.

    The upcoming Opera for Tablets and an Opera Mini upgrade for iPhone’s Retina Display can’t come soon enough for the mobile web, I think…

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  6. Hamranhansenhansen Monday, January 31, 2011

    > mobile Safari still downloads desktop-sized images, then
    > converts them to mobile resolution at the point of consumption
    > on an iPhone. It’s no wonder the phone and the network
    > are slow: We’re downloading 2 – 3 times what we need
    > to download

    No, the iPhone has a 960×640 screen, it has almost as many pixels as a desktop display, and when the user zooms in, even larger images are needed. The optimization you should make is replacing bitmap graphics with vector graphics (replace GIF with SVG). A pie chart can be 10% of the weight yet look better. But you have to carefully make the images with as few nodes as possible so they are not computationally-intensive to render. And use real type instead of bitmap images of type, which is another vector graphics optimization.

    A big thing is not to put 10 photos down a page, but instead to put 1 with buttons to replace the image with the next in the series. This can even be done in a way that works without JavaScript when it’s not available. You have to use time, not just space, show things in series. This goes for uncluttering layout also.

    The whole point of iPhone is to see a full-size Web. Mini pages that you can’t zoom in on are terrible. The type can be too small, images too small, unusable. We have to adjust by making the whole Web leaner to make it mobile-friendly, not by making special lean pages for mobiles. We have to especially recognize that our audience is not in the den in an office chair with a brandy, leisurely browsing our one and only website for unlimited time on a huge display. They are on the go, they are showing up to find our address, or a particular contact, or office hours, or a map, or recent news, and it has to be fast and efficient in terms of organization and presentation.

    Also, it’s not just the network that slows down page load. A mobile on Wi-Fi has just as fast a network as a PC on WiFi, but a 1GHz ARM is not as fast as 2GHz Core 2 Duo. RAM is super-tight on mobiles. Pages should be much less complex, use CSS for layout, not tables, JavaScript should be small and efficient, and many other optimizations.

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