How Fast is Fast Enough to Keep Customers' Attention Online?

Customer Experience
Customer Experience
The quest for the holy grail of Web speed: 2-second page load times

No doubt, you're familiar with the feeling of using a slow site. With each lethargic page you visit, your annoyance escalates. There's a snowball effect at work here, in which the accumulated impact of a site's sluggishness erodes your confidence in it.

But what impact does this erosion of confidence have on a website's success? And what can site owners do to deliver an optimal site to their visitors?

In recent years two branching areas of study have emerged, both of which seek to quantify the effects of poorly performing websites:

  • User experience research, which looks into how we use the web and why we react the way we do to specific online experiences, and
  • E-commerce research, which identifies the relationship between website performance and business metrics such as page views, cart size, conversion, and revenue.

When it comes to online revenue, every millisecond counts

A recent study found that 57 percent of site visitors will bounce after waiting 3 seconds or less for a page to load. The visitors who remain on slow websites tend to do less during their stay: they view fewer pages, they download less, they spend less. Some cases in point:

In one well-known test, Microsoft slowed down its Bing site by two seconds, which led to a 4.3 percent loss in revenueper visitor. The results of this slowdown were so immediate and dramatic that Microsoft cut this test short.

Aberdeen Group surveyed 160 companies and discovered that, on average, slowing down a site by just one second results in a 7 percent reduction in conversions. To express this in dollar terms, for a site that earns $100,000 a day, a one-second slowdown results in $2.5 million of lost revenue per year.

Taking a more positive approach, last year Shopzilla famously sped up site, accelerating its average page load time from 6 seconds to 1.2 seconds. Without making any other outward changes to the site, Shopzilla experienced a12 percent increase in revenueand a25 percent increase in page views. Similarly, Amazon performed its own page speed optimization and announced that, for every 100 milliseconds of improvement, revenues increased by 1 percent.

Like it or not, your website's speed is your brand

Usability expert Jakob Nielsen has spent the past 17 years studying why we use the web the way we do. In a recent post on website response times, Nielsen refers to a study he conducted in which he asked users their opinions about various websites they had visited in the past. He notes that "It was striking to hear users complain about the slowness of certain sites. Slowness (or speed) makes such an impact that it can become one of the brand values customers associate with a site."

In other words, a fast user experience is better than a flashy one. People engage more with a site and develop more powerful brand affinity when they can move quickly and focus on its content - and their task at hand - rather than wait for pages to load.

Why 2 seconds is the (current) goal

In the same post, Nielsen breaks down our reactions to page delays into very specific increments of time:

  • 0.1 seconds gives us the illusion of instantaneous response.
  • 1 second keeps our flow of thought seamless.
  • 10 seconds keeps our attention, but just barely.
  • After 10 seconds, we start thinking about other things, making it harder to resume our task when the website finally responds.

Nielsen notes that this data has not changed since 1993, meaning that this is hardwired human behavior, and therefore is unlikely to change. But there is a bit of wiggle room. According to Nielsen's findings, the ideal page load time is between 0.1 and 1 second; however, a separate study by Forrester Consulting says that we are able to stretch our capacity to wait - if only by a small amount - to 2 seconds.

The future of site speed: Google's audacious >100ms goal

More than ten years ago, Zona Research warned site owners that they needed to ensure their sites loaded in 8 seconds or less. Over the years that benchmark has gotten lower as users have grown increasingly demanding:

Note that it took seven years for user expectations to halve, from 8 seconds to 4 seconds, but only three years for those expectations to halve again, down to 2 seconds. This goal will inevitably get even more ambitious.

Urs H??e, vice president of operations at Google has gone on the record as saying "We want you to be able to flick from one page to another as quickly as you can flick a page on a book. So we're really aiming very, very high here at something like 100 milliseconds." While Google has been criticized for its "myopic focus" on response times, it is important to note that their sub-100ms goal is completely in line with Jakob Nielsen's findings that, when we use the web, 0.1 seconds gives us the illusion of instantaneous response.

How does your site actually look to your visitors?

Whether your goal is 100 milliseconds or 2 seconds, the first step to achieving it is to see your site through your visitors' eyes. Right now, you are probably not doing this.

If you're looking at your site from your desktop at work, chances are you're using a T1 connection that delivers a much snappier experience than a DSL or dial-up home connection. And because you are sitting closer to your site's servers, content is traveling a much shorter distance to get to you.

If you receive regular performance monitoring reports from a third party, these need to be validated to ensure that they're actually testing your site from a real end user's perspective. Until recently, "performance monitoring" meant using backbone tests, named for the fact that they take place over the backbone of the Internet. Backbone tests tell you how fast your site loads at major Internet hubs, but because you're skipping the "last mile" between the server and the user's browser, you're not seeing how your site actually performs in the real world.

Develop an action plan for tackling performance

Once you have a true sense of how fast your site is, you can tackle the job of fixing it. Most performance problems fall into three categories:

  • Back-end - Hardware-based, how your servers are handling site traffic
  • Front-end - Code-based, how the site is rendered in the browser (this accounts for 80 percent of all performance problems)
  • Third-party content - Badly optimized ads and widgets that hamper page load

You need to audit your site on all these fronts, identify where slowdowns are occurring, and develop an action plan for fixing performance.

Tackling performance is not a small job, but it is vital to online success, especially in the current economy. In the months and years to come, as customers' expectations grow and competition for their attention becomes more intense, site speed will be a key differentiator between companies that win and those that lose.

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About the Author: Joshua Bixbyis president of Strangeloop.