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Secret Sauce for Successful Web Sites

Web performance optimization (WPO)

There are two secret sauces for making a web site successful: SEO and WPO. Ok, I guess everyone knows about SEO (Search Engine Optimization) now. SEO was a secret sauce 5-10 years ago. At that time, not everyone was aware of SEO. These who did SEO ended up being very successful. But have you heard of WPO? Are you doing WPO to your web site? Most people would answer "no". So WPO (Web Performance Optimization) remains as the one and only secret sauce.

What is Web Performance Optimization?

Do you hate slow web sites? Have you ever abandoned your online activity because the web site you were on was too slow? Is your web site slow or fast? Have many users abandoned your site because of slow experience?

This is where WPO comes in. WPO, short for Web Performance Optimization, is about delivering an instantaneous experience to your web visitors. In other words, WPO is about making your web site faster. In order to deliver a fast experience, you need means to measure and analyze your current experience. Beyond the technique means, you also need to have the process and methodology. In summary, WPO refers to the process, methodology and techniques to measure, benchmark and improve web performance.

Why Web Performance Optimization?

There are three key value propositions of WPO:

  1. WPO drives more traffic to your web site: If everything else is the same, a faster web site will definitely get better user acceptance and is far more likely to generate more inbound links. Users are more likely to come back. Very importantly, Google recently announced to factor in the site speed as a parameter in web search ranking. So improving web performance will result in improved search engine ranking.
  2. WPO increases your revenue by keeping users stay longer on your site or doing more with your site: Slow loading pages tend to have a high bounce rate because users lose patience waiting. Nowadays the average expected page load time for e-commerce web sites is about 2 to 3 seconds. Anything beyond that will be considered "slow" and lose users. Improved web site performance makes the user more productive, which means the user would be able to conduct more transactions on a faster site than slower ones. Further, a faster site creates a more pleasant user experience, which causes the user to enjoy a longer stay.
  3. WPO reduces operation costs: WPO employs techniques to reduce the number of requests hitting on a web site and the amount of bandwidth consumed as means to improve the performance of a web site. Reducing the number of hits on a web site can lower the server side CPU usage and improve site scalability. Reducing bandwidth consumption improves site scalability as well as reduces bandwidth costs. The typical operation savings from WPO range from 10% to 60%, a significant number for a wide range of web sites.

The growing importance of web performance has been well noticed. Open standards have been proposed to facilitate WPO, such as Web Timing Measurements and SPDY. Leading browsers have started to incorporate these standards. Microsoft Internet Explorer 9 is the first browser to implement the W3C Web Timing API. Part of the reason for Google to implement Google Chrome is to provide a fast browser for a faster web. Going forward, we expect WPO grow into its own industry similar to what SEO is today.

Real World Cases for WPO

The impact of web performance on business success has been demonstrated many times in the real world.

One of the best examples is Google. When Google was started, the search engine market was owned by bigger players. However, Google understood WPO and has been obsessed with delivering the fastest performance. This secret sauce played its magic. In a few years, Google became the search engine that everyone goes to. Today, Google continues to push for faster web performance. With the recent release of Google Instant, the bar has been raised again: The Internet shouldn't be just fast, it needs to be instantaneous.

Beyond Google, there are lots of additional cases showing the effect of web performance. The following is a list of examples published by Steve Souders, a web performance expert at Google:

  • Amazon: 100 ms delay caused a 1% drop in revenue.
  • Google: 400 ms delay caused a 0.59% decrease in search requests per user (earlier tests list larger numbers).
  • Yahoo!: 400 ms delay caused a 5-9% decrease in traffic.
  • Bing: 2 seconds delay caused a 4.3% drop in revenue per user.
  • Mozilla made their download page 2.2 seconds faster and was rewarded with an increase of 15.4% in downloads.
  • Google Maps reduced the file volume by 30% and observed a 30% increase in map requests.
  • Netflix enabled gzip on the server; simply by this single action pages became 13-25% faster and saved 50% of traffic volume!
  • Shopzilla succeeded in reducing the loading time from 7 down to 2 seconds, whereby the conversion rate increased by 7-12%, they observed a 25% increase in page requests, they were able to retire 50% of their servers, thus saving energy costs.
  • AOL observed the number of page views on several websites. While the fastest users requested 7-8 pages, the slowest only viewed 3-4.

Another interesting example is the story between Tumblr and Posterous. See Web Performance Impact: Tumblr Leaves Competition in Dust".

WPO How-to

In terms of how to optimize web performance, obviously the first thing comes to mind is optimization. There are hundreds of techniques one can employ to optimize a web site's performance. Below lists some commonly used techniques:

• data center techniques: load Balancing with multiple web servers, geographic load balancing with multiple Data Centers, DNS acceleration, ADC (application delivery controller, almost every networking company provides this or something similar), connection pooling,

• server side techniques: compression, content caching using Squid/Varnesh/hardware, configuring web server to use HTTP 1.1, optimizing database and business logic...

• Techniques related to network and protocols: CDN (content delivery network), pre- fetching, leveraging HTTP protocol features such as If_Modified_Since/Expires/etag, using alternative protocols such as RTMP/SPDY/UDP...

• Techniques related to the client side: image optimization, JavaScript concatenation and obfuscation, CSS optimization, spriting, page layout optimization, browser caching, browser connection pooling, domain sharding, leveraging user agent specific features such as dataURI,...

Given the vast array of techniques one can employ, the question becomes which knob a web site owner should turn? How does one know whether the knob got turned is working out? These questions bring out the three other components of WPO besides optimization:

  1. Assessment:
    First, you need ways to assess your current performance. Are you fast? Are you slow? Web performance is influenced by a few hundred factors, ranging from data center concerns, network issues, protocol issues, browser performance, page design and content, JavaScript files and CSS, etc. Which factors should you look into? Yottaa provides a free online service at Yottaa web site to help web site owners answer these questions.
  2. Benchmarking:
    Beyond analyzing your own site, you should also compare your site to other sites. The other sites could be your competitors' sites, sites in your vertical segment, or the entire Internet. Are you faster or slower than these sites? Where does your site stand in ranking? Further, you should also compare the different versions of your own site. Between releases, are you making your site faster or slower?
  3. Monitoring:
    An intrinsic attribute of performance is that it is dynamic. It changes over time and over geography. So it is important to track your web site performance over time and from different geographies. Monitoring enables a web site owner to know the trending, understand variations/changes and get notified for problems as they occur. WPO is an ongoing, continuous process. Monitoring is an essential step to make sure you are on top of things.

In summary, I recommend web development teams follow four steps for WPO: assess, benchmark, monitor and optimize. How do you figure all these out? At Yottaa, we built our product specifically for this purpose: to help web site owners assess, benchmark, monitor and optimize their web performance. Available at www.yottaa.com as free online services, I encourage readers give it a try and would love to hear your feedback.

Conclusion

I will leave the readers with two sentences as my closing remarks:

1. Speed is the differentiator;

2. Performance is an opportunity.

More Stories By Coach Wei

Coach Wei is founder and CEO of Yottaa, a web performance optimization company. He is also founder and Chairman of Nexaweb, an enterprise application modernization software company. Coding, running, magic, robot, big data, speed...are among his favorite list of things (not necessarily in that order. His coding capability is really at PowerPoint level right now). Caffeine, doing something entrepreneurial and getting out of sleeping are three reasons that he gets up in the morning and gets really excited.

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