Web Performance Trends for 2013 – Performance Optimization

As we approach the end of 2012, I will be looking at a few trends that will become important in 2013. In a previous post, I identified optimization as an important performance trend to watch. It is one of the items on a performance checklist that companies can directly influence through the design and implementation of their web and mobile sites.
The key to optimization in any organization is to think of objects transmitted to customers, regardless of where they originate, as having a cost to you and to the customer. So, a site that makes $100,000 in a day and transfers 10 million objects to customers has an object-to-revenue ratio of 100. But, if the site is optimized and only 7.5 million objects are transferred to make $100,000, that ratio goes down to 75; and if the reduction in objects causes revenue go up to $150,000, the ratio drops to 50.
This approach is simplistic and does not include the actual cost to deliver each object, which includes costs for bandwidth, CDN services, customer service providers, etc. as well as revenue generated by third-party ads and services you present to customers. The act of balancing the cost of the site (to develop and manage), the performance you measure, the revenue you generate, the experience your customers have, and the reputation of your brand is an ongoing process that must be closely considered every time someone asks, “And if we add this to the site/app…”.
There is no optimal figure for site optimization. But there are some simple rules:

  • Use Sprites where you can. Combing multiple small images into aggregated image maps that you can use CSS to display gives you a double-plus good improvement – fewer objects to download and more text (HTML, JavaScript, and CSS) that can be delivered to visitors in a compressed format
  • Combine JavaScript and CSS files. Listen to your designers – they will likely try to convince that each file needs to be separate for some arcane reason. Listen and then ask if this is the most efficient way to deploy this particular function or formatting. Ask the developer to produce a cost/benefit analysis of doing it their way versus using something that is already in place
  • Control your third-party services. This means having a sane method for managing these services, and shutting them off if necessary. Have every team that is responsible for the site meet to approve (or deny) the addition of new third-party services. And those who want it better come with a strong cost/benefit analysis.

Optimization is the act of making the sites you create as effective and efficient as the business you run. No matter how “low” the cost to operate a web site is, each object on a site can cost the company more money than it is worth in revenue. And if that object slows the site down, it could turn a profitable transaction into a lost customer.

Web Performance: How long can you ignore the money?

Web performance is everywhere. People intuitively understand that when a site is slow, something’s wrong. Web performance breeds anecdotal tales of lost carts, broken catalogs, and searches gone wrong. Web performance can get you name in lights, but not in the way you or your company would like.
It’s a mistake to consider Web performance a technology problem. Web performance is really a business problem that has a technological solution.
Business problems have solutions that any mid-level executive can understand. A site that can’t handle the amount of traffic coming in requires tuning and optimization, not the firing of the current VP of Operations and a new marketing strategy.
Can you imagine the fate of the junior executive who suggested that a new marketing strategy was the solution to brick-and-mortar stores that are too small and crowded to handle the number of prospective customers (or former prospective customers) coming in the door?
Every Web performance event costs a company money, in the present and in the future. So when someone presents your company with the reality of your current Web performance, what is your response?
Some simple ideas for living with the reality that Web performance hurts business.

  1. Be able to explain the issue to everyone in the company and to customers who ask. Gory details and technical mumbo-jumbo make people feel like there is something being hidden from them. Tell the truth, but make it clear what happened.
  2. Do not blame anyone in public. A great way to look bad to everyone is to say that someone else caused the problem. Guess what? All that the people who visited your site during the problem will remember is that your site had the problem. Save frank discussions for behind closed doors.
  3. Be able to explain to the company what the business cost was. While everyone is pointing fingers inside your company, remind them that the outage cost them $XX/minute. Of course, you can only tell them that if you know what that number is. Then gently remind everyone that this is what it cost the whole company.
  4. Take real action. I don’t mean things like “We will be conducting an internal review of our processes to ensure that this is not repeated”. I mean things like listening and understanding what technology or business process failed and got you into this position in the first place. Was it someone just hitting the wrong switch? Or was it a culture of denial that did not allow the reality of Web performance to filter up to levels where real change could be implemented?
  5. Demand quantitative proof that this will never happen again. Load test. Monitor. Measure. Correlate data from multiple sources. Decide how Web performance information will be communicated inside your company. Make the data available so people can ask questions. Be prepared to defend your decisions with real information.

The most successful Web companies have done thing very well. It is the core of their success and it is what makes them ruthlessly strive for Web performance excellence.
These companies understood that in order to succeed they needed to create a culture where business performance and Web performance are the same thing.