Website speed and functionality
In a world where more customers than ever engage with retailers and the products they are selling online, it is more important than ever that retailers ensure a high level of functionality on their websites and this includes monitoring the overall speed a website operates at. According to Google, the average time it takes to load a landing page is 22 seconds, yet up to 53% of people will exit a landing page if it takes longer than 3 seconds to load. Google’s research also indicated that different parts of websites will take varying times to load, for example the visual content above a landing page’s main “blurb” can take up to 7 seconds to load. Google’s research also suggests a relationship of direct proportionality between page load time and “bounce rates” which is when visitors leave a website. Other research suggests that almost 50% of users expect a website to load within 2 seconds, and the majority of websites that failed to load within 3 seconds are abandoned before the content can load.
Slow website speed can irritate prospective customers, and cause visitors to spend less time overall on a website or leave before making a purchase. The website and how it loads will deliver the first impression of a brand to a user, so slower loading speed can result in a more negative impression being created. Website functionality can also have a negative impact on a brand if people report website functionality in product reviews, or if poor user experiences are shared via social media or word of mouth.
Low performing websites are identified and monitored by major search engines like Google, and are placed lower down in the search results, resulting in lower visibility for certain websites. Google has recently extended this ranking to pages with mobile versions, meaning higher visibility for retailers with high functioning mobile and desktop websites.
Conversely, high performance websites can result in higher customer satisfaction levels, lower bounce rates, higher conversion rates, higher traffic and higher rankings in organics searches. Speed of page loading and overall operation of a website has been studied in terms of how it impacts on sales, and a report by Hubspot suggests that even a delay of 1 second in a page loading can reduce conversions by as much as 7%. If you consider this from the perspective of a high performance website, like Amazon, this 7% can add up to as much as $1.6 billion in annual sales.
What factors affect website and page loading speed?
Website operating speed can be impacted by numerous factors, including whether a web administrator is using a Content Delivery Network or CDN. A CDN is a network of web servers that provide content. When a host uses a single server to distribute content, all requests are send to be processed by the same hardware. With a CDN, numerous servers are used to distribute content, resulting in quicker results for content distribution. Additionally, when users are located geographically far away from the server, this can increase the load time for certain data. CDN systems route requests to the nearest server, and in this way the data is processed much more efficiently, which results in quicker response times on websites.
Images & Graphics
The functionality of a website in terms of speed can be impacted by image size and image optimisation. Images and graphics take up more storage space compared to text files. As such, a lot of graphics and images on a website can result in longer loading times for pages. At the same time though, more images and more graphics lead to higher levels of customer satisfaction and engagement. As a result of this, web administrators are looking at ways to use larger files, without these increasing the load time for web pages. Tools like ImageOptim and Kraken can compress images, so that they take up less space and therefore result in less load time, without compromising the quality of the images seen. Otherwise, HTML responsive images can be adjusted according to user display preferences, which can also cut load time.
The number of plugins (which add specific features to a website) can increase the time it takes for individual pages to load. Web administrators seeking to reduce the time it takes to load pages and to improve website functionality in general should consider deleting plugins that are no longer in use, or those that have been subsequently updated. Performance tests will show which plugins are slowing down a website the most, and this information can be used to decide which plugins to remove and which ones to keep. Additionally, care should be taken to ensure that the latest versions of plugins are in use. Sometimes older versions of plugins can slow a website down.
The use of compression tools, including Gzip can speed up the function of a website, because these compress certain files and reduce the number of requests that need to be processed at any one time. This reduces the amount of time the server must spend processing certain types of requests.
Different sizes and types of web fonts used on a website can have an adverse impact on the speed at which the website operates at. Web fonts can create additional HTTP requests and these can take the server a lot of time to process, thus impacting the speed at which the website operates. This is known as web font traffic. Web font traffic can be reduced where the variety of styles and fonts used on a website is kept to a minimum, and where plugins and apps are used to deal with web font traffic more efficiently.
Prefetching and pre-rendering are advanced methods of website operation, where links and data can be loaded in advance of a user request. There are always circumstances where a website can “detect” in advance what actions a user is likely to take on a website. A simple example is where items are added to an electronic basket – the website can then “detect” and deduce that the user is likely to visit the web basket page. When this “prediction” is made in advance of the actual “click”, prefetching and pre-rendering works by starting the loading process for these requests before the user actually makes the request. This means that the user experiences less delay in actually loading some types of information.
Where a website uses a high volume of “redirects” this slows the website operation down. Redirects can be used where there are “dead” links that would otherwise direct users to out of date content or error messages. Dead links are fixed through the addition of a redirect, however, redirects themselves can impose a lot of pressure on the server. Again, there are apps and plugins that will highlight redirects and show how time consuming each one is, so the web administrator can decide which redirects are the most essential and which can be removed.
Websites can be speeded up by using website caching. This is where the current version of the website is stored and used in the process of presenting it to users. This reduces the overall demand on the server to “render” the website in response to every single user request, and this in turn speeds up the operation of the website. Different platforms use different tools and plugins to deliver caching facilities, and to ensure optimal performance web administrators should ensure the latest version of the platform is installed and that caching plugins are reviewed, tested and updated regularly.
Cost versus aesthetics
All of these techniques have the potential to create a faster, more responsive website. However, retailers need to be mindful of the cost that is involved in implementing a range of methods aimed at generating a website that works more quickly. Retailers also need to be mindful of the fact that sometimes the creation of a faster website impacts on webpage aesthetics. In general more aesthetically pleasing websites, with richer content and graphics take a longer time to load, so in many cases, speeding a website up means removing or compressing some graphics and images. Retailers therefore need to strike a balance between having a fast website and having a website that contains enough images and graphics to appeal to their customer base.
When does a retailer need a faster website?
Sacrificing aesthetics, in favour of speed isn’t always the best solution for retailers looking to improve their conversion rates, as speed of page loading and usability are not the only factors that impact a customers’ experience of using a website. Some retailers’ customer bases prefer high quality images and graphics, particularly where the products on offer are in the clothing, fashion or homeware niches. Studies that have ranked online retailers across North America including the “US Top 1000 Internet Retailer” list compiled by Digital Commerce 360, which is said to encompass up to 95% of the US e-commerce market, suggest that retailers at the top of the scale, generally have faster websites. On the other hand though comparisons between top performing e-commerce retailers revealed much variability in terms of website functionality and speed. One comparison suggested that while the average load time of the 1000 websites included in the “top 1000” was 3.88 seconds, 4 of the “top 10” websites took longer than this to fully load.
Experts have tried to understand when it is appropriate to sacrifice speed to produce a more aesthetically pleasing website, or where it is more appropriate to sacrifice aesthetics in order to ensure a faster website. For example, one retailer selling products within the clothing sector tested whether condensing images on their website by 50%, instead of 40% (thereby speeding up the website) would impact their conversion rates. It was found that this intervention alone, increased conversions by 24%. On the other hand, another clothing retailer introduced image compression and found that its conversion rates rapidly dropped by 60%, presumably because their customer base preferred higher quality images and graphics.
So, what is the answer to striking an appropriate balance between website speed, and aesthetics? Most experts agree that every retailer needs a solution that is unique to its brand, and takes account of its customer base, its sales performance and how user-friendly its website is. This is known as mapping “website performance DNA”. When a website’s performance DNA is “mapped”, experts measure visitors’ interactions with every page, and every stage of the user experience, from the landing page to the check out basket, if there is an online shop. This is sometimes referred to as the “customer journey”, which encompasses every step a customer can take to research products, product descriptions, reviews, price and eventually making a purchase.
A retailers’ performance DNA can be tested to improve user experiences, page loading speed and sales conversion rates. By measuring these factors before and after every change, interventions that don’t work can quickly be reversed, thus limiting the damage any mistakes can cause.
Measuring how a website is performing compared to other websites selling similar products can also give valuable insights into how a retailers’ website can be improved. One study looked at how Walmart’s website compared to Amazon’s website in terms of page loading speed alone. The study found that Amazon’s website performed faster, on average by 1.68 seconds. The authors of the study then suggested that if Walmart was able to close their speed performance “gap” of 1.68 seconds, it could improve their sales and ultimately their profits.
When building a picture of a website, or a competitor’s website, price monitoring software can be incredibly helpful. This software tells a retailer what price competitors are selling similar or identical products at, and provides a breakdown of shipping costs and other variables like discounts “out of stock” status. All of this information can be used to decide how successful individual competitors are, and what level of risk they pose a given retailer in terms of competition.
A useful approach for retailers considering whether they are in need of a faster website, is to look at individual pages as opposed to the whole website, and consider the case for making each individual page faster. This approach is likely to save money and it can help to strike a balance between giving customers rich experiences through graphics and high quality images, and delivering information at an appropriate speed to ensure conversion rates and sales are maintained. This approach is particularly useful for retailers that have developed some high tech solutions to common customer problems. Nike, for example has developed the “Nike Fit” app, which takes a new, more scientific approach to the measurement of feet. It recognises that feet can be different sizes and it makes personalised recommendations for users as to what size of shoes they should purchase. Traditionally, there was a “one size fits all” approach to feet measurement, but with the Nike app, it is possible that a larger size in one product can be recommended, alongside a recommendation for a smaller size in another product for the same person. Solutions like Nike Fit often require graphics and high quality images to illustrate the functionality of the technology, so rather than compress images and graphics to make this Nike Fit app page faster, it is better to make the decision to include graphics and images on one page, and focus on making pages where sales and conversions occur, like product descriptions pages, faster.
Why a faster website benefits some retailers more than others
As we have seen, faster websites are generally associated with brands that perform better and make more sales conversions compared to their competitors. Faster websites generally result in lower bounce rates and more convenience for the customer. However, making websites perform faster can often necessitate the removal or compression of images and graphics on a website, which can sometimes alienate customers too. In some instances, for example, particularly in the case of clothing, fashion and homeware retailers, removing images and graphics does more harm than good - actually repelling customers as opposed to improving conversion rates.
As such, improving website functionality requires retailers to understand their customers’ holistic experience of using their websites, identifying specific webpages that are critical to conversion rates and sales, and delivering a fast experience on these specific webpages, where it matters most, rather than just focusing on general website speed and performance.