Need for Speed

So you’ve just finished the big website redesign. Your designers and engineers have put in hundreds of hours, you’ve quelled three rebellions in the IT department, and you’ve put the site through extensive QA testing. Now you’re ready to switch on the site and pop open the bubbly, right?

Not so fast. That fancy new design may look great to you, over the company T-3 line, but your customers may have a less glowing assessment. For those with dial-up connections — 84 percent of the U.S. Internet market, according to Zona Research — big graphics and webpages with lots of data translate into slow-loading pages. Even with good connections, the vagaries of Net traffic mean that your site may be more sluggish in Chicago than Los Angeles. If your biggest customer is in Illinois, you’d better understand its experience, or risk losing its business. Zona estimates that companies lost $21 billion in potential online revenues last year — more than 40 percent of total online sales — due to frustrated customers prematurely leaving their sites.

Short of flying to Chicago and renting a bunch of Net connections to test the user experience, your best (and cheapest) bet is to get your hands on website performance measurement services. For as little as $100 a month, you can find out how your site is performing — in any part of the world. A site-monitoring firm will keep tabs on customer perspectives by simulating the actions of an actual visitor: downloading pages, filling out forms, making purchases, and so on. It does this by having its automated software agents run the test at specified intervals from multiple locations. They will also test a competitor’s performance, which is as important as the actual customer experience. The results are collected in reports that you can view over the Internet.

That knowledge can have a big impact. Consider online broker Ameritrade (AMTD). After it clocked the average time it took to purchase stock on its site at a woeful 37.44 seconds, it turned to leading monitoring companies Mercury Interactive (MERQ) and Keynote Systems (KEYN) for help in overhauling its trading processes. Armed with their stats on where bottlenecks were occurring, Ameritrade spent two years improving its network infrastructure, working with its Internet service provider to streamline data delivery, and redesigning its pages to load faster. According to Keynote, Ameritrade cut the average time it takes to get from “buy” to “order confirmed” to a mere 5.57 seconds.

Another vital service that performance measurement companies provide is alerting you by e-mail or pager when your site goes down and helping you locate problems in a hurry. For example, when MSN.com went offline in January due to a problem with its domain name system server, Keynote sounded the alarm and pinpointed the source of the problem within minutes.

Ultimately, streamlining the performance of your website boils down to a simple formula: Plan your changes, implement them, measure the results — then repeat as necessary. FedEx (FDX), for example, follows that strategy on a monthly basis, fine-tuning features as needed. “Everything we build for the website now takes performance into consideration on the front end,” says Claire Ruddy, FedEx.com’s marketing manager. To keep customers coming back to your site, you need to do the same. Online, speed doesn’t kill — it sells. So you’d better step on the gas.

Download Business 2.0’s Performance Makeover to see how FedEx.com redesigned their site.

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Link: Need for Speed

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Need for Speed

Hope for the future

Hope for the future: A couple of recent news stories point to the incredible resourcefulness — and speedy learning — of young people encountering the Internet for the first time. The Financial Times reported late last week on Indian street children discovering free Internet terminals placed on the streets of Delhi by a researcher. According to the story, these kids figure out how to browse the Web within minutes, without any instruction at all. One group of children even figured out how to disable the monitoring application that the researcher was using to track the kids’ activities on the free kiosks. What’s interesting is how quickly the children gained sophisticated computer knowledge by working in more-or-less cooperative groups.

Somewhat more frightening, but still inspiring, is the story of Marcus Arnold, a 15-year-old who became one of the top legal experts on an advice site, despite having no legal training whatsoever. In this long but thoughtful NY Time Magazine piece, Michael Lewis talks to Arnold and his family, and meditates on how the Internet enables kids like Marcus Arnold to jump out of their physical circumstances and grab opportunities that would be otherwise unavailable to them. It’s worth a read.

Hope for the future

Good news for California citizens

Good news for California citizens: Now you can be notified by pager when your neighborhood is scheduled for a rolling blackout. “Oh goody,” millions of power-hungry Californians are no doubt thinking. “Now I can plan ahead for those enforced hours of idleness and darkness when the power cuts out.” Provided, of course, that you remembered to charge up your pager or cell phone before they cut you off. Visit California’s state government portal to sign up.

Good news for California citizens

Slim down that homepage

Do you know how much your website’s home page weighs? The question may sound ridiculous: How can something composed of evanescent electrons and photons “weigh” anything? But in the parlance of Web design, “weight” is shorthand for how big a webpage is, in kilobytes.

A “heavy” Webpage will take a long time to download, particularly if your users are employing slow modems rather than snappy broadband connections (and 84 percent of Internet users are still dialing in at 56 kilobits per second or slower, according to Zona Research). “Lightweight” pages appear quickly, regardless of how fast the user’s connection is. Consider the difference in speed between a lightweight site like Google (12KB), and a really big one like Nickelodeon 638KB). On Nickelodeon’s homepage, graphics and Flash animations add greatly to the overall page download time.

Web research firm Jupiter Media Metrix recommends that webpages weigh no more than 40KB to 50KB. At that size, it will take about 8 to 10 seconds for your page to appear over a 56-kbps modem connection — about the limit of most people’s patience. Any slower, and you risk losing customers as they give up in disgust and click away to another site before yours has even finished loading. Add the fact that an increasing number of people are browsing the Web using very low-bandwidth wireless connections, and you’ve got an even more urgent need to keep your webpages small and lightweight.

The surprising thing is how few websites actually follow this directive. A small firm called Byte Level Research, recently did a study of homepage weights at 300 top websites (they’re the source of the home page weights mentioned above). According to Byte Level’s study, the average webpage weighs 91KB — twice the recommended weight. In some industries, average weights are much higher — for instance, media, automotive, and health/beauty websites average around 150KB.

The culprit, in most cases, is graphics. Those images may give your site a slick and polished appearance, but they are slowing it down and contributing to customer frustration. Many companies have built graphics-rich websites without concern for how long those pages take to download. “Much of this was in hopes that the broadband revolution will change everything,” says Byte Level president John Yunker. “It will, but not anytime soon.” Until more Internet users have cable modems or DSL connections, webpage weight counts.

It’s important to note that a page’s weight includes all the graphics, buttons, HTML code, and JavaScript code on the page, as well as the basic page text. So a relatively graphics-free webpage can still weigh a lot if it’s got a lot of code hidden behind the scenes (as, for instance, Business 2.0’s webpages do).

What’s a company to do? Simple: Set a weight limit. “The best way to arrive at a weight limit is to understand your site’s weight in comparison with your direct competitors and the Internet as a whole,” says Yunker. A reasonable limit for most sites, he says, is 70KB.

Once you’ve set the limit, enforce it: Make sure that site redesigns or new content don’t push your page over the top. Shrink graphics, delete them, or eliminate extraneous code as needed to keep your pages petite. Do that, and you’ll be going a long way toward keeping your website speedy and competitive.

Link: Slim down that homepage

Link broken? Try the Wayback Machine.

Slim down that homepage

P2P prosecution

A Georgia State IT administrator is being prosecuted for installing P2P software on college computers. The university says that in so doing, he robbed them of more than $400,000 worth of bandwidth. This, even though the software primarily ran during the December break, when the computers were otherwise idle and unused. If you use a P2P distributed-computing application like SETI@home, could you be vulnerable to the same kind of prosecution? Let’s hope the court sees the ridiculousness of this case and doesn’t set a dangerous precedent. Granted, companies (and universities) have the right to set and enforce policies regarding the use of the computing hardware and networking bandwidth they own. But criminal prosecution? Get a grip.

P2P prosecution

Webvan going under

I have to admit I didn’t call this one: Webvan is going out of business, making official what observers have been speculating for months. In the two years since it got started, Webvan burned through about a billion dollars of investors’ money (OK, it was actually $800 million, but whats a few hundred mil between friends?) and had almost exactly nothing to show for it at the end of the day.

How anyone can spend that much money and still not emerge a major market force, I don’t know. Back when they were getting started, I predicted Webvan would eventually give FedEx a run for its money as a rapid-delivery service, capable of bringing everything from fresh eggs to Playstations right to your door. At the time, that seemed like a critical piece of the e-commerce pie. As it turns out, FedEx and UPS are doing just fine handling deliveries for the few dot-coms still in business, and for the rest of the nation’s economy, well, it’s still pretty much owned by the same giants as ever.

Webvan going under