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Net Prophet - by Dylan Tweney

March 22, 1999

Don't be a slow poke: Keep your site up to speed or lose visitors

Many companies' Web sites take too long to download, for a variety of reasons. Regardless of the cause, a slow site is frustrating and irritating for your customers.

As I wrote last month, site visitors experience browser download times as a quality-of-service issue. (See "Online service woes dog vendor sites and hinder Internet sales," at www.infoworld.com/printlinks.) And who can blame them? Being forced to wait for a site to gradually materialize onscreen is like getting stuck in a revolving door when you're trying to enter a store.

So let's take a look at some common site speed problems, and what you can do about them.

  • Excessive use of graphics. Despite years of exhortations by Web design gurus, many site builders still show a bizarre fascination with large, decorative graphics and huge image maps. Get over it! On the Web, graphics should be used only when they convey information more efficiently than text. Keep graphics file sizes small, and use text links or small navigation buttons instead of large image maps. And read works by design guru Edward R. Tufte for more guidance on the effective use of images.

  • Client-side Java. In principle, Java applets are a great way to add client-side processing to a Web page. But despite improvements in the speed of Netscape's and Microsoft's Java virtual machines, most Java applets still take too long to download and run. Worst of all is the use of Java in banner advertisements, where it provides zero benefit to the site's visitors. Java applets should be used sparingly and only when they add features that the end-user actually wants. Otherwise, keep your Java where it belongs: on the server.

  • Not enough server horsepower. Few commercial sites will tolerate this problem for long. In the short term, it's simple enough to throw more hardware at an underpowered site, particularly if its architecture includes a load-balancing component to spread traffic among multiple servers. Longer-term solutions may require investigating your site's operating system and application server platform.

  • Insufficient bandwidth. No, I'm not talking about the end-user's 14.4Kbps modem -- that's a fact of life. I'm talking about the pipes leading to your company's servers. If you don't want to pay for a dedicated T1 or T3 connection, outsource your site or situate your servers at a colocation facility, such as those offered by Exodus or Frontier Globalcenter.

  • Wrong ISP. If your Internet service provider doesn't have enough bandwidth or good peering arrangements with other network providers, users throughout the Internet will experience poor download speeds when accessing your site. Investigate your ISP's network architecture, and dump it if you're not getting the right quality of service.

  • Lack of end-user testing. Many site designers simply have no idea what the end-user experience is like. It's not enough to test your site on the company intranet, where bandwidth abounds. At the very least, your Web staff should test the site from home, via dial-up connections from a variety of ISPs, and by using a variety of browsers. For a more thorough approach, use a third-party performance-testing company, such as Keynote Systems (www.keynote.com) or Service Metrics (www.servicemetrics.com), which can tell you how your site is performing for users around the country and around the clock.

How do you keep your site up to speed? Write to me at dylan@infoworld.com.

Dylan Tweney (dylan@infoworld.com) has been covering the Internet since 1993. He edits InfoWorld's intranet and Internet-commerce product reviews.

Previous columns by Dylan Tweney

Microsoft takes aim at language barriers to business information
March 15, 1999

Finding fulfillment online isn't that easy.
March 8, 1999

Low-end I-Commerce tools can prove worthy, even for complex uses.
March 1, 1999

FreePC could usher in an era of free stuff and ceaseless advertising
February 22, 1999

Every column since August, 1997

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