The World Wider Web

It’s an unfortunate fact of life — the older one gets, the harder it is to keep the weight off. Apparently, this rule also applies to the Internet. As the Internet has matured, more and more Web sites have also had difficulty keeping the weight off.

Of Weight and Waiting

When I refer to weight, I’m referring to the total size of a Web page, in kilobytes (k). The lighter the page, the less time a user waits for the page to download. The heavier the page, the longer a user waits and the more likely it is that a user will simply give up and move on.

Many companies rely on content-delivery services, such as Akamai and Digital Island, to accelerate Web-site download speed. While these services do help, they can only do so much. The most affordable solution to a slow-loading Web site is a lightweight Web site.

On the Internet, Speed Is Relative

There is no speedometer on a Web browser, no universal way to determine whether a Web page can be downloaded quickly or slowly. To a user, a Web page is simply “faster” or “slower” than other Web pages.

For example, if your Web site takes 10 minutes to download, the user still may consider it fast if all other sites take half an hour. Conversely, if a site takes 10 seconds to download, it may be considered too slow if all other sites take half a second. So if you’re responsible for ensuring that your Web site can be downloaded quickly, you must pay attention to how your site measures up against the other major sites.

Have You Weighed Your Web Site Lately?

My company, Byte Level Research, recently weighed 150 major Web sites across several major industries. We found that while many sites were lean and mean, such as Lycos at 30k and Yahoo at 37k, the majority of sites were badly overweight, ranging from 80k to well over 400k.

Among the Heavier Sites Measured: 156k
Victoria’s Secret 173k
CNN 198k
JCPenney 451k*

To give you an idea of how weight affects download time, the Yahoo home page takes approximately five seconds to download using a 56k modem. Now compare that to the JCPenney site, which took us more than 30 seconds to download.

* Since we first conducted the study, JCPenney launched a redesigned site, one that eliminated nearly all complex scripting, resulting in a home page that now weighs less than 100k. JCPenney is now much more competitive with other sites, such as Target and Sears, but, more important, it is much more user-friendly.

If your site is overweight, here are just a few ways to trim the fat:

Weight-Loss Strategies

Beware of vertical creep. A key symptom of an overweight Web page is one that has expanded too far vertically. Vertical creep often happens when companies add product lines through mergers and acquisitions.

Remove unnecessary graphics. The average home page we measured used 28 graphics, a remarkably high number given that Yahoo uses only 4. But you don’t have to sacrifice graphics and functionality to develop a site that is faster than most other sites. For example, Crate & Barrel, one of the lightest sites measured, used 15 graphics on the home page. E*TRADE, also one of the faster sites, used 13.

Remove unnecessary functionality.Web sites are often heavy, not just because of graphics but because of scripting used to create graphics that move in response to your cursor. Scripting should be viewed with the same degree of scrutiny as graphics. Avoid gratuitous functionality and any feature that could be just as easily accomplished with plain old HTML text.

Setting a Weight Limit

Once your Web site has dropped enough kilobytes, it’s critical that you create procedures to ensure that it stays that way. If something is added, something else must come off. This discipline may be challenging to enforce initially, but it will prevent the inevitable flood of added products and announcements from weighing down your site.

All things being equal, the lightest sites will be the fastest sites. Your company can gain an edge on the competition simply by paying closer attention to those precious kilobytes.

Related reading