Why website speed tests are so important

A fair number of webmasters may be tempted to conclude that publishing online has become an unmanageable process, at least for the solo entrepreneur and the small business.

With scripting, content management systems, server-side programming, analytics, search engine optimization, and multimedia involved, it can seem like every article and page requires twice as much work.

Those who have been publishing online the longest recognize a couple of truths in these concerns.

One of the most basic is the admonition of the plumber to the engineer: The more you overthink the design, the easier it is to stop up the drain.

This is sound advice in an unexpectedly wide variety of human affairs, not the least of which is technology.

Far too many so-called “solutions” in technology only end up generating more complexity and more detail to navigate. This is among the many reasons so few web sites consistently attract growing audiences.

The web can be a frustrating place for many people.

Slower computers, low-cost phones and budget mobile devices don’t have the horsepower necessary to display web pages with auto-play videos, animation, pop-ups, blinking ads and several hundred lines of scripting to support drop-down menus, gee-whiz effects and all manner of things that serve only to get in the way.

What audiences want is speed or fast loading time.

They want web pages that respond and don’t take forever to download, according to the hosting and performance site such as WebHostingBuddy.com.

They don’t want web pages that fail to download completely, as many do.

It has yet to be demonstrated that gizmos and gimmicks are an effective substitute for this most basic of web site features.

The question a devil’s advocate might ask is:

What does a website gain by all these gimmicks if the readers can’t even see what the author published in the first place?

It’s a perfectly reasonable question.

It is one that can be answered with some rather simple website tests.

Among the questions a web site owner should be asking is:

How do audiences experience my website?

If the website is slow and unresponsive, that could be the reason for slow traffic growth.

It could also be the reason for a lack of conversions if the website is selling a product or service.

Questions like those should be at the top of any webmaster’s priority list.

Knowing how audiences see your website is crucial.

It is impossible to evaluate your progress or interpret your analytics if you have no idea what your audience is experiencing.

How do you gain this critical knowledge?

You start with a website speed test like the one on Dotcom-Tools.

Analytics 

The key tool used by webmasters to evaluate the traffic arriving to their website is an analytics platform.

This software parses a website’s traffic and error logs to determine which pages get the most traffic, what visitors do when they arrive on a website, where those visitors are coming from, and numerous other pieces of important data.

The problem with analytics software is it rarely tells a webmaster why a visitor behaved a particular way.

If a visitor bounces, for example, meaning they arrived at the site and then immediately left, analytics may not provide any clues at all as to why.

Worse, they might arrange the data in such a way so as to make the webmaster believe significant numbers of people are bouncing for false reasons.

This can be titanically expensive for developers, as they may invest dozens or hundreds of man-hours fixing something that isn’t broken.

The truth is a speed test produces the data analytics don’t.

A speed test will demonstrate, for example, how a website performs as opposed to simply describing how a website behaves. For most this is a subtle distinction, but it is a crucial missing piece when it comes to knowing the why in addition to the how.

Developmental Testing 

As a website is constructed, its basic elements can be divided into three broad categories.

The first is simple readable text, which for all intents and purposes has no effect on website speeds since the bandwidth required to transmit text across a network is minimal.

The second category includes images and video.

These kinds of elements are a little more problematic, as they often require many times more bandwidth to transmit.

In the early days of the web, having a great number of images or videos was said to make a website heavy as each page load would involve moving a considerable number of bytes from server to client.

The third category is logic, which for almost all web pages means scripting languages like JavaScript, according to the web design site WebHostingBuddy.com.

Unlike text or images, scripting languages have the ability to lock up a site so it doesn’t load at all.

While it may seem strange that the website works properly for you and then fails when others visit it, you have to understand there are potentially thousands of hardware, software and network configurations on the web that you can’t competently replicate when testing your site.

While it is true that a speed test won’t necessarily highlight these problems, what it will do is allow developers to build your site with a baseline speed comparison established right at the beginning.

Like the use of a website debugger or the use of software profiling applications, the speed test can be used alongside your logging facilities to perform serialized A/B testing on every minor iteration of your site’s design.

If a change is made that causes your site’s speed to deviate too far from your target baseline, then you will know exactly what element caused the degradation in performance and make the appropriate adjustments.

Using tools like these to diagnose problems after the site is built is like trying to find a small hole in a piece of burlap.

What inevitably ends up happening is the site has to be broken down into its component parts and tested piece by piece.

This can be mammothly expensive and inefficient. Better to have the testing facilities available from the beginning and save the time and expense.

Internal and External Linking 

Everyone knows what an external link is. We click on them all the time.

Far fewer people know what an internal link is.

Internal linking is when a video, for example, is embedded in a website but actually served from a computer other than the one that serves the page itself.

Web developers have grown to use internal linking more and more as the web has progressed from a mostly textual medium to a more logic, video and image-based medium.

The reasons for this are numerous, but the most important reason is because developers often require services, like video streaming, chat, moderated comments, and advertising, which can’t be practically developed on their own.

Internal linking sounds great in theory, but can be difficult to manage well in practice.

The reason is because every server other than the one actually managing the domain and page being accessed increases the complexity and risk for a website. These risks and complex associations compound, often exponentially, in some cases. Often the only way to see how internal linking is affecting a site is to perform diagnostics on the site’s performance.

A website speed test can determine, for example, which servers are causing the longest delays.

If a photo gallery includes shots from another site, and that domain is underperforming, the speed test will be able to highlight the problem and potentially give a developer a way to improve their performance without significant additional expense or work.

What the speed test prevents is an incorrect conclusion as to the reason a page is loading slowly. It is not only impractical to presume a site can be evaluated in real time by its developers or visitors, it also produces inconsistent results, none of which can be relied on for future development.

The key to obtaining actual value from spending on web development is to address the right problems with the right solutions. This is only one of four possible outcomes.

Analytics alone might highlight the right problem, but give developers justification for applying the wrong solution.

Trying to evaluate a website’s performance in real-time is almost certain to highlight the wrong problem, for which the right solution is valueless.

Having no information will alert developers to the wrong problem and likely lead to the wrong solution, which is practically guaranteed to exacerbate problems with the site, leading to more expense and more wasted time.

While it might seem like magical thinking to suppose that a simple speed test of a website can produce so much valuable information, you have to remember the test is only one tool in a vast selection of applications and software platforms designed to produce factual data.

A commitment to ongoing development, testing, and quality control is also necessary.

How to respond to the information is the responsibility of an experienced and knowledgeable developer.

The good news is a complete set of information is far less likely to invite wrong conclusions, and that’s an advantage that any developer should seek.

 

This blog article is courtesy of guest blogger Matt Schmitz, web performance engineer, at Dotcom Monitor, a website services company.