A(n HTTP) call to arms: Declare war on slow-loading, bulky websites

Dino Baskovic
Oct 12, 2017 · 6 min read

When Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria hit the Gulf Coast of the United States and across the Caribbean, like many concerned citizens I wanted to stay up to date. Lower Texas and Louisiana were still reeling from Hurricane Harvey, and Irma had swept across much of Florida, but the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico in particular took significant blows from Maria. Especially in Puerto Rico where infrastructure is weaker, power and mobile coverage across the territory was severely compromised.

So, I was at least pleased to see CNN.com launch a “lite” version of its website, particularly for those Puerto Ricans trying to consume news on low-power, less-than-reliable internet connections. (To be honest, CNN may have launched their lite version prior to Maria, but I first noticed it when they promoted it front and center on their home page.) Even as power and internet are still being restored, you can still find http://lite.cnn.io/en and a Spanish-language option online, and it’s everything I miss about the early days of the web — mostly text with modest formatting, super simple, and fast as hell.

Sure, island residents and rescue teams weren’t exactly glued to cable news in the hours and days after Maria’s landfall. Still, as services were slowly being restored, at least one national outlet thought to disable all display ads and extraneous formatting, better serving mobile users with dying batteries and low signal strength.

CNN isn’t the sole media site with a text-only version of the news; NPR maintains a “thin” version of its latest headlines, while dozens of other news websites and even social networks have made their own minimalist attempts at simpler, text-based alternatives for some time. Let’s face it: most websites, from public news portals to big e-commerce sites, are monstrous. As we head into 2018, what it takes on average to load a single web page into modern web browsers is getting out of hand, and is slowly destroying the user experience.

Consider the following three factors negatively impacting load times:

  1. Autoplay video won’t die.
  2. Average page size is rapidly increasing, regardless.
  3. Bloated CMSes (content management systems) rule with reckless abandon.

Web engineers get all this. Digital marketers, maybe. The casual user, not so much. They just wonder why “everything loads slow” on their new-ish device. Maybe it’s user error. Maybe it’s just a bad connection.

Or maybe, it’s completely avoidable aggravation.

The death march of autoplay video

This alone. While there is recent push back by the major browser makers, autoplay represents a sizeable chunk of ad dollars for many a publisher. Facebook is at least kind enough to let us disable autoplay (either by default or absent wi-fi), but how many users even know to do this? Pinterest, Tumblr and others followed suit, but autoplay configuration between browser and mobile-app versions varies by platform. Remember, even small, inline video can weigh hundreds or thousands of kilobytes, wreaking havoc on limited data plans and/or slower connections.

(In conducting research for this post, when I revisited a February 2017 article profiling Jack Cheng’s “Slow Web vs. Fast Web” movement, a popup autoplay video ad for the “Suburbicon” trailer slowed my browsing to a crawl, as did an email sign-up popover featuring… Al Franken? Look, I understand the need for publishers to pay the bills, but not at the expense of basic usability, please.)

Average page size matters

Speaking of bytes, think about what it takes for your browser to load, assemble and display a single web page. Twenty years ago, between primitive HTML/JavaScript/CSS and lower-resolution images, your run-of-the-mill page weighed in at roughly 100 kilobytes. Plus in those days, websites loaded assets primarily from the same server, and were either served up statically or generated dynamically via the rudimentary CGI, PHP, Classic ASP or ColdFusion of the day.

Fast forward to today. Ever try loading one of those multi-part “where-are-they-now?” celebrity galleries that takes forever to load, even on a new laptop? Thanks (and no thanks) to advances in web programming and how web developers now code, a single page can measure megabytes, making HTTP calls to dozens of third-party servers and loading literally hundreds of assorted assets. All because you wanted to see a small map or something.

The layperson never understands this, taking for granted their souped-up rig on fat pipes in the big city — which, by the way, does not represent the average internet user. And get this: Wired reported in 2016 that the average web page was now (then) the size of the original ‘Doom’ video game. (That’s just a single web page, not an entire site.)

At least Flash has fizzled, thankfully…

When a CMS really makes a mess

I am a big fan of WordPress, having used it to blog and build client websites for more than a decade. By the OEM’s own estimate, WordPress powers nearly 30% of all public websites. I also am a huge critic of the CMS — or rather, small businesses, freelancers and agencies that launch utterly simplistic “brochureware” using WordPress needlessly, or Drupal, or some other content management system that take more server resources than it’s worth.

In candid discussions with fellow web designers and developers, as much as we love tinkering with the CMSes, CSS and JavaScript frameworks of the day (far too many to namedrop here), we all admit they are mushrooming by the minute. We can barely keep up with myriad code and package dependencies, let alone try to explain to paying, non-technically savvy clients why we need to produce more and more syntax to collect the same exact form data we did a decade ago with half the resource tax. To put it another way, we are building Sherman tanks to go grocery shopping, because we sold ourselves as engineers that we need to.

We don’t. But we can do better, and be faster.

Brands, publishers and developers are increasingly taking web speed seriously as a bona fide industry standard, not just as a best practice or a nice idea.

There is a growing movement away from what Cheng named “Fast Web” sites in favor of simpler, “Slow Web” experiences. (Pardon any confusion for this post, but Cheng thinks of Fast Web sites as being bulky and frenetic while Slow Web sites are the polar opposite of information overload. Think of how Instapaper strips page content to its bare minimum for better readability. Now imagine if every web were were as simple. Blissful, no?)

Throughout the developer community, there is a dedicated faction of DRY (Don’t Repeat Yourself), KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid), less-is-more-minded coders that favor “wicked fast” and aspire to be the “fastest.” The AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages) Project aims to keep blog posts and serial web content fast-loading and distraction-free. CDN (Content Delivery Networks) are greatly helping take a load off, literally. And there is countless data to support how slow-loading websites stunt usability and hurt the bottom line.

Users should demand faster web performance. While websites must also be reliably functional and secure, so too must sites load as quickly as possible. This is also incumbent upon both end users and the IT industry at large to adopt more modern, slimmer browsers and web technologies while respecting the fact that not all everyone can upgrade their software and hardware with every change of the tides. (Or, say, people on the ground in the midst of a natural disaster.) As consumers vote with their wallets, so too should users count with their clicks in this exact respect.

A faster web can mean a simpler one. We may never get back to the text-line web of decades ago, one step removed from CLI (command-line interface) pre-Mosaic, pre-Netscape. Nor should we, really; GUI (graphical user interface) is sorta great. Still, the web industry need to pull the reigns back on deadening autoplay video, cumbersome code bases and the like. Faster-loading sites mean a better user experience, and ultimately a better web for all.

Help people affected by Hurricane Irma and Maria by visiting redcross.org, calling 1-800-RED CROSS or texting the word IRMA or the word MARIA to 90999 to make a $10 donation.

Special thanks to Andy King for writing Speed Up Your Site: Web Site Optimization, a book I’ve had on my shelf since it first published in 2003. Many of its lessons still apply to this very day. Gzip and cache your content, kids!

Dino Baskovic

Written by

Digital wise guy. HTML junkie since 1995. Adjunct professor; I teach PR and tech, yet I distrust most PR people and most tech. Best youth soccer coach ever.

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