The tech behind the USA TODAY NETWORK’s EU experience
The USA TODAY NETWORK launched a new experience at the end of May for users in the European Union. This experience, referred to as the USA TODAY NETWORK EU Experience, caught the eye of a few people on Twitter and Reddit because it’s fast. Really fast. This was not news to those developing the experience; there were quite a few conversations among the dev team about the raw performance.
Please note this post is NOT a guide for GDPR compliance and should not be considered legal advice. I’m just a developer, not a lawyer. This post only explains the tech stack behind the USA TODAY NETWORK’S EU Experience. Talk to a doctor if you experience any network requests lasting longer than four hours as this may be a sign of a more serious problem.
But there is an even bigger factor that did not get as much attention: the features. The EU Experience has very few features. Every feature added to a site adds to the size and level of complexity of the page. Features often have dependent features and that can make the weight of a change even heavier. For example, adding subsection index pages (“fronts” as we usually call them) means adding navigation to move between the home page and those subsections. Just adding a simple feature like subsections causes the page size to grow, even if the feature can be added using just HTML, CSS and server-side code.
So the question becomes: What features does a site really need? That’s a very subjective question with no clear right answer. The solution is to measure which features get used so a number can be attached to each feature. That allows a site to decide with data, instead of just subjective feelings, which features add value and which just slow things down. Analytics services make this possible. On the standard experience, we take the performance hit of loading and running these scripts because the data they generate can guide us to building a faster site. The EU Experience collects no data, so decisions about feature development will be driven by the usage patterns of visitors to the standard experience.
And yes, ads play a part in the speed difference. Just running an ad blocker on a site is not enough to make the site as fast as the USA TODAY NETWORK EU Experience, as many people pointed out. It is the features of a site that play the biggest role in page speed in most cases. Debating the ethics, laws and tech of personalized ads is way out of scope of this post, and not something I’m qualified to write about, so I’m not going to try.
The EU Experience isn’t a new site; it’s a new theme powered by the USA TODAY NETWORK’s new responsive web framework. We can use this new platform to deliver stories in various formats: from our full featured mobile website to AMP, and, coming soon, Facebook Instant Articles and Apple News. This enables us to build new experiences and support new platforms faster and more consistently.
Building on this platform means the EU Experience is available on all 100+ websites within the USA TODAY NETWORK. It is served by the same containers, in the same kubernetes cluster, with the same CDN as our traditional web experience. The architecture and delivery is the same, but the amount of features is drastically different.