The Silent Web Site Killer

Bob Dumouchel

There is an insidious web site killer just waiting to ensnarl your visitors and turn them against your business. Not only is this traffic killer silent but it is also invisible thanks to the technology that speeds up your browser. This dastardly villain is the slow loading landing page! Hard to believe but this is absolutely true! Let’s explore how you can deal with this dangerous foe.

To understand the damage a slow page load can have, consider the impact on the web experience. When a page load time exceeds the patience of the visitor, they terminate the visit and your business loses the value of that traffic and maybe more. As people get better and better at navigating the web, this patience period gets shorter. Ask yourself what you do when a page does not load within the time period that you expect it to serve. I bet the answer is you hit the stop button or just click on the next available link. In the Adwords World this is a disaster because the click got charged to account when the person clicked but the value to your business happens when they read the page, which is AFTER the page loads.

Is this happening to you? How do you know? When we install an AdWords Account one item that we always recommend is that they implement Google Analytics at the same time. One side benefit of this is that you can detect lost traffic, most of which can be traced back to a slow page load problem. Adwords and Analytics operate separately and it is this difference that can help you detect this problem. In Adwords the click is counted when the user clicks on the ad, but Analytics counts the click when the java script at the bottom of the page executes. This is why you should install Analytics at the bottom of the page because you want the entire page to load before you count the visitor. There is actually a special type of implementation of Analytics that will allow you to even more accurately measure this process. You can execute the analytic tracking code once at the start of the page and again at the end. I would love to take credit for discovering this ability in Analytics but I actually learned it from a book written by Brian Clifton titled Advanced Web Metrics. If you need to do this it is one page 135-136. For the scope of this article we are just interested in the fact that it happened, but Brian’s method will actually record the actual load time.

At any rate with Analytics implemented and your URL tagging turned on, set your date to last month and look at how much paid traffic you have from Google. You can get to this data by clicking on the “Traffic Source” then “Search Engines” then click on “Paid.” Next you need to run a “Campaign Report” to get your invalid clicks. Invalid clicks are clicks that Google removed from your Adwords count because of suspect patterns in the traffic. To set up the report select the Campaign Report and then click on the “Add or Remove Columns” link in the Advanced Setting section and check the box for “Invalid Clicks”. Add this to the Adwords traffic and subtract the total from the Analytics count. If Adwords is higher you might have a page load problem. If the difference is small you should not be overly concerned, but if your traffic is expensive and the difference in these numbers is large you need to really start digging.

If you have a problem, the next step is to figure out what to do about it. Well my friend Mr. Obvious says how about making the page faster. That is a really good idea but first you have to decide how you want to do this. The general rule of thumb in web design is that the fancier and prettier the page the bigger it is, and hence the slower it loads. What is the patience threshold of your audience? Well that varies from site to site and there is no actual answer to this question. I start becoming concerned when it exceed 3 seconds because studies seem to indicate that the average page load is in the range of 2-3 seconds and the patience threshold of your audience is probably conditioned by their other web experiences. Not a perfect estimate but it gives us a starting point.

Page optimization is outside the scope of this article and could fill a very large book. My advice is that if you have an overly large page then call your web designer and have a heart to heart chat because they need to put their design on a bandwidth diet. They should be an expert in trimming the size of the page without impacting the web experience and if they cannot do that you probably want to go looking for one that can. We recently worked with a site that exhibited this problem and the estimated page load time for a standard broadband connection was 17 seconds, way beyond the pain level of all but the most determined visitors. The page was beautiful and had all sorts of function but it lost one third of its total traffic not exactly the result you want when you are paying good money to create that traffic. In this case we estimated the cost of this slow page load at $2,600 a month and that will pay for lots of page optimization.

At the beginning of this article I stated that this killer was a silent one and I want to explain that because this is something even the most basic user can track. All browsers are designed to be as fast as possible and download a page and especially its graphics are an area that all browsers are optimized for. They do this by not downloading everything they need on every page. They use a cache on your local drive to store the things they have already downloaded. This way, they can increase the speed of a page load because the slowest part of the page load is the download. By saving items on the local drive the second load of the page is lightening fast. Since you probably have looked at your web site before, what you see most of the time is the page reloading not from the site but from your local drive. This is why the load seems fast to you and it is also how the real performance is hidden from you. Use the refresh function within your browser to see what the first page load looks like to the outside world, it might scare you.

Another area where a slow page can hurt you is in your quality score within AdWords. While Google is somewhat mysterious about the details of what goes into Quality Score the page load time is specifically called out on this. If you hover over the icon next to the keywords quality score the pop up will show page load as a specific part of the quality score. The problem with this is that so far we have not found a way to get to this data other than to hover over each icon. The data elements of the quality score are not in the report options. We have also noticed that this feature appears to be marginal in its accuracy.

A page load should take no longer than is absolutely necessary and the trade-off between functionality and speed should be a deliberate decision not an accident.