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Even Faster Websites

Brad Hook - Friday, October 29, 2010

The aroma of freshly ground coffee greeted delegates arriving for Web Directions South 2010. As one of the industry's most anticipated events it was with excitement that I planned out my schedule for the day. There was everything from digital publishing and design interactions using storytelling through to HTML5 and CSS3. But appropriately, after four coffees, the afternoon session I found myself jittering towards was "Even Faster Websites" by Steve Souder.

Steve is seriously nerdy. His obsession with finding the most efficient way of performing tasks become apparent when he recounted his university days and how he calculated the number of steps across a range of different routes to the computer room. Of course it wasn't just a case of straight step count: Steve would have factored in corridor bandwidth, student traffic levels, server load (i.e. his leg energy) and the numerous other considerations a great mind such as his might take into account. I would have been more concerned about my search visibility and ranking whilst passing by the female dormitories.

But I digress. Now employed at Google, Steve knows what works on the internet and so it was to a packed main auditorium that he starting explaining just how and why websites should be faster.

"Making websites faster affects the bottom line" Steve stated simply.

And he backed this up with statistics showing exactly how much of an affect it has. Thoroughly convinced, the audience willed him to reveal how we can make our websites faster. Our collective desperation was tangible.

Steve stepped forward with a slightly tilted head and dropped the bomb, revealing that despite the goodness it gives us in terms of user interaction: Javascript is the main culprit. Having all those scripts loading in the <HEAD> tags of a web page creates a bottleneck that stops the page content from being delivered. Due to browser constraints on the number of concurrent downloads and the fact that scripts take priority, only once all of your Javascript has loaded will the page's <BODY> start to render. If you're serving JQuery, mootools, scriptaculous and who knows what else then in those extra seconds of wait time - especially on the user's first page view which is arguably the most important - concentration wanes, frustration increases and you can almost hear potential revenue ticking down the drain.

So how do we increase speed and conversions whilst retaining the interactivity Javascript enables?

Load it asynchronously by dynamically appending your scripts to the DOM (Document Object Model, which is the page as an entity) after everything else has loaded. It's simple but very powerful. This means that as soon as a user hits your page the text and image content starts rendering and they feel that your website is responsive: they are not left staring at the white screen of wait. And by the time they are ready to take action your Javascript will have loaded in the background.

Examples of sites that have harnessed this approach effectively are Google (of course), Facebook and Twitter. Bing apparently is the best, which is quite something coming from a Google employee. But you do get the sense that Steve is not swayed by corporate politics or bias. What he cares about more than anything is making websites faster.

From a technical perspective adopting this approach does require a fair bit of crafting by web developers. It also requires a lot of scoping to ensure correct implementation across larger sites - and, of course, testing. But if you have a need for speed (and who doesn't?) then the extra build time is worth it.

Steve finished off by providing some great tools for measuring website speed. These include:


You should also install Firebug in Firefox and then get the YSlow and Page Speed add-ons for more in-depth analysis and recommendations for improvement of live web pages.

Steve's session was my unexpected favourite of Web Directions South 2010. His unpretentious manner combined with his vast expertise and real passion for the subject made a long-lasting impression.

I'll leave this blog post here as I'm now getting far too excited about coding some Ferrari-fast web pages of my own.

'Til next time remember, "Rendering first and executing JavaScript second is the key to a faster Web."

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