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The web performance community often claims that “performance matters,” but why is it? Does it really matter? What are the reasons? Whether you are new to this topic or want to understand the topics better, this article is for you.
Performance matters mainly because it improves the user experience. This fundamental reason drives all the others. That's why Google added performance data to their search engine results. Faster websites mean better business outcomes, as well as better social and environmental outcomes. Let's dig into the details…
1. Performance improves user experience
Have you ever noticed how much time you spend waiting for a website to load? It might seem like a trivial question, but how fast a web page loads can have a significant impact on your user experience. As soon as the waiting time exceeds a few seconds, you may start to get frustrated or even decide to abandon the page.
This is why web performance is so important. Its primary purpose is to improve the user experience on the web, making web pages faster and more responsive. Google, recognizing the importance of this aspect, has introduced i Core Web Vitals, a set of metrics intended to measure the quality of the user experience. These thresholds have been established based on scientific research on human-computer interaction, which highlights the following:
- Humans start to lose concentration when the waiting time exceeds the range of 0,3-3 seconds.
- Users perceive an interaction as immediate if the response occurs in less than 0,1 seconds. If the response takes more than 0,3 seconds, the experience is unsatisfactory.
However, the user experience on the web is a complex phenomenon, influenced by multiple factors and variables. To deepen your understanding of these aspects, we advise you to consult "The Science Behind Web Vitals“, a resource detailing scientific research related to online user experience.
Tools like Lighthouse and PageSpeed Insights have played a vital role in making people aware of the importance of web performance. However, when it comes to optimizing your site's performance, it may be more beneficial to focus on Real User Metrics (RUM) rather than synthetic metrics. For example, the Chrome User Experience Report provides detailed data on website performance based on real user experiences, allowing you to better understand how to improve the performance of your site based on the needs of your users.
Reality and perception are not the same
The story of the Houston airport baggage claim problem has become a famous anecdote in the world of performance and user experience, illustrating how perception can sometimes be more important than reality.
It all began when Houston Airport received numerous complaints from passengers about excessive waiting times for baggage reclaim. The airport administration, in an attempt to solve the problem, improved the baggage handling process to meet the standard times of the airport industry. Despite these improvements, however, the complaints did not abate.
Perplexed, the airport managers decided to observe the users' journey more carefully, comparing it with that of other airports. They discovered that, unlike at other airports, the walk time from gate to baggage claim was much shorter in Houston. This meant that passengers arrived quickly at the baggage claim area and then had to wait for their bags to arrive.
The solution found by the airport administration was surprisingly unconventional: instead of trying to further speed up the baggage handling process, they decided to increase the distance between the arrival gates and the baggage claim area, creating a walking path longer. In doing so, the waiting time perceived by passengers was reduced, although the total time from disembarkation to baggage collection remained unchanged. As a result, the complaints diminished.
This story illustrates the notion that the psychology of the queue is often more important than the statistics of the wait itself. Or, as Richard Larson, an MIT operations researcher, observed, "busy time" is less painful than "unoccupied time." He demonstrates how the user's perception is not always the same as reality and how, sometimes, the most effective solutions can be those that focus on the user's perceived experience rather than objective reality.
Often the psychology of the queue is more important than the statistics of the wait itself.
–Richard Larson, operations researcher at MIT
2. Performance leads to better business outcomes
Don't let web performance slow down your business.
When users are happy, they are less likely to leave your page before finishing the job they came to your website for. Whether it's buying a new item, signing up for a subscription, or anything that constitutes a "conversion" for you.
Yelp reduced First Contentful Paint (75th percentile) by 45% and Yelp Page Complete (75th percentile) by 25% and saw a 15% improvement in conversion rate.
–Reported on WPOstats.com
Countless case studies have been published linking web performance and key business metrics such as bounce rate and conversions. You can see many examples of soundbites at WPOstats.com.
How performance impacts SEO
Search engines try to deliver the best content results for a user. Google considers how a user experiences a website to contribute to the quality of that content. Then, in 2021, they added web performance data to their search engine ranking algorithm. In particular, they measure i Core Web Vitals.
We don't know exactly how performance impacts search engine rankings, but content is still king. If the quality of your content is higher than competing websites, you may be less affected. However, for two sites with close to equivalent content quality, the faster one is more likely to be ranked higher. The lesson here is don't let web performance be the reason you rank lower.
3. Performance increases equity and access
Whether globally or locally, not everyone has access to high-end devices and fast networks.
When we build the digital world to the edge of the best devices, we build a less usable world for the 80+% of the world's users.
–Alex Russell, Microsoft Edge partner product manager
There is a big gap between the fastest mobile devices and all the others. While high-end phones continue to push the envelope on processing speeds, mid-range and low-end phones have barely improved or even stagnated. This means that the majority of the market isn't seeing the same improvements as those at the higher ends who can afford $1000 phones.
Also, not everyone has access to fast and reliable connection speeds. Moving away from densely populated areas, this problem is pretty common.
If you want to delve into the data behind this, check out The Mobile Performance Inequality Gap, 2021 by Alex Russell.
Your analyzes are wrong
You may not be aware of this, but a lot needs to happen before analytics data is sent. This means that your data contains a "survival bias":
The users who have the worst experiences are probably ghost bouncers - they don't show up in your analytics or intelligence tools because they don't stick around long enough for the app to load and the analytics to fire.
–Simon Hearne, web performance expert
In his very illuminating article “Survivor Bias in Web Performance" Simon Hearne, a web performance expert, shares some extremely useful data from Chrome. This data shows an unequivocal correlation between First Contentful Paint (FCP) longer load times and increased site abandonment rates. First Contentful Paint, or FCP, refers to when the first content of a web page – such as text, images or any other visual element – is actually displayed. Basically, if your site takes too long to show useful content to users, it is very likely that they will abandon it before completing any action.
It's important to note that these abandon experiences aren't tracked in your standard analytics tools. This creates what is known as "survivorship bias" in your data. Worst-experienced users – those who leave before the page loads and analytics has time to register their presence – don't show up in your data at all. This distorts your view of the user experience on your site, making you think things are better than they really are.
One way to address this issue is to optimize your site for those users who are in the “longer tail” of poor performance – those with slower internet connections or less powerful devices. By bringing these users to your site and improving their experience, you can increase your overall audience and potentially your total conversions.
However, Simon points out an important unexpected consequence of this approach. As you start getting more traffic from lower-end devices and networks, you might notice that your performance metrics seemingly get worse. But while it may seem counterintuitive, a reduction in metrics isn't necessarily a bad thing in these cases. In fact, even though your metrics may appear to be getting worse, the performance for any single user may actually be faster than before. And most importantly, by increasing your site's accessibility to a wider audience, you have the potential to increase your total conversions, leading to an overall positive result.
4. Performance can make the web greener
The environmental cost of the web and our reliance on mobile devices is greater than you might think. Sustainability is more complex than just energy use, but statistics can be hard to come by. However, if we look only at energy consumption, Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) were estimated to account for up to 7% of global electricity in 2020 (source).
In summary, the importance of web performance cannot be understated. A fast and well-designed website not only reduces user frustrations, but also significantly improves the user experience. A better user experience leads directly to a decrease in site abandonment rate and an increase in conversions, two factors that directly affect the prosperity and success of your business.
Likewise, web performance has a direct impact on your website's visibility on search engines. A fast and optimized website is considered of higher quality by search engines, especially Google, which takes it into account in its ranking algorithm. This means that a good level of web performance can help you rank higher in search results, further increasing your site's visibility.
But the benefits of web performance don't stop there. A faster, more responsive website is also more accessible, particularly for those users on older devices or with slower internet connections. In an increasingly digitized world, ensuring fair and inclusive access to the web is an ethical imperative, and web performance can play a key role in this regard.
Finally, there is another often overlooked but no less important aspect: a faster website can help reduce overall energy consumption, making the web a little greener place. Every operation a device has to perform to load a web page requires energy; by reducing the number of these operations, we can limit energy consumption and CO2 production.
For all these reasons, web performance is a crucial factor in 2023, more than ever. If you'd like to learn more about how to improve the performance of your website, there are many resources available online. Google's official web performance guidelines can be a great place to start, but there are also numerous specialized blogs and forums that can offer helpful advice and insights. Web performance is an ever-evolving field, and it's important to keep your knowledge up-to-date to stay competitive.
If you are looking for support to improve the performance of your site, please contact us, we would be happy to offer our contribution to make your website faster, more responsive and profitable.