Technology

The Weight of Your Pages Matters

By / Sep 8, 2015 (iStock/Thinkstock)

As websites become increasingly complex and ad-laden, users are starting to rebel against overly “heavy” websites that take too long to load. On the plus side, there’s definite room to find a balance here.

Google may be the first company in history to decide on a logo redesign with “file size” a key factor for the final look.

The company got rid of the many serifs that made up its six letters and replaced them with a set of far simpler curves and lines. When Google ships off that logo to the user, it converts a vector file to an image file—and that vector file only takes up a few hundred bytes. Considering the number of times the image is used on platforms fast and slow, it’s a potentially huge cost savings for Google. (It also scales a lot more easily, which is great for a company that has presences on both 75-inch smart TVs and watches.)

That might just sound a little crazy in terms of how most organizations think about brand identity, but the results show that it works. I admit I never was a fan of Google’s old logo—even as I admired the company’s moves toward visual consistency, such as “Material Design“— so I’m glad that Google admitted that the previous look, which came along before design was a focus of the company, was getting long in the tooth.

We can laugh all we want or express frustration at the final result—plenty have, of course—but whether or not we agree with the path Google took, its approach is just the latest manifestation of an issue that is suddenly becoming a much bigger deal in the technology space.

Slow Sites = Bad News

Long story short: File size suddenly matters—a lot. Especially when it comes to the mobile web, which has been losing ground to apps for a while now. It’s been a common drumbeat in recent months that apps have become more heavily used than individual websites on mobile devices. (Personally, I feel like I surf the web on mobile way more, but your mileage may vary.) The reason for that, some argue, is that native apps are much snappier and easier to jump into than websites, which load slowly and inconsistently.

This has always been a problem both on desktop and mobile, but the mobile experience highlights these problems even more. Inconsiderate ad providers—which often come with the territory for online publishers—can bring websites a grinding halt by loading up assets, cookies, and tracking devices that generate revenue but also make sites difficult to load.

This week, Apple is expected to release iOS9 to consumers, and one controversial feature in the media world is that Safari users will be able to add third-party content blocking plugins, which many assume will be used to take ads and trackers out of the picture.

For publishers, this stinks, because they won’t be able to make revenue off of these pageviews, and in some cases may not even be able to track them. But for users—who have increasingly been slowed down by ads that have an interest in their location, load slowly, and (worst of all) redirect them to the App Store—this is welcome news.

Critics of the plan suggest that the goal with this whole strategy is to get publishers to move toward Apple’s News product, which makes sense. But at the same time, the speed of using a website on a phone remains far slower than that of an app with similar capabilities, and giving users capabilities that are common in desktop web browsers feels like a fitting market correction—one that will genuinely improve the online experience.

And market corrections, sorry to say, hurt.

Massive Pages Stink for Users

But even thinking specifically of the desktop environment, these kinds of issues run rampant.

As the debate around Apple’s content blockers was beginning to heat up earlier this summer, a developer tested the tools being offered on iOS9 on the popular Apple blog iMore, finding that the site loaded way faster without all the extra ads. But more alarming to some pundits was the fact that a single page on the website, which didn’t feature any additional images in the main copy, was a 14-megabyte affair.

“Advertising should have minimal effect on page load times and device battery life,” Daring Fireball’s John Gruber wrote. “Advertising should be respectful of the user’s time, attention, and battery life. The industry has gluttonously gone the other way.”

Slowly, the tide is starting to turn. In another big announcement recently, Google said it will block Flash ads on its Chrome browser—suggesting that use of Flash is not long for this world.

Sure, ad blockers play a major role in easing some of this pain for the user, but let’s be honest here: The onus is on the people making the websites.

Think Small as You Think Big

We should be designing our websites keeping their footprints in mind—whether or not the sites carry any ads. If a visual trick adds something valuable for the user, let’s take advantage of it—but at the same time, let’s see if we can figure out a way to make that result a little less gluttonous.

In recent months, I’ve become enamored with a tool for image management called Cloudinary, which allows programmers to distribute images with all sorts of effects while cutting down on file size. Animated GIFs are massive, for example; the product allows you to convert those GIFs to looping videos, which cuts down on their file sizes consistently.

And those JPGs you upload on your blog posts? Reducing their size is a great way to show that you’re respecting your users’ bandwidth—especially if you’re resizing images based on whether the user is on mobile, for example, or on a slow connection. (Cloudinary handles those, too, but another great tool on this front is Compressor.io.)

File size should come up early in the conversation with your developers, rather than later on. People notice when they’re stuck waiting for a page to load. Just looking pretty isn’t enough anymore—lots of people have a good-looking website these days. Striking a balance between pretty and efficient should be the way to go.

You don’t need to go so far as to worry about your logo’s file size, like Google did—unless, for some odd reason, you distribute Google’s level of traffic—but thinking small even as you’re thinking big can help ensure your ambitions aren’t slowing your users down.

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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