James Royal-Lawson

Page load times and big fat Swedish newspapers

Many major newspapers have notoriously very bulky websites. In fact, they are generally some of the most overweight and unhealthy sites on the internet.

Load time matters

Why is this a bad thing? Well, mainly slower loading times. People have very little patience for things to happen online. When combined with a 3G mobile broadband internet connection loading times take a further hit. If testing the patience of your visitors wasn’t enough, Google has even started taking page load times into account in their search results. You could even argue that larger pages have a larger carbon footprint due to the due to increased CPU usage!

The test

Let’s take a closer look at the major Swedish newspapers. Over a period of two weeks I tested Dagens Nyheter, Svenska Dagbladet, Expressen, Aftonbladet, Sydsvenskan and G√∂teborgs Posten.

Using the Firebug add-on to Firefox I recorded how long it took for the start page of each newspaper to load. Each time I used the same computer, in the same place, connected to the internet via the same 3G mobile internet provider. Before loading the page I emptied the cache of Firefox to ensure that all elements of the page were required to be downloaded.

The results

The websites of all of the Swedish newspapers tested generally weighed more than 2MB and took between 20-35 seconds to load (uncached) over a 3G wireless network. Alexia classes all the newspapers tested as “very slow” and groups them in the slowest 10% of websites on the internet

Graph average page load time swedish newspapers april 2010

The slowest of the websites was Aftonbladet. On some occasions it was very slow (and has the honour of being the only site to ever take more than 40 seconds to fully load) and was also the website that most often caused the fan on my laptop to speed up considerably as it battled to cool the processor down due to the amount of flash video being displayed simultaneously and continuously.

Graph average page sizes swedish newspapers april 2010

An interesting observation was that when reloading pages the majority of the content was, of course, cached (with the exception of Aftonbladet which managed to serve up almost 50% new content) but the load time remained almost the same. This was largely down to the sheer volume of requests made to build up the page. In the case of Aftonbladet, it’s start page is normally comprised of over 300 requests.

During the first week of testing, Sydsvenskan was by far the heaviest of the websites. In the above graphs I have only included Sydsvenskan’s figures from the first week of testing due to the significantly different results during the second week.

New Sydsvenskan

During the second week of testing Sydsvenskan released a new version of their website. Initially I thought this would be a bad thing for my testing, but it quickly became apparent that page size and loading time had been a specific consideration when building their new site. So instead of disrupting my testing, it give me an opportunity to see what difference optimising a size for speed could make.

The results were impressive. Sydsvenskan is now the lightest of the Swedish newspapers by a considerable margin. It weighs in at just 43% of the size of Aftonbladet (the fattest and slowest of those tested) and loads twice as fast.

Graph page load time sydsvenskan april 2010

Above the fold content

Also during the second week I also recorded the time it takes for content above the fold to appear, as in reality we don’t wait until every single part of the page has loaded before we start scanning the page and reading content. During this test, I stopped the timer as soon as the leading story’s headline was visible (even though at times adverts and some other content were already visible). This test showed that the lighter newspapers displayed above the fold content three times as fast as the heavier ones. Dagens Nyheter was an exception here and manage to join the thin boys despite it’s unhealthy BMI.

Graph page load time above fold swedish newspapers april 2010

30 seconds? Goodbye!

Generally people appear to have more patience for newspaper sites than e-commerce sites. If clicking on “confirm purchase” on your site took 30 seconds you’d be losing a lot of sales, but on a newspaper people evidently wait for the content to load (or more likely start reading text content above the fold long before everything else on the page has loaded).

Flash based adverts

A large part of the bloat on Swedish newspapers’ web sites is advertising and in particular flash-based advertising, The worst offenders are “video” adverts that play automatically when the page loads.

Lighter is better

With lighter, faster, more responsive pages, the newspapers would reduce bandwidth costs, increase the number of page views, and ultimately give their readers an overall better experience. But given the seemingly never ending focus newspapers’ place on making advertisers happy rather than their readers I doubt the (global) trend for heavy bloated online news sites is going to end soon.

Perhaps Sydsvenskan can be the catalyst for change? Well, perhaps it can be here in Sweden.

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