Beantin

James Royal-Lawson

webmaster

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 Göteborgs 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.

For your reading pleasure… (week 11, 2010)

Matt Cutts Interviewed by Eric Enge

Matt and the Google Webmaster Central blog are excellent sources of information regarding how Google works and what you should be doing. This is a long and interesting interview and gives some useful answers to a number of questions. For those of you who don’t the patience to read the full interview there’s an illustrated summary available.

Best Practices for Your Google Local Business Centre Listing

Claiming and looking after your Google Local Business Centre (Googles lokala företagscenter) listing is an important part of maintaining your web presence. This post gives some good suggestions as to what you should be doing.

SEO breadcrumbs for site hierarchies in Google

A while ago Google started displaying breadcrumbs on some snippets in their search results. It’s an area that’s crying out for some web standards. This excellent and detailed research by Simon is the closest thing to a standard for breadbrumbs and Google that I’ve seen.

Facebook Sverige 2010 – 1,2 miljoner nya medlemmar på 10 månader

Swedish blog post by Simon Sundén which gives some interesting statistics about Facebook use here in Sweden. One area highlighted by Simon is the relative growth in the 35+ age group.

Who cares what language you use?

Your web site is written in Swedish, but hosted in Germany, and uses a international TLD. How do you tell all the search engines what they need to know about the language and targeted country for you site?

Unfortunately, as you probably guessed, All the major search engines deal with this issue slightly differently. Which means you, as a web manager, need to keep your fingers crossed even if you do follow the appropriate web standards.

Google

Google ignores, for ranking purposes, most of the meta data tags on a web page, including the language meta tag. At the time of writing, Google only takes note of 7 specific meta tags.

If you have a country-neutral top level domain (such as .com) then you need to geo-target your website within Google webmaster tools.

Bing

In contrast to Google, Bing does use a number of meta tags when indexing pages.
One of those tags is the Content-language meta tag. Without a Content-language meta tag, Bing presumes that the geo-located IP address of your web-host provider is the country you are targeting your site towards. So if your site is hosted in a different country, you need the language meta tag to correct this.

Yahoo

Yahoo isn’t as straight talking as Google and Bing. They say they do look at the Content-language meta tag, but that they don’t always trust it. Which isn’t the most concrete answer to the question: How to Correct the Default Language Which Yahoo! Search Detects for Your Site.

Web standards

The best you can do as a web manager is to make sure that all of your pages follow three web standards: Doctype, <html> lang attribute, and the content-language meta tag. If all your pages make correct use of these components of your markup, then not only do you help certain search engines correctly assess the language of your content, but you also make your site more accessable to visitors using screen readers.

Doctype

Some people get confused about the doctype declaration at the very start of your markup. You should never change the language of the doctype to reflext the content of your page. The language indicated in the doctype declaration is always the language the DTD is written in.

Lang attribute

Setting the lang attribute of the <html> tag in your markup is important from an accessability and web standards viewpoint. It is, for example, the lang attribute that ensures that screen readers read your content in the correct language.

Remember to always add the lang attribute to any tags that surround content in your markup that differs in language from the language that you declared in the <html> tag.

Content-language Meta tag

Finnally, the language meta tag which Bing uses and Yahoo kind of uses. Make sure you place the meta tag in the <head> section of your page. Make sure you choose the correct ISO region and language combination.

Here is an example in XHTML for British English.

<meta http-equiv="content-language" content="en-gb" />

is a freelance web manager and strategist based in Stockholm Sweden.

5 reasons your web presence misses the mark

DDB Stockholm have been behind some excellent creative work, including some fantastic viral videos (Who hasn’t seen the piano stairs?). Their new website is a step forward showing that they understand that your website is just one part of your web presence – one part of your distributed website that exists across multiple platforms and services.

But, it falls short of ticking all the boxes. Here are 5 examples of where they have missed a trick…

1. Flash based

A similar result could have been achieved (plus improved performance/less CPU-drain) with other technologies (eg html, css & ajax). For a recap of this bugbear of mine, see this post on Why flash based site suck.

2. Loading time

We may not be using 56kbps modems anymore, but loading times are just as important as ever.
It’s not only humans that bore whilst waiting for pages to load (and we bore very quickly), search engines bore too. Slow to respond and slow to load pages will be penalised.
Just the index.html file on ddb.se is 148 KB. The entire start page (non-flash version) is 1231 KB (1057 KB of this are the various images used)

3. Accessability

OK, perhaps not up their amongst DDB’s target audiences, but making a web site accessible isn’t an optional extra.
It should be standard practice for everyone producing web sites. Granted, a non-flash version of
the site exists, which of course is a Good Thing, but accessibility doesn’t stop at “alternative content when flash disabled”.

4. Sitemap.xml

An easy win. All the major search engines love eating up sitemaps. Combine a sitemap.xml with robots.txt and you’ve made it so much easier for your content to be indexed. A valid and correctly linked RSS feed is an important part of the package, but it’s not a sitemap.

5. Microformats

rel=”me”. This is just as important for companies as for individuals in order to consolidate and confirm official identities across multiple sites and platforms. By cross referencing your various pages, you help join the dots for search engines (and visitors). Other microformats are of increasing importance; Geo-tags, contact details, product information. The sooner you make use of them, the quicker you’ll have the data indexed.

What is required…

These things are not overly complicated, new, expensive, or unavoidable. What is required is a web project manager with a good broad knowledge of the how the web really works, plus a quality web master/web manager. A web site manager isn’t a code-monkey or a copywriter, but someone who understands your web strategy, your target audiences, and the Internet – and who can make sure your web presence keeps on ticking all the boxes long after launch.

Keywords meta tag is not completely useless

Despite Google confirming that they do not use the keywords metatag for ranking purposes, the keyword meta tag is not completely without it’s uses.

When you optimise the content of a page for a given set of keywords then that is an investment you have made, and the resultant set of keywords is an asset. The keywords meta tag is a simple way of safe-guarding that asset over time.

More often than not, web pages are optimised when they are initially published. Subsequent edits and updates are unlikely to include a recheck against the original set of keywords especially given the web publishing models many organisations use. This means that the original investment has been at best devalued and at worst wasted.

My recommendation is to keep entering the keywords into the keyword meta tag that the page has been optimised for – not because Google cares about it – but so that editors can be educated to always check their content changes against that list, and to update the list when the page has been re-optimised.

By utilising the tag in this was, we increase the return on the original investment that was made in optimising, and increase the chance that future edits will also be on target & keep the original keywords in mind.

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