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Flash: We've received sporadic reports of a frustrated Santa seen leaving the scene of some online shopping sites. We sent our action news team out to investigate. Upon encountering Santa near a popular store, we asked old St. Nick, why response times are poor? He promptly replied, "I'll never make Christmas with response times like these. Fat sites and high traffic brought the Web to its knees." As he jumped on his sleigh, and drove out of site, we thought we'd investigate the cause of his plight.
On narrowband connections, where most can relate, shopping online has become hurry up and wait. So in the spirit of the season, with not a touch of the Grinch, we bring you our first annual, Where to Shop in a Pinch.
'Twas the week before Christmas, and all through the Net,
Web executives dreamed of the perks they would get;
The graphics were hung by their logos with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of Playstations danced in their heads;
And mom on her Wintel, and I on my Mac,
Had started to surf for one final knickknack.
When there on my screen 'lo what should appear?
But a broken down sleigh, and eight weary reindeer.
With a bent-over driver, so dull and so slow,
Weighed down by a burden more heavy than snow.
"What cruelty," he fumed "what heart black as coal,
Would keep me from meeting my gift-giving goal?"
I knew in a moment that it must be St. Nick,
Stuck in the quagmire of web sites not quick.
From oversized graphics to overstuffed code,
It became very clear what was slowing the load;
"Now, DASHER! now, DANCER! now, PRANCER and VIXEN!
These overslow web sites we must be a fixin'!"
As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky,
So up to speed guidelines these shop-sites must go
To fill homes with presents and rake in the dough.
Poetry collaboration by Bob Peyser, Andy King, and either Clement Clarke Moore or Major Henry Livingston, Jr.
Speed Analysis of the Top Shopping Sites
We analyzed the home pages of Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com, BestBuy.com, Buy.com, Ebay.com, EddieBauer.com, JCPenny.com, LLBean.com, Overstock.com, Sears.com, Shopping.com, shopping.yahoo.com, Target.com, and Walmart.com to see how well they comply with the speed guidelines published in our book Speed Up Your Site. The home pages were analyzed using our free Web Page Analyzer plus a tool that takes into account dynamically generated content. The results of our analysis are listed in Table 1, sorted by total page size.
Table 1: Shopping Home Page Speed Analysis (file size in bytes)
*The download times were measured on a Macintosh PowerBook with a fast 56Kbps connection. The first number is the time it takes for useful content to display in seconds. The second figure is the time it takes for the entire page to load (i.e., useful content/entire page)
1JCPenny.com, Buy.com, Bestbuy.com, Shopping.com, and Walmart.com use HTTP compression to compress their HTML home page.
2Note that Amazon's top navigation bars load in half the initial time shown, but with no alt attribute values do not qualify as useful content.
3Ebay.com and shopping.yahoo.com use a small Flash movie to load other Flash movies, similar to GM's technique to delay loading.
JCPenny.com had the smallest total page size at 85.7K (see Figure 1). It also featured optimized HTML that was compressed with HTTP compression for a lilliputian 3,225 byte HTML page. BestBuy.com came in second at 92.2K (See Figure 2). Some of the larger sites (Target, shopping.yahoo.com, Buy.com, and Walmart) had relatively fast initial load times, due in part to their minimal use of external files in the
headof their HTML documents.
Buy.com scored a near-perfect high-low hand, with the slowest total load time (102 seconds) yet tied for second for initial content display time (14 seconds), see Figure 3.
Delayed Flash Gratification
Two sites used GM's technique of using small Flash movies that load other movies after the page loads. Ebay.com and shopping.yahoo.com use a small nearly-empty Flash "stub" movie that loads quickly and loads rich media ads after the bulk of the page has displayed. This gives better response times while providing a rich media experience for the user. Yahoo Shopping's faster than average response times (14 and 36 seconds) show how effective this technique can be.
Graphic Intensive Experience
headof their XHTML document.
In summary, the most common performance problems that we found were:
- Complex nested tables
- Numerous HTTP requests (45.7 on average)
- Large image payloads (95,741 bytes on average)
- Embedded styles (font, bgcolor, etc.)
- Page redirects
headfor example) would also speed page display for most modern browsers.
In our opinion, all of these shopping sites need an express checkout lane. Four sites loaded useful content at least 33% faster than average (JCPenny.com, Target.com, shopping.yahoo.com, and Buy.com). However, all of the shopping sites we tested did not meet our response time guidelines at 56Kbps. JCPenny.com was the smallest and fastest site tested, using HTTP compression and optimized HTML. On average, the fourteen shopping sites tested averaged over a minute to fully display on a 56Kbps modem (60.6 seconds).
The art and science of web design is to balance visual appeal with fast response times. Online merchants who best optimize their user's experience, especially for narrowband connections, will reap the greatest rewards.And I heard him exclaim, as he drove out of site; speedy shopping to all, and to all a good night.
- The Art and Science of Web Design
- An excellent guide to "intelligent content that can figure out how to display itself correctly" created from dynamic publishing systems (databases and scripted templates). By Jeffrey Veen.
- Gomez' E-Tail Index
- The Gomez Holiday E-Tail Performance Index shows how fast and reliable the top 37 shopping destinations are, and reveals which sites have been naughty and nice this holiday season.
- Internet Merchants Struggle With Traffic
- Some online retailers tested by Keynote in December failed to fully load, or complete common transactions. The New York Times, Dec. 15, 2003.
- Minimize HTTP requests
- By combining external files you can save costly HTTP requests and speed up your site.
- Online Holiday Shopping Sites Still Straining Under the Load, Reports Keynote
- The success rate for 13 online retailers dipped to 93.7% in December according to Keynote Systems, Dec. 10, 2003.
- Port80 Software's Fortune 1000 Compression Survey
- Port80 Software found that only 3% of the Fortune 1000 uses HTTP compression.
- Reports: E-Tailers Lagged in Black Friday Stampede
- "Gomez said Walmart.com ranked dead last among the Web sites it tracks in terms of Black Friday response time for purchases, with the site taking as long as 54 seconds to complete transactions." ECommerce Times, Dec. 4, 2003
- Response Time: Eight Seconds, Plus or Minus Two
- Summarizes current research into the psychology of delay on the Web, and offers web design guidelines. See also Flow in Web Design. By Andy King.
- These Sites are a Shopper's Dream
- Broadband shoppers are five times more likely to buy than their dial-up counterparts. Business Week, Nov. 25, 2003.
- Use HTTP Compression
- A brief introduction to content encoding. From Speed Tweak of the Week by Andy King.
About the Author
Andy King is the founder of five developer-related sites including this one, and the author of Speed Up Your Site: Web Site Optimization from New Riders Publishing. He publishes the monthly Bandwidth Report, the weekly Speed Tweak of the Week, and the semi-weekly WebReference Update.
Any trademark or tradenames used in this article are owned exclusively by their owners and they do not endorse or sponsor this site. Optimization Week, Santa, and the author are not affilliated with any of the shopping sites tested. All opinions expressed herein are based on information that we believe to be reasonably accurate at the time of publication. If you find any errors or misstatements of fact please contact us.
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Last modified: November 09, 2004