The web performance I want

There’s been a lot said and written about web performance since the Velocity conference. And steps both forward and back — is the web getting faster? Are developers using increased performance to add more useless gunk to their pages, taking back performance gains almost as quickly as they’re achieved?

I don’t want to leap into that argument; Arvind Jain did a good job of discussing the issues at Velocity Santa Clara and in a blog post on Google’s analytics site. But, I do want to discuss (all right, flame) about one issue that bugs me.

I see a lot of pages that appear to load quickly. I click on a site, and within a second, I have an apparently readable page.

“Apparently,” however, is a loaded word because a second later, some new component of the page loads, causing the browser to re-layout the page, so everything jumps around. Then comes the pop-over screen, asking if I want to subscribe or take a survey. (Most online renditions of print magazines: THIS MEANS YOU!). Then another resize, as another component appears. If I want to scroll down past the lead picture, which is usually uninteresting, I often find that I can’t because the browser is still laying out bits and pieces of the page. It’s almost as if the developers don’t want me to read the page. That’s certainly the effect they achieve.

I see plenty of sites that take 10, 20 seconds to load and function properly, where “function properly” means that the page scrolls, the text doesn’t jump around, and there’s no extraneous crap obscuring it. You can bet that I’m not waiting that long. No way. I don’t even mind pop-overs that much (well, I do, really), but when I click “no,” I want them to go away immediately, not hang around until tons of bloat have finished loading.

I do understand that many sites need to make money, and I’m not unsympathetic to paywalls. But man, if your strategy for getting me to subscribe is to annoy the hell out of me, it’s not working. It’s not going to work. And I really don’t understand how anyone could think that it would work. A site that’s a pleasure to read is going to get me as a repeat visitor, and maybe even a subscriber. A site that’s a pain to use, that frustrates me every time I visit — well, what do you think?

We’ve learned a lot about web performance in the last few years, but it seems to me that we’ve learned it the wrong way. Cruftifying web pages in ways that make them unusable until the entire page has loaded is not what Velocity is about. That’s not what web performance is about. And it’s a great way to prevent your audience from returning.

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