Surfing the Slow Web
According to statistics, if you are reading this, you are probably on a broadband connection. Whether you are surfing at work on a LAN or at home on a DSL or cable modem, you are probably not on dial up at this moment.
However, there was a time not that long ago in which Webmasters were optimizing every element of their page feverishly to squeeze every ounce of speed from it. Broadband simply was not that common and, even over dial up connections, visitors had twitchy fingers on the “back” button at all times.
But in the age of YouTube, Flash ads and embeddable content, those lessons have been all but forgotten, However, not everyone has access to high-speed connection, especially in rural locations, and after spending just a few days limited to dial up, the lessons come flooding back.
So what lessons did I learn while surfing the slow Web while evacuated? Here is just a sample of what I saw.
Brick Walls on the Slow Track
When you’re surfing the Web on dial up connection, you notice instantly things that load quickly versus those that don’t. If a site has an element that requires a lot of data, page loading stops cold and frustration quickly mounts.
What stunned me during my time on the slow Web was just how many sites had such roadblocks. I steered clear of sites that I knew would not load well, such as YouTube, but still seemed to watch my connection struggle at nearly every turn.
When I began to look at what was causing these issues, I quickly learned that the culprit was typically one of five things:
- Embedded Video/Documents: This is one I am guilty of, embedding videos and documents when a link would likely have sufficed. Embedded videos are great you have a high-speed connection but are a real headache when you don’t. This is especially annoying when they pop up in your RSS reader, slowing down what is otherwise a fast process.
- Extravagant Ads: Many with fast connections use Adblock Plus to avoid being hassled by ads. However, on a slow connection, ad blocking is almost a requirement. With so many data-heavy Flash ads or slow-loading full page effects, many sites have become so bloated with advertising that the content barely loads on dial up.
- Huge Images: Many of the roadblocks were caused by poor design choice. Many sites have huge banners at the top of their page that prevent slow moving browsers from loading anything beneath it. This includes many popular blogs and shopping sites.
- Widgets: After a few hours on dial up the word “widgets” became a four-letter word. Though some, such as some that showed small Flickr thumbnails, were mere speed bumps, others froze the site completely depending on the order in which everything loaded. Since I have zero sites where widgets are the reason I am visiting, this was a constant annoyance.
I’m not saying that one should not use these things, that is a personal decision for every blogger and Webmaster, but one should be aware that, if you do include these elements, you are making it so that those with slower connections are going to have a long wait before your page loads.
Speed Bumps and Annoyances
In addition to things that seemed to put a lengthy pause on the loading of a Web site, there were many elements that caused the Web to “hiccup” a bit without putting the breaks on too hard. Though many of these things were annoying, they didn’t stop me from accessing any sites.
- Images Where Text or CSS Will Do: A lot of sites, in order to make their pages more attractive, replace buttons or text elements with images. These are usually small images so they don’t cause too much of a problem but it is still frustrating to wait a few seconds for an element to load to find out it was a “submit” button.
- Google Adsense: Most text-based Google Ads were not a terrible burden to load. A few times I saw sites hang for a second or two while loading Google Ads but I never had the kind of issue with Adsense that I had with other advertisers.
- Slow Servers: I don’t fully understand why this was the case since, theoretically, the bandwidth bottleneck should have been on my end. However, I noticed a decent performance jump when viewing sites hosted within the U.S. and on services that I knew were good. The further away the server, the slower the site loaded, even though I was only pulling Web 1.0 speeds.
These are issues that may be worth correcting but are not really deal-breakers. All of these things are fine in moderation, but it is easy to see how they could drive some visitors away if overdone.
In addition to the brick walls and speed bumps, there were several things that I had anticipated being issues that turned out to be perfectly acceptable.
- Small Images: Thumbnails and other small images, even when in high numbers, loaded well almost every time. This was a huge relief to me after realizing that Plagiarism Today’s front page was filled with them.
- Anticipated Large Images: During my evacuation, I spent a lot of time on the National Hurricane Center’s Web site pulling up their latest maps and images. Though the images were slow to load, it was not an issue since I knew what I was getting into and my patience was greater. Warning and choice is clearly a key to keeping users with slower connections.
- Most Blogs: Since most blogs are primarily text, nearly every single blog I went to while on dial up loaded well, it was just those with widgets and embeds that created problem. Also, blogs on free services such as WordPress.com and Blogger fared better than self-hosted ones, likely due to faster servers and more limited design choices.
All of this highlights the importance of making your site bandwidth-friendly and not letting it get out of control as far as data goes. Though blogs are naturally streamlined to go over slower connections, that advantage is quickly lost when elements are added that weigh the site down.
In a recent series on this site, Lorelle has been writing about what she appropriately calls WTF Blog Clutter. This has included unnecessary widgets, videos and other blog elements that clutter up a site, some of which I have mentioned here.
If you’re interested in keeping your site lean and mean, this is definitely a series you need to read and keep on top of.
Many bloggers may not have much interest in ensuring that their site works well on slower connections. With broadband penetration, especially among heavy Internet users, climbing steadily there might not be as much motivation to keep things trimmed down as there once was.
However, it is important to remember that it doesn’t take an evacuation to wind up surfing the slow web. Network congestion, an outage of a primary service or just a trip to visit the in-laws can put anyone back ten years in terms of connectivity.
There is still an audience on dial up and still a need for others to use it occasionally. How much you want to invest in appealing to them is up to you, but it seems worthwhile to avoid making any unnecessary missteps.
If linking to a video rather than embedding it can save a keyboard from being pounded on, it is probably worth doing.
Jonathan Bailey writes at Plagiarism Today, a site about plagiarism, content theft and copyright issues on the Web. Jonathan is not a lawyer and none of the information he provides should be taken as legal advice.
I am spending some time to ensure my blog is always light and fast loading. Not that this is super important but I consider it… proper.
On the question of near/far sites – that’s latency coming into play. Internet conneciton is like a pipe, it may be wide but it still takes time to flow for start to end. The farther site is – the longer is pipe.
It is simply less noticeable on broadband. On slow connection it is easier to feel difference in latency lag.
Rarst. That makes sense. Still feels strange that when you’re downloading at 3 KB/s you notice that over the sound of your connection sucking but yes, it makes sense. Thank you for the explanation!
I’m so glad you brought up this subject as it has been the bane of my life on the road. I might find a high speed WIFI connection, but I’m usually still topped out at 10 Mps at the VERY top of the scale but it is usually sitting about 1 – 1.5 Megs per second.
With the world moving the Internet onto their cell phones, it was interesting to see Wired’s iPhone 3G survey results report the average speed in the US at 990 Kbps, but that’s an average doing what averages do. It takes only a couple high numbers to bring up a very low speed to that number.
If every web designer built for high speed Internet, even today I’d have trouble and run out of patience. CSS was designed to maximize bandwidth issues. Let’s not forget to honor everyone at all bandwidths when we design and code.
Thanks for the reminder and glad you are safe!
Most of the folks I know who are very fond of optimizing and tweaking for speed are not necessarily the bloggers or publishers themselves, but those who run web apps on their own (or leased) servers. Imagine getting hit by queries thousands or millions of times in a minute, and just even a few kilobytes shaved off per transaction would add up to a big sum.
Sure, for a reader a few KBs would not do much of a difference, especially since most of us are on broadband. Even on slow connections, 10KB will just be a one second (or so) difference in loading time. But to those who pay for the bandwidth this makes a difference.
Personally it boils down to my being patient enough to wait for pages to load, and my intent in loading that page. If it’s a blog and it’s loading a lot of videos, then my tendency is just to click away or close the tab. But if it’s a page of a video I really am interested to see, then I would be willing to wait a few seconds (minutes?) more for loading.
Great article, Jonathan!
But this problem is much bigger than you think:
It’s not about caring for people on a slow connection.
It’s about overloading all of us with useless information NOISE!
Most people come to websites for MAIN CONTENT ONLY! And they actually don’t care about beauty (and complexity) of the design webmasters are so proud of. Be it Flash, scripts, – and especially Advertising! People simply don’t care about them!
The problem is not to quickly load on your computer the tons of unnecessory data. The problem is to quickly find there a useful content. And this is what many webmasters are still don’t realize.
This is not about the past, – this is about FUTURE!
In particular, for the coming MOBILE culture of reading.
Please read articles about it on my website I devoted to this problem:
I cant even think of using the dial-up.I use to use it 10yrs back when i was small.The speed is really very bad.
Cant even think of going back to tht era of slowness.
Surfing is really the best sport out there, i love the adrenaline rush when surfing on big waves.-*~
i broke my arm on a freak surfing accident but hey, surfing is a nice sport–,