How not to video-enable your site
Businesses everywhere are video-enabling their websites. Over the past year, I’ve handled a ton of inquiries from Gartner clients whose next iteration of their B2C websites included video. Given what I cover (Internet infrastructure), most of the queries I handled involved how to deliver that video in a cost-effective and high-performance way. Most enterprises hope that a richer experience will help drive traffic — but it’s also possible that a poor implementation will lead to user frustration.
I was trying to do something pretty simple tonight — find the hours that a local TGI Friday’s was open until. This entailed going to the Friday’s website, typing a zip code into the store locator box, and getting some results. Or that was the theory, anyway. (It turned out that they didn’t have the hours listed, but this was the least of my problems.)
Most people interact with restaurant websites in highly utiliarian ways — find a location, get driving directions, make reservations, check out a menu, and so forth. That means the consumer wants to get in and out, but still needs an attractive, branded experience.
Unfortunately, restaurant sites seem to repeatedly commit the sin of being incredibly heavyweight, without optimization. Indeed, an increasing number of restaurant sites seem to be presented purely in Flash — where a mobile user, i.e., someone who is looking for a place to eat right now, can’t readily get the content.
But the Friday’s site is extraordinarily heavyweight — giving the home page’s URL to Web Page Analyzer showed a spectacular 95 HTTP requests encompassing a page weight of 2,254,607 bytes — more than 2 MB worth of content! The front page has multiple embedded Flash files — complete with annoying background noise (not even music). The store locator has video, plus a particularly heavyweight design; ditto the rest of the site. It’s attractive, but it takes forever to load. Just the front page alone occupies a 30-second load time under good conditions and bandwidth equivalent to a T-1. Since Friday’s does not seem to use a CDN, there’s absolutely nothing smoothing out spiky network conditions or helping to decrease latency by being closer to that edge, so that on a practical level, with some spiky latencies between me and their website, it took several minutes to get the front page loaded to the point of usability. (I’m on a 1.1 Mbps SDSL connection.) And yes, in the end, I decided to go to another restaurant.
HCI studies pretty much say that you really need your page load times at 8 seconds or less. Many of my clients are trying for 4 seconds or less. A 250K page weight is common these days, with many B2C sites as much as double that, but 2 MB is effectively unusable for the average broadband user.
Businesses: Don’t be seduced by beautiful designs with unreasonable load times. When you test out new designs, make sure to find out what the experience is like for the average user, as well as what happens in adverse network conditions (which can be simulated by products from vendors like Shunra). And if you’re doing heavyweight pages, you should really, really consider using a CDN for your delivery.