How to focus your efforts around website performance

Website performance or speed is all the rage these days. At every corner, we are nudged towards pursuing that perfect site speed score as an end in itself. I want to help you resist that by getting the understanding to decide for yourself.

December 14, 2018
Reading time 9 – 14 minutes

We live smack in the middle of the age of speed. Everything from the way we cook our food, get from A to B, do our shopping, decide on the best place to live, to accomplishing our goals and relating to one another, these and many others revolve at some point around speed.

And this is a very special kind of speed because we’ve evolved to think in terms of minutes and seconds, and even less. Long gone are the hours, days, or weeks. This is decidedly the age of the digital speed.

Now that this grandiose intro has hopefully made you a little bit uncomfortable and curious for more, let’s see how do we relate to speed on the web, the most digital medium there is.

My aim is to give you the layman’s understanding of the powers at play in and around the conversation of website performance in this day and age. These powers are equally technological and human because we, the people, are the ultimate beneficiaries of this magical interplay. I will often touch on this since it’s the first thing we tend to forget or ignore.

Often, the conversation around web performance is either too technical to get to grips by the vast majority of site creators or, at the other extreme, is overly simplified into bite-sized prescriptions disguised as advice, without context or knowledge to empower you to make decisions on a day to day basis. I say you are better than that and you are willing to learn to take better care of your digital domain.

By getting to grips with the intricacies of the web and their impact on performance, my hope is to give you a better mental model to help you make decisions when crafting your content and your site.

I will follow up with separate stories that dig deeper into each area, but I believe it’s important to first understand the philosophy behind.

My speed is different than yours

We may be living speedy times, but let’s not forget that this is also the age of the individual, of the struggle to recognize and respect each and everyone’s unique traits and preferences.

Combine the two, and we soon realize that there is no standard for page speed, just like there is no standard for the perfect hairstyle or pair of socks (but these come close). This is how we’ve ended up with perceived site performance.

Everyone values time a little differently and, consequently, sees things with wildly different expectations.

Let this relativity sink in because this is the landscape we’re gonna have to navigate if we are to get to terms with performance on the web.

Have my cake and eat it too

Along with our world’s focus on the individual and its desires, we find ourselves in times of plenty (at least in the developed world). We want it all and then some. Since the web is fundamentally built by us and for us, it is no surprise that it has evolved to satisfy our ever-increasing hunger for more.

More images, videos and animations, more links, banners and ads, more popups and forms, more tracking, analytics and social media integrations.

If we are not careful, this web of ours can quickly get quite unsustainable.

Our relationship with technology has changed from one of mutual respect and understanding (the geeky 80s and 90s) to one where we don’t care (to know) about limitations or shortcomings and simply expect it to handle everything we throw at it without breaking a sweat (or asking for more money), and do good by us in the process. Does this ring a bell?

Paradoxically, along with technology penetrating almost every aspect of our lives we’ve become less literate about it.  We forget that software is built by ordinary people, not some benevolent geniuses that know better. Hence, code is fundamentally imperfect and in a constant state of change.

We need to regain that healthy dose of weariness about technology if we are to play up to its strengths and protect ourselves against its weaknesses.

With all the optimizations in the world, 10 images are more than 1; a full-width high-resolution image takes more time to download than a content-width one; 20 or 30 WordPress plugins are more than 5 or 10. You get the idea. Practice moderation and make everything count.

Speed is the new big

To understand just how human the web and the internet actually are, there is no better example than looking at how our quest for speed started with hardware and crossed into the realm of networks.

From times immemorial, the mother-of-all-solutions for making something better has consistently been: MAKE IT BIGGER! Bigger temples and cities, bigger countries and armies, bigger companies and fortunes. There is something irresistible about the simplicity and security of bigger.

[Digital] Technology isn’t any different. It all started with hardware and Moore’s law that predicted in the 70s the doubling of transistor density every two years. No easy feat, but again clear and reassuring in its outcomes: more transistors in, more performance out; no need to tackle complicated problems like new models of computing.

This brought us today when the hardware industry stands at the limits of physics: circuitry can’t be made thinner than an atom. How’s that for a reality check?

The internet followed the same beaten path: bigger reach and connectivity, bigger cables and data-centers, bigger data and analytics. Obviously, the web couldn’t have gone any other way: bigger and more sites, bigger and more files, bigger platforms and networks.

While in hardware we have physics to curb our excesses, the internet (and its offspring, the web) has no such luck.

These two are unlike anything we humans have ever built before. Nothing in our history comes remotely close to this level of complexity and dynamism. We could safely say that we haven’t made something, but given birth to it. They have a life of their own with rules and behaviors very little understood.

It is up to each of us who engage with and become part of these organisms to become more aware of their reality and contribute in meaningful, helpful ways. This is the only safe bet we have since we know very little about how things will unfold.

Abrupt complex systems intro aside, let’s see how we stubbornly try and force our old ways of thinking unto this new reality.

Robots want numbers

There is nothing more alluring to an algorithm then our impulse to “put a number on it,” all driven by “make it bigger.” Numbers are clear, definitive verdicts of a situation, they simplify arguments and help the decision-making process.

Unless they are flawed or misleading. Given the fact we live in digital/numerical times, our relationship with numbers needs to be a more nuanced, knowledgeable one, first and foremost for our own good. Strangely, as numbers have become less transparent and more complex in nature, we’ve come to believe and rely on them with far more ease.

Numbers are everywhere today, but they are not what they used to be or, at least, we’ve gotten better at understanding their genesis. Along with entering the “mainstream” of popular culture, they’ve become less objective and more infused with biases and interests, even manipulatory. Numbers that measure performance on the web are no exception.

Each entity that sticks a number to the performance of your site does so based on hundreds, if not thousands, of decisions and biases revolving around what is the definition of speed, for them.

Most of the time, these performance assessment services and tools have commercial entities behind them that, inevitably, focus the conversation on those aspects of speed that benefit the company. It’s not foul play or misleading the user. It’s obvious to be so.

Regardless of biases, these performance measuring tools can only, algorithmically, tackle that part of the definition that is common for their target audience.

Sure, I’ll admit that the likes of Google cast a wider net; this is what makes them very influential and trusted in the realm of web speed. But, you always need to remember that they are after the lowest common denominator of a very diverse group.

You are no robot. You’re after a much smaller audience that you can relate to and get to know better.

No one else but you can decide what your readers value most regarding performance and what are they willing to put up with. Do not abandon this unique advantage of yours when looking in an algorithmic mirror (eg. Google PageSpeed Insights or Pingdom Tools).

Now don’t get me wrong, more speed is always better. No one can argue with this. But chasing speed just for the sake of some number is not. Focusing on the most meaningful and cost-effective areas behind those numbers should be your goal.

People value experiences

Pure numbers only tell half the story, at best. I find it hard to believe that anyone uses a stopwatch when visiting your site. People just think that you have something valuable to offer and want to get it. This stays true regardless of you being a storyteller, a visual artist or a seller of some goods.

What people really appreciate is the experience they have when interacting with your digital domain. They want to feel valued and cared for, with all their quirks and contexts. If your people are all on flaky 3G connections, they care little about those pixel-perfect images of yours that take ages (and money) to download.

But if your community is awash with broadband connections then they care little about your bare-bones website with perfect scores and blazing speed; for them, you’ve failed to deliver an experience worthy of their loyalty.

I can think of only one way of managing this conundrum: love your readers more than they love you. Massively helpful, right? You’ve got to trust me on this. This is the only game you can hope to win in the neverending struggle for attention that defines most of the web.

You can try and play catch-up with Google and its algorithm, investing more and more time and money in the hope you will be in its good graces. Remember that this is a rigged game, and the rules can change at any time.

You can try and keep your website at the edge of technological developments, investing yet more time and money in the hope you will reap the benefits.

The web is moving way too fast for individuals or small groups to keep up with it.

Going down this rabbit hole is a great way to forget about the most important thing of all: your people, your community. They are far more likely to be with you for the long run.. if you only remember them.

Make peace and live a little

If you’ve made it thus far, I salute you! Getting one’s head around this web of ours is no easy feat, but you must think it’s worth it. I do too. You now have a better understanding of web performance than most web users and creators.

So where to next, you say? It almost seems that this is an unwinnable game. And it is. But so is life and that hasn’t stopped us from playing it. With the right mindset, I am confident you can play the digital game, gain from it and even find joy in it.

First of all, accept that there is no finality, no magic ingredient, no “I won, they lost,” no performance hall of fame, no trophy for the fastest site on the planet. If you are anything like me, you wouldn’t chase those even if they existed.

Secondly, direct the majority of your efforts towards your best bet: people. We are a long way from a machine-to-machine web, and you shouldn’t be at the forefront of that. Cater to the person in front of the screen, and you will be rewarded, sooner or later. Patience and resilience are advised.

Thirdly, don’t forget to live a little and enjoy the experiences others have crafted for you. If you can learn their tricks along the way, all the better, but the main thing is to expose yourself to diverse experiences, both digital and non-digital. Clear eyes and open hearts are advised.

👋 Don’t worry, I won’t leave you dead in the water for long. In follow-up articles I will try and give you my understanding and approach for everyday challenges when it comes to web performance.

Thank you for taking the time to read this, regardless of your speed.

Update: Here is the first one focused on taking the first steps towards a speedy website and the second one about understanding images in a web context and keeping them in line with your web performance goals.

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