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Jake Widman
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Speed Up Your Website To Keep Visitors Happy

Research shows that consumers are getting more and more impatient when it comes to waiting for Web pages to load. These six tips can help SMB unclog their websites and keep their customers "in the store."

Research shows that consumers are getting more and more impatient when it comes to waiting for Web pages to load. These six tips can help SMB unclog their websites and keep their customers "in the store."Every business needs a Web presence these days -- and most have one. But it's no longer enough to just be on the Web; your business is competing for eyeballs just as much as it's competing for customers. And these days, if you want to avoid driving visitors away in frustration, you need to make sure they get what they need quickly.

In 2008, the Aberdeen Group published research (PDF) indicating that just a one-second -- one second! -- delay in Web application response times can result in an 11% reduction in page views and a 16% reduction in customer satisfaction. Last September, Akamai Technologies released results of a Forrester study showing that 40% of online shoppers will give a Web page only three seconds to load before moving on. And this spring, Google started including page load speed in its pagerank algorithm, meaning that a slow site can not only discourage visitors, it can reduce the chance that they'll even find your site in the first place.

With those ominous figures in mind, we spoke with Ken Godskind, chief strategic officer at AlertSite, a Web application performance monitoring company. Godskind has published a blog on how to speed up a website, and he stressed its importance to SMBs. "Being online is supposed to be the great equalizer," he said, "allowing relatively small businesses to compete toe-to-toe with large enterprises." But a slow website will negate much of that advantage.

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Godskind's primary tip is to put visitor tracking JavaScripts at the bottom of the page, and other scripts as low on the page as possible, to make sure your significant content loads as soon as possible. "This is the most elementary step," he says. On the other hand, he says, put your style sheets at the top. Most modern Web pages rely on Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) to tell the HTML what to do, and "the browser can't 'paint' the page properly before it has access to that 'dictionary.'"

A third suggestion is to eliminate any unnecessary delays in loading important content by making your images as small as you can without compromising their quality. Set static content to expire far in the future, so visitors' browsers will pull it from their caches rather than need to reload it on a return visit. And consider signing up with a content distribution network such as Amazon CloudFront or Limelight to store large files on multiple servers, so visitors will be downloading from the server closest to them.

Fourth, Godskind recommends taking steps to limit the number of separate HTTP requests a browser must make to retrieve all the elements of your page. For example, he suggests, use CSS sprites to enable the browser to download all your pages' small graphics as one large image and use CSS commands to display them where needed, as opposed to requesting each one separately. Godskind's fifth tip -- to deply Web acceleration hardware -- is more applicable to large enterprises than to SMBs, because such hardware is costly. "At the same time, many smaller businesses use service providers to deliver their sites," he adds. "They can certainly ask if their service provider uses such hardware."

"I would have added a sixth tip if I'd thought of it," Godskind says. "Make sure your core content is not delayed by extraneous elements like ads or other third-party content. If you put them in iframes, they'll load asynchronously from your core content rather than making it wait."

Godskind urges SMBs to use Yahoo's YSlow or Google's Page Speed plugins for Firefox to analyze the performance of their websites and to monitor them on an ongoing basis. With a little attention, implementing even one of these tips (particularly the primary one) can make a dramatic difference to your online visitors' retention and loyalty.

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