The Cost of Website Obesity


I've been creating websites since the mid 90's, and in that time the web has changed a lot, mostly for the better in terms of style, but certain problems have persisted and I'm going to focus on just one for now: size.

As internet connections got faster, with early cable modems offering ten times the speed of 1990's modems, and many city dwellers today enjoying speeds 1,000 times faster than that, efficiency and the underlying size of a page became less of a priority, and beautiful magazine style layouts with big detailed images and interactive galleries powered by javascript became the norm. A new breed of designers entered the industry who hadn't even been born when the web was invented and they built sites using "frameworks" which are pre-built libraries of code that you can just add to your web page to get all sorts of cool, interactive features with the most minimum of effort. Perhaps you wanted your photo gallery to fade pictures in and out smoothly, so you'd find a framework that offered that function and you'd add it. All of it. Even if you only needed that one small feature. Maybe you liked the style of interactive menus from another framework, no problem, just add it, including all its other features you don't like or need. Your page might take a second or two extra to load, but who's counting? It's nothing in the grand scheme of things, plus you got the job done quickly.

I should point out that I'm not against frameworks, or javascript itself, I also like big beautiful photos and nice typography. These technologies allow us to create whole applications that run in our web browsers, used well this is pretty cool. But not everything is an app. For example a blog (like this one) is not an app. A news website is not an app. There are plenty of things that are not apps but instead are simply pages. Normally it's just an interesting text article and some nice photos thrown in. So why do many sites, even simple blogs, take so long to load? This post explains things well: The Website Obesity Crisis

So what about a simple blog? Lets take a look for ourselves...

I decided to compare one of the blog pages on this site to a similar type of page on the popular blog hosting site, Wordpress. I could have made the comparison with almost any site but I went with Wordpress because they're the market leader in terms of customer base and I'm very familiar with Wordpress as I've been using them myself for probably 10 or 12 years. I'd describe myself as something of a Wordpress fan.

In order not shame any specific persons Wordpress site I compared a page on their "demo" site.

 Wordpress Standard Blog Page

This is their Wordpress page based on the "Independent Publisher 2" theme.

It has an eye catching image the full width of the page, uses a clean layout with no ads etc.

The article itself is short with only a single photo they do have some tiny thumbnails to represent the author and a commenter.

The theme is written in the latest HTML 5 using CSS 3 and is a responsive design that automatically adjusts itself to fit different sized device screens, from smartphones through tablets to full desktop monitors.

I really like it.

 WenPress Standard Blog Page

 

This is my WenPress page based on the default "blog" theme.

The "featured image" at the top of the post is a similar size to the one in the Wordpress page, again there are no ads and it's a clean single column layout.

The article itself is much longer and has 2 additional photos so we're talking more "content" than the Wordpress "demo" site but that's to be expected.

There are no social media icons or user thumbnail photos but I feel the other 2 images in the page content more than balance that out. If anything there should be a size advantage to the Wordpress page as it has less content...


Loading Speed

To demonstrate the time difference in loading speed between a Wordpress blog and a WenPress blog, I used the excellent simulator on www.webpagetest.org. to simulate loading the page via a good old 56k dial-up modem.

We're looking at two numbers. The first is how long before the page appears in the browser so the user can interact with it, and the second is how long it takes for the page to completely finish loading.


SiteTime to InteractiveTime to Finish
Wordpress34.7 seconds94.6 seconds
WenPress4.7 seconds18.8 seconds

I don't think anyone would want to go back to browsing pages via a dial-up modem, although it's a daily reality for more people than you might think. Even in the USA, AOL has over 2 million dial-up subscribers, even if that were only 0.5% of the market, globally that's a lot of people...

The sub 20 seconds managed by WenPress under those circumstances is probably tolerable but I'll bet a rare thing on the wider web, and the painful 94 seconds taken by Wordpress is probably a lot better than most mainstream sites. I suspect the first 34 seconds it takes to even begin displaying the page is more of a frustration than the total load time, the sub 5 second it takes WenPress must be nirvana by comparison... To understand this massive difference in performance we need to take a closer look at what constitutes a page.

Page Breakdown

Resource Type
WenPress
Wordpress
Images74.0 KB245 KB
Javascript0.0 KB
99.3 KB
CSS Styling
3.3 KB
59.1 KB
HTML6.0 KB
30.0 KB
TOTAL83.3 KB
433.4 KB

Is there any reason to be concerned about unnecessary page bloat beyond the sub 1% of users who are accessing the site via modem? Even developing countries have higher bandwidth from their cell service these days right? Maybe, but even if they do, there is the cost of that metered connection to consider.

Cost to Browse

The cost of Internet service varies by country, just as income does. There is an excellent website, www.whatdoesmysitecost.com, that can tell you what it would cost for a user in a given country to access a page on your website, either in cents or as a percentage of their daily income. So let's compare the two sites from the point of view of a user in Madagascar:

Wordpress:

Browsing 100 pages per day would cost them 22% of their daily income.

WenPress:

Browsing 100 pages per day would cost them their 4% of their daily income.

It's a sobering thought and another indication that the digital divide is a very real thing.

I firmly believe that access to information should be free, wherever you are in the world, but if as a society we can't afford to make it free, we should strive to make it as cheap as possible. And no, displaying ads and selling data about your users is not giving them something for free. That comes at a very high price...

Granted I can't change the business model of social media networks or search engines, but I can make accessing my own sites as cheap as possible by keeping things as efficient as I can. And as a side benefit, the more efficient something is the less it costs to run, so I don't need to display ads or sell my users data.

 

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