"We've become a society of chrono-maniacs." That was the assessment of the director of the Institute for the Future, back in 1998, in an article reflecting on the "rising perception that time is moving more rapidly, that less of it is discretionary, and that anything less than immediate is less than good."
What you make of this cultural trend is up to you, but 18 years later, our obsession with speed and our lack of available time has only intensified. In our always-on, mobile-enabled age, we're increasingly creatures with little patience and attention spans shorter than a goldfish.
Combine that with non-stop global news culture -- where we expect to witness world events in real time -- and there's not much room for mainstream news publishers to take things slow. They need to break stories quickly, and they need their content to load fast in the browser to hold onto visitors and generate ad revenue.
Given, too, that traditional newspapers are still trying to work out how to make their businesses viable in a new media landscape dominated by the likes of Huffington Post, Buzzfeed and Vice, they surely can't afford not to make load speed a priority.
But how well do UK newspaper websites perform when it comes to load speed? How do they all compare? And what does that mean for their users, and for the businesses themselves?
In an effort to answer these questions, I decided to do a bit of research. Below, you can see my findings, and I've taken a slightly speculative stab at quantifying the implications for both the people who get their news from these sites, and for the people responsible for making money from those visitors.
NB - The original images accompanying this post have disappeared - we're working hard to replace them.
UK newspaper homepage load times
*Tests were carried out using webpagetest.org on 13th November 2015. Each site was tested 3 times to generate an average load time.
Page Size vs Load Time
There is a strong correlation between the time taken for each homepage to load, and the size of the page. The Guardian has the smallest homepage (1.7MB) and was the third-fastest to load (2.6 seconds), whilst the Daily Mail homepage was a whopping 8.9MB, and clocked in at 9.6 seconds load time.
What users actually see
For users, the total time taken for a page to fully load (aka "fully rendered time") is less important than how long they have to wait before they see things beginning to appear on the page. Similarly, time-to-first-byte (TTFB) is a more important SEO metric than overall page load time. Using webpagetest.org again, I was able to visually compare what the experience looks like for users when they land on each homepage.
The first three seconds
TheGuardian.com is the only site in the experiment that visibly begins loading within the first 3 seconds. You can read more about how the Guardian strictly separated the loading of assets to improve rendering performance when they relaunched the site in 2013 here.
3.5 seconds -- 7.5 seconds
DailyStar.co.uk is the next site to begin visibly rendering, followed by Express.co.uk, which is fully loaded by the 4 second mark. The homepages of TheSun.co.uk and DailyMail.co.uk both also begin visibly loading after 4 seconds, but after 7.5 seconds, only the top nav is visible on DailyMail.co.uk. Independent.co.uk begins visibly loading after 5 seconds, but again, there's not much on the page yet to entice users. As for Telegraph.co.uk and Mirror.co.uk, there's still nothing but empty white space when we reach the 7.5 second mark.
The full results...
Telegraph.co.uk eventually starts visibly loading after 12 seconds, closely followed by Mirror.co.uk after 12.5 seconds. After 12.5 seconds, all the homepages pretty much look like homepages for the average user, but that's a long time in increasingly impatient world.
These figures aren't definitive -- load times will vary depending on users' devices, internet connection speed etc., but as a means of comparing the performance of the major UK newspaper websites, it's a good start.
What does this mean for each media outlet?
Load speed has a real business impact for the media outlets compared here. For some context, think about these figures...
Amazon has calculated that a page load slowdown of just one second could cost it $1.6 billion in sales each year, and Google has calculated that by slowing its search results by just four tenths of a second, they could lose 8 million searches per day---meaning they'd serve up many millions fewer online adverts. (Source)
Every second - indeed every fraction of a second - of delayed loading has a genuine cost.
It's impossible to know the exact impact of load time on visitor behaviour for each site, but research has suggested that 1 in 4 people will abandon a website if it takes more than 4 seconds to load. Based on this, and the results of our test, there's a strong possibility that The Telegraph, The Mirror and The Independent are losing 25% of their traffic. That will equate to a significant loss of ad revenue.
Telegraph.co.uk, for example, has 2 major ad slots on its homepage -- for argument's sake, let's assume the advertisers are paying £50 per thousand impressions. In November 2015, the site had around 5 million daily unique visits -- let's assume 25% of those entered the site on the homepage. Depending on what they count as a genuine ad impression, they could be losing something like £60k in revenue every day as a result of visitors who lose patience and abandon the site before it loads. This is a very, very crude estimate, but it's not hard to see how some of the most established UK newspapers' digital operations could potentially be losing tens of millions in revenue each year purely as a result of poor load speed performance. Then, of course, there's the whole issue of ad-blocking, but that's a topic for another post!
What's the impact on users?
Some users are more patient than others. Imagine if you never gave up waiting for a site to load -- how big a dent would this make on your free time?
Let's assume a hypothetical user visits his or her favourite news site 3 times a day, and waits patiently for the homepage to load. Over the course of a year -- how much time could they sink in the process?
What sites like The Mirror & The Daily Mail could be doing better
Another step we take when building sites is to make sure that images are fully optimised. There are a range of tools around that can help with this, and we usually automate this process as a build step to ensure that images are always optimised before deploying a website. We took a selection of 10 random images from the Daily Mail website and using ImageOptim found that on average the file size was reduced by 14%; up to 41.8% on one of the images!
Again this can't always be automated due to images being uploaded and published via a CMS, but un-optimised images are often the biggest cause of page weight, thus increasing load time.
Optimising images is something that The Guardian appears to have done well -- even going as far as using more modern image format -- WebP, which is known to be up to 26% smaller than other formats without losing quality. Web page performance is something that The Guardian has taken seriously for a long time, and I'm sure they'll continue to do a great job! Find more information on their process here.
Looking through the bottom 4 sites on our list above, they seem to be suffering from the same problems, which could be quick wins for them all if rectified.
New developments in mobile news content delivery
The way news content is delivered to users is ever-changing, and emerging developments are likely to shape this further in the near future -- in particular, Facebook Instant Articles and Google's Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP).
Facebook Instant Articles is a new way for publishers to display their content directly within the Facebook mobile app, "as much as 10 times faster than the standard mobile web." The forward-thinking Guardian, along with the BBC, were the first UK partners for Instant Articles, but a number of other publishers have now jumped on board, including The Daily Telegraph, The Mirror, The Daily Mail and The Economist, Sky News, sports site 90min.com and The Sun.
Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) is a Google-led project, aimed at "dramatically" improving the performance of the mobile web. When Google introduced AMP in October 2015, they noted that "Publishers around the world use the mobile web to reach...readers, but the experience can often leave a lot to be desired. Every time a webpage takes too long to load, they lose a reader---and the opportunity to earn revenue through advertising or subscriptions. That's because advertisers on these websites have a hard time getting consumers to pay attention to their ads when the pages load so slowly that people abandon them entirely." AMP HTML pages are basically lighter-weight versions of existing content that Google will begin serving to mobile users via Google Search, Google News, and other Google Products.
These frameworks are essentially in competition, with Facebook, Google, and also Apple locked in a battle for control of the ad economy on the mobile web. Any technology designed to give users a faster, slicker experience when accessing content on mobile is probably a good thing, but, is it good for publishers? "The answer to that won't be known for a while," says the Guardian.
Want to see more content like this? Follow us on Twitter for the latest thinking on all things digital from the team at Code.