Outdoor Gear Websites - The Need for Speed
SPEED - it's elusive, complicated and a crucial competitive element in retailing outdoors equipment online. The metrics on how much page load speeds impact user engagement and purchase conversion are stark... and getting starker if you're in the slow lane.
Google has a mass of data on ecommerce and other internet players like Akamai and Aberdeen Group regularly analyse the various impacts of faster and slower pages. Here are a few more recent take-outs:
Every second of delay reduces visitor satisfaction by 16% and conversions by 7% (Aberdeen Research)
74% of users will abandon a mobile site if page load takes more than 5 seconds (Crest Tech)
Conversion rates peak on sites with 2 second average load times (Akamai)
You get the picture. Despite all the investment that ecommerce managers and digital marketers put into seo, site layout, great visuals, slick checkouts and delivery options, you can lose trust, traffic and transactions just be being slower.
WHY IS SPEED GETTING MORE IMPORTANT?
This question is simple to answer, but highlights the need for a multi-faceted understanding of what's in play for outdoors equipment retailers who typically need to employ high-quality graphics, lots of product information and lots of choice - all things which mitigate against speed unless you're focused on it.
Ecommerce is a very competitive world (hardly a revelation!) and the outdoors sector is no exception. The average online shopper visits sites with top-line tech and teams that set new standards continually and they measure most other sites against those expectations. Therefore you need to be faster, just to stand still.
Google has been increasing the weighting it gives to site speed in its algorithm for search rankings (a factor since 2010) and has recently separated it out into its own category.
Google's action is logical because it knows that most ecommerce is now mobile-based and that speed is REALLY important to mobile users. Yet many sites work more slowly for mobile users.
Why is speed so important to visitors? Because, like traditional shopping, ecommerce is now ubiquitous and offers lots of shopping options and customers hate the digital equivalent of busy aisles, slow checkout queues, not being able to see what they want - especially when the next shop is just 2 clicks away.
WHICH RETAILER WINS THE RACE... FOR NOW?
A quick browse around some of the UK's biggest outdoors retailers will give you some idea of who's hot and who's not, but I'm lucky to have tools that really take apart a website's performance and remove the subjectivity. To conduct this test, I've looked at outdoors retailers that will be familiar to pretty much everyone and the tests were conducted within a 2 hour period to remove the impact of traffic differentials (a website infrastructure will have a very different response when busy at lunchtime than at 2am in the morning). The tests focused solely on the homepages (almost always the most-visited page) and emulated an iPhone 6, 7 or 8 user connected over 4G.
So, what did it look like:
And now you're still wondering "who's the winner here?". That's because page speed isn't simple and the big players spend a lot of time and money trying to understand and improve it. As you can see, the Gaynors website does best for a couple of measures, even though it looks slow if you were just to measure the total page load time (as many simple tools will do). In fact, you'll notice that there's little correlation (and big time gaps in some cases) between 'Real User Experience' and 'Total Time to Load' so, before we get into WHY, let's quickly understand these metrics:
PageSpeed Score - I've taken this particular score from Google's PageSpeed Insights toolkit, principally because it's quite a sophisticated measure and it also tells us a lot about how the dominant search engine feels about ta particular page. Scores over 80% show good technical implementations and will tend to suggest good user experiences, too.
Real User Experience - this is a crucial metric, as it simulates the time at which a website user will feel that a page has pretty much loaded what they need i.e. it's largely about visual and navigational components. The PageSpeed Score above also incorporates elements of this approach. Ultimately, it's always about user perception so, if you can develop a website where the user-centric elements load first, almost regardless of the total load time, you'll please your customers and the search engines. Blackleaf illustrates this well, with their 75% score, sub-2 sec RUE, yet a really slow 8.5 sec total page load time.
First Contentful Paint - Until recently, this strange-sounding measure wasn't on most web optimisers radar. That's changed since Google's recent announcement that it's a key element of their new mobile-first speed measure (that affects rankings). Put simply, it's the number of seconds before a meaningful visual element can be seen by the user (again, the user experience is core). That could be a menu bar, a page header, etc. It tells the user "we're coming!". This is often a big failing for even quite lightweight pages, if they've been poorly implemented. Ellis Brigham's homepage is a good example of how not to do it, with the First Contentful Paint happening after 4 secs (research suggests that they've already lost as much as 50% of the traffic by now), despite having a page of only 1.4Mbytes that then loads in the following 0.6 secs.
Total Time to Load - Hopefully self-explanatory, in that it's the number of seconds it takes for a webpage to load completely. Unfortunately, quite a few page speed tools use this measure. It's increasingly unhelpful as many sites now have pages which 'call' external services for analytics, behavioural analysis, livechat, etc. that can all take several seconds to load, but have little impact on the user experience or the search engines. It's probably one to just keep an eye on, in case there's a real lag (10+ secs), but don't worry.
Page Size - this is just the basic amount of data contained in the page. Whilst there's no direct correlation with speed (due to differences in technical implementations between sites), larger pages will take longer to load on like-for-like platforms. The Blacks page illustrates nicely the impact of a large page combined with weak technical implementation. It's a good idea to monitor page size, especially with homepages that often get larger over time with chunky images, social content, etc. I like to keep even content-rich pages below 2Mbytes.
WHAT'S THE ANSWER?
Well, now that you know quite a bit about page speed, hopefully the two things that stand out are that modelling the user experience is critical to success and that a combination of excellent technical implementation (platform choice + developer activity) and small page sizes will give you the best chance of being competitive on speed for both customers and the search engines that use it a ranking factor.
Also remember that Google now takes a largely mobile-first approach to analysis and ranking - and speed is a bigger success factor on mobile than on laptop.
If you want to discuss this topic in more depth, understand how you're performing against your competitors, or connect your web agency with Resonant (most of my projects involve working with agencies to maximise the client benefit of their activities), please get in touch.