Performance Tuning: 4 Things that Make or Break Usability


Welcome to this five-part series of articles on website conversion!

In this series, we’ll take a close look at ways to convert your website visitors into happy customers. Each article will focus on a set of related conversion topics and suggest specific actions you can take today to optimize your visitors’ experience.

We’ll look at everything from website performance to your visitors’ emotional experience. We’ll also briefly touch upon the art of split and multivariate testing.

We hope you find these articles helpful in your journey to optimal website conversion!


thumbnail series2Your business uses its website to generate revenue. Period. So any problems with website performance will directly affect your website conversion.

Consider that visitors in a traditional brick-and-mortar store are willing to tolerate minor inconveniences like a freshly mopped floor that may be a bit slippery. Why? Because they’ve taken the time to get to the store’s location and invested in the journey to purchase.

But online visitors have not invested anything. They lose nothing by leaving, so one minor inconvenience due to poor website performance, and they’re gone.

Your website’s performance can have a huge impact on your conversion rate. Let’s look at four performance issues that are critical to your success.

Page Loading Speed

Visitors are impatient. They will leave your site if the initial landing page doesn’t load in a reasonable amount of time—and the definition of “reasonable” grows shorter every day.

According to a KISSmetrics survey, you’ll lose nearly 7% of your visitors for each second of load time. Which means a four-second load time will result in a loss of nearly 25% of your visitors!

This news should shock you. You’ll lose an opportunity to convert visitors before they’ve even had a chance to get your initial sales pitch!

How do you speed up your website?

You can uncover issues with page loading time using an online profiler like Pingdom. You don’t have to check all pages, but you should, at the very least, check the likeliest landing pages.

Recognize that pages consist of a lot of files, such as pictures, scripts and style sheets. You should profile the load times of each file to get hints as to where the problems may be.

Pingdom Report

A “Waterfall” report from Pingdom, itemizing file-load timing on a web page

 Action – Before you start making any changes, establish a base line on your critical pages. Analyze the results to see how long it takes to load different components. Focus on each of the components to see how they can be optimized. For example:

  • Optimize Pictures – Render pictures to the minimum physical size needed. Just because it’s possible to have the browser render a picture at half size doesn’t mean you should. If the picture is rendered to 100 x 200 pixels, make sure the corresponding jpeg is rendered to that size. Also, compress jpegs as much as possible while maintaining an acceptable visual quality.
  • JavaScript – It’s easy to be lazy and include a whole library of JavaScript functions, even though you only use one or two functions. Reduce your JavaScript load time by including only sub-sections of libraries wherever possible. Also make sure to use the “min” version of scripts, if available.
  • CSS – Eliminate unused styles and style sheets. Your website designer may have included some CSS libraries that are not being used. Inspect each library to see if it really needs to be included.

After optimizing your pages, compare the results using your baseline. This will give you direct feedback on your success.

Tip – Every second you shave off a page’s load time represents 7% more customers! So even if you need to pay for optimization tools, compare the 7% against the cost.

Browser Compatibility

Have you ever come across a website that says, “Best when viewed on Internet Explorer?” Does a piece of you die inside when you see this? It should!

You should refuse to tolerate this in your own website design. You will lose visitors. Even if you believe that 80–85 percent of web browsers are using IE (which is a very dated view), you will alienate 15–20 percent of your visitors right away. Can you afford to lose this much business?

You can use Google Analytics (or similar) to see what types of browsers are accessing your site. Then use an online tool like Browsershots to test the level of browser compatibility.

Browsershots also lets you test across all browser revisions, so you can test compatibility back to earlier versions of browsers.

Browsershots Report

Snapshots of web pages under various browsers, as reported by Browsershots

 Action – Identify the most popular browsers—including revisions—that are hitting your site, and work down the list to ensure compatibility.

Understand the financial tradeoffs involved. For example, is it worth the expense of testing and fixing your site to run a particular version of a particular browser even though only one percent of your customers are using that browser?

Tip – Don’t implement the latest HTML technology on your site (e.g., automatic shadows in CSS3) unless you provide a graceful fallback for older browsers.

Responsive Design

Does your site render on mobile and tablet devices? Does it respond to the different screen widths so people can use it without pinch-zooming and squinting?

Responsive Design is becoming a bigger topic every day. While looking for browser incompatibility, as described in the previous section, you may find that a significant percent of your visitors are using mobile devices.

An excellent article in Forbes describes the urgency of implementing a responsive design. It also highlights some good techniques for determining the number of mobile devices accessing your site as well as a great way to spot trends in this area.

But research has already shown that consumers are using multiple devices each day to browse the Internet. For example, a study by Monetate reveals that one-fourth of visits to ecommerce websites now come from a mobile device, while year-over-year PC sales are on the decline.

The bottom line is that you ignore mobile browsers at the cost of losing visitors.

While it may cost some money to retain a website designer to implement a responsive design, you need only look at the increasing percentage of your mobile viewers to perform a quick cost analysis and determine the cost of not implementing a responsive design.

As mentioned in the previous section, you can use Google Analytics (or similar) profiling tools to determine the number of customers accessing your site on mobile devices. Then look deeper and determine the bounce rate among visitors using mobile devices. If it’s higher than your average bounce rate, you have a problem.

Action – Make your website responsive, even if it requires a site redesign. Your server needs to be able to detect browser screen width and serve the appropriate pages.

Is it expensive? It may be. But compare the cost of the redesign with the number of potential visitors you will gain.

Also, establish a baseline of mobile visitor bounce rate so that you can compare the results after you’ve implemented the changes. This will help you justify the cost.

Tip – Mobile screens provide limited real estate, so focus on providing only the minimal information to your mobile users, thereby streamlining their experience.

Link Integrity

Do you have any “404″ errors on your site resulting from broken links? This type of problem signals that you are not maintaining your site and may telegraph incompetence to your visitors.

The bottom line is that broken links puts your credibility at risk.

There are dozens of link-checking sites online that can review your entire site and look for links going nowhere. The W3C organization maintains a link checker that checks your site for link problems.

W3C link checker

Validating links with the W3C link checker. Note the 404 error.

 Action – Navigate to a link checking site and enter your website’s URL. You may have to wait a while, but the results are worth the wait. You’ll receive a comprehensive list of broken links that you can address one at a time.

Run this test after each website update or at some periodic rate, and fix the links.

Tip – Customize your “401″ page in case visitors see it before you can fix it. Apologize for the inconvenience and offer some helpful suggestions, such as linking to a help page or a contact form.

Moz 404 page

Moz’s 404 Page


Your goals for your website likely include one or more of the following:

  • Search engine optimization
  • Move prospects into and through the sales funnel
  • Build and nurture relationship
  • Drive action

All of them can be affected by the issues we discussed above. Problems with website loading speed, browser compatibility, responsive design and link integrity can drive off visitors and lose sales.

While it’s true that other issues, such as logic and flow, user interface, emotion and feedback are important, they mean little unless the performance of the website allows a path for visitors to convert to customers.

Stay tuned! In the next article in this series, we’ll focus on the importance of providing logic and direction for your visitors as they work their way through your site on their path to conversion.

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