How to improve a bloated, ‘brand-killing’ enterprise website
Web Development

How to improve a bloated, ‘brand-killing’ enterprise website

As Rupert Goodwins wrote some time ago for IDG Connect, the web is becoming bloated. Little has changed since he penned that piece, except that the situation has worsened. This matters because bloated websites are bad for business.

Your website is a window into your organisation and also a primary sales and marketing channel. Yet from an end-user perspective the ethos behind many enterprise websites appears to be: “We've got you here and you'll never leave, so now we'll can bombard you with CPU-hogging rich media and bandwidth-sapping analytics while... wait, where did you go?”

A more effective approach might be: “You've arrived and we'd like you to stay a while, so we'll make your visit as enjoyable as possible, while learning more about you and making our pitch. Thanks for hanging around.” Yet for years enterprise websites have been heading in the opposite direction.

The publishing model is broken by horrible practices but there is a way out. Check out: Bloat-to-content ratio is killing the web – here’s how to fix it

The blame for this lies in several places. First, the revolution in JavaScript development. JavaScript used to be a fairly clunky way of providing client-side interactivity within web pages. Much of the code was spent finding out what browser the user was running, then delivering the necessary actions while taking into account the individual quirks of that browser. It was unreliable, and writing genuinely portable JS was difficult, but it was the only option for interactivity at the time.

Then came the libraries, such as jQuery, node.js, angular.js and many others. These took away much of the heavy lifting by providing ready-built routines that JS developers could call as required. JavaScript development took off like a rocket and now accounts for a big proportion of web-based applications.

Unfortunately it also hits users' devices hard. It's not for nothing that the NoScript Firefox plug-in, along with similar add-ons for other browsers, has become so popular. Partly this is due to an increasing desire for privacy and ad-blocking, but selectively disabling JavaScript also makes web browsing much faster.

Then there's CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) which began as a method of separating content from presentation but morphed into something so complex that even rendering an apparently static modern web page can take a good chunk of bandwidth and CPU power.

Embedded ads and videos add to the load, as does the wealth of analytics code designed to tell you why your visitors are inexplicably abandoning your website without completing your carefully-designed user experience journey.

Even HTML5 can be a hindrance rather than a help. It was designed to streamline the delivery of complex media over the web, but like a kid in a candy store, some web developers get carried away and over-indulge just because it's there.

In fact this is the crux of the matter: your own web developers. Nestled close to the server (at least in web topology terms), they sit in front of the latest top-end machines with ultra-fast internet connections. No matter how many bells and whistles they add to your site it always loads instantly for them, even in presentations to the CEO. Step outside the organisation, though, and things look a little different. Not everyone has the latest desktop or laptop. Not everyone instantly upgrades their phone to the latest model. Not everyone has unlimited bandwidth, CPU cycles and free time.

Excluding all but the bleeding-edge early adopters is no sane way to run a business. Along with social media, your website is your major internet presence. People will judge you by their online experience of your brand. If your site is slow, clunky and unresponsive for them, what does that say about your organisation?

To be fair, it's not just your web developers who are at fault. Often they're told what to do by a marketing department that wants to glean ever more information about users, or a CxO who's read about a new web technology and believes it to be essential. Sometimes it's hard to say no.

It can be eye-opening to see just how much of your website consists of bloat instead of actual content. There's no single metric for identifying whether your site is excessively bloated, but one interesting figure is the ratio between the page download size and the representation of that page as a graphical image. Imagine taking a screenshot of your website and saving it as a compressed image file. If the size of that file is significantly smaller than the total volume of content downloaded to make up the page – including HTML, images, JavaScript, style sheets, ads, etc. – then your page is bloated.

This metric is useful because it can be automated, with no need for anyone to define what's valuable content and what's just padding. You can test your own enterprise website here. If the score is much higher than one then you could do better. But how?

There's one sure-fire way to have a fast, accessible and user-friendly enterprise website. Confiscate your web developers' high performance development computers and replace them with five-year-old hardware. Retain the same OS for security reasons (it'll run like treacle, which will concentrate their minds) and throttle their internet connections to 1mbps or lower.

If you can find a working iPhone 4 or similar, let that be their primary mobile device for site testing. Give them the power to reject change requests that would seriously impact the user experience. Tell them their target is full-page load in less than eight seconds on all platforms from any location, then load them up with pizza and leave them to it.

Within a few weeks you should have a much-refined website designed for the users – your customers – that will be fast and responsive on the latest hardware yet comfortably usable on the older devices that the bulk of them still own.

In summary, if you want to attract and retain more visitors than your competition, a bloated, turgid website is not the way to do it.

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Alex Cruickshank

Alex Cruickshank has been writing about technology and business since 1994. He has lived in various far-flung places around the world and is now based in Berlin.  

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