Mobile performance: Don’t panic, but it’s worse than we thought.

Earlier today, I was part of Neustar’s online panel about mobile performance. We all had a great time bandying around our favourite stats and research, and when it was over I was inspired to do a little more digging. I’ve found a couple of things that have kind of blown my mind, which I want to add to the dialogue now:

  • In just a few months, the load time for the average mobile retail website has almost doubled, from 5.47 seconds to almost 10 seconds. (I’m being a bit disingenuous here. More on this below.)
  • Mobile user expectations have grown radically. In 2009, 58% of mobile users expected a site to load as fast on their mobile device as on their desktop. In 2011, that number has shot up to 85%.

Mobile sites are even slower than we thought.

A while back, I wrote about indicators that mobile sites seem to be getting slower rather than faster. I cited research from Keynote and Gomez illustrating that the average average m-commerce site (according to their respective indices) loads in 5.47 seconds, up from 4.73 seconds the previous year. As it turns out, these estimates were way off the mark.

Here at Strangeloop, we’ve been tracking Keynote’s mobile e-commerce index since 2009, and we recently noted this dramatic change in load time:

Growth in page load time

At the end of March, the index stood at around 5.3 seconds. The latest index, for June 19, is 9.86 seconds.

It didn’t take long to figure out the cause. A couple of months ago, Keynote quietly announced that they were doubling their mobile index list and changing their performance monitoring methodology. Before, they focused solely on measuring mobile domains (i.e. m.URL.com). Now, according to Keynote’s mobile performance evangelist, Herman Ng:

“We now capture additional page load time as a result of URL redirection. Best practices would call for no more than two URL redirects. Each URL redirection requires an HTTP round-trip request between the mobile device and the retailer web server, all of which adds extra time to load the page. Retail sites with three or more redirects should definitely fine-tune the page setup to reduce unnecessary page load latency. Whenever possible retailers should make sure they use the smallest number of URL redirections, as this is an important area for optimizing performance.”

This is a promising step forward, and it reflects what many of us probably felt in our guts: that the 2-4 second load times being reported for leading sites were just not believable. If you look at Keynote’s latest index results, for June 19, you can see that the fastest site, Dell.com, loads in a much more realistic 5.18 seconds. The slowest site is HSN.com, at an equally realistic 18.18 seconds.

What’s very important to note here: It’s easy to dismiss this jump as being solely due to the change in methodology. But if you isolate just the past two months on the graph, you can see that load time is still trending upward. Between April 17 and June 19, the index has increased by 1.63 seconds. In other words, in just two months the load time of the average mobile site in the index has ballooned by 20%. There’s more going on here than just a change in methodology.

But wait, there’s more: Mobile users are more demanding than ever.

In 2009, Equation Research announced that 58% of mobile users expect a site to load at least as quickly on their device as it does on their desktop.  Users’ expectations have grown hugely since then. In a report that came out in March of this year, Tealeaf stated that:

  • 47% of consumers who have conducted a mobile transaction in the past year expect the experience on their phones to be better than the experience in-store.
  • 80% expect the experience to be better than or equal to in-store.
  • 85% expect the experience to be better than or equal to online using a laptop or desktop computer.

In conclusion: Don’t panic. (Okay, maybe panic a little bit.)

I’m taking the glass-is-half-full approach to these findings. Now that we have more accurate numbers to work with, it’ll be that much easier to make site owners aware of the urgency of fixing their mobile performance issues.

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