Web performance and the 2012 US election: Is site speed an early indicator of future success?

According to this Mashable post, Barack Obama and each of the Republican candidates’ all claim to be pretty pro-technology, with strong anti-SOPA and anti-PIPA stances. I wanted to see if this pro-tech stance extends to web performance, so I decided to take a shallow dive into their websites and mobile strategies. I was actually kind of surprised to see some interesting patterns emerge.

1. Website speed correlates (mostly) to position in the primaries.

When you stack these numbers side by side, you see a rough relationship between site speed and recent primary results. At 46.4% and 31.9%, respectively, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich led the Florida primary. Interestingly, both also lead when it came to site speed. Gingrich’s site is fastest, with a load time of 7.7 seconds (maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to laugh at his plans to colonize the moon), while Romney’s loaded in 9.3 seconds. Rick Santorum and Ron Paul lagged in both areas, trailing far behind in votes and suffering load times of 10.7 and 13.5 seconds, respectively. (Interesting to note: President Obama’s site fared worst of all, with a load time of 13.6 seconds.)

How fast did websites load for Republican candidates?2. None of the candidates’ sites rose to the challenge of designing for mobile devices.

At recent Velocity conferences and elsewhere online, I’ve emphasized that one-third of mobile users want to access a site’s full content, not just a stripped-down “mobile” version. At the same time, there’s no doubt that making a full site usable on a mobile device is a major challenge — a challenge that none of the candidates rose to. Romney is the only candidate to serve a mobile site, which, to his credit, did link to the full site. The other candidates all deliver their full websites to mobile.

Mitt Romney has a mobile-optimized website

Given how tech-savvy President Obama’s people were throughout his first campaign, it’s not surprising to see that, with his new campaign site, they’ve adopted responsive design principles. Depending on whom you ask, responsive design is the savior of cross-platform development. Done well, it allows content to adapt to a variety of devices — desktop, tablet, and smartphone — maintaining content and design integrity while respecting the constraints of the device. (Here’s a longer review of the President’s new site and whether or not it serves as a good example of responsive design in action. I didn’t experience all the problems the reviewer did, so I’m wondering if they’ve since been fixed.)

3. Mobile experiences ranged from poor to terrible on Android over 3G.

I visited each of the candidates’ sites using two mobile devices and networks: my iPhone over wifi, and a borrowed Android over 3G. While all the sites loaded within 10-20 seconds on my iPhone, their performance on the Android via 3G ranged from slow to unbearable. Romney’s site was fastest, at 21 seconds, but it failed to size properly (see below) in the browser. The full sites for Gingrich, Santorum, and Paul each took several minutes to load.

MittRomney.com - mobile-optimized site on an Android device

4. On every site, the primary call to action — donate — was either lost or ineffective for mobile users.

On all the non-optimized sites, the “Donate” button was lost on the screen. Romney’s mobile-optimized site made it easy to find the “Donate” button, but on the Android it kept generating an error message saying there was a problem with the security certificate — not something a potential donor wants to read right before handing over their credit card information.

Spot the call to action on these non-optimized pages

Why should web performance matter for presidential hopefuls? (Hint: It’s about democracy)

It’s one thing to tout your pro-technology stance to curry favor with voters, but there are a couple of obvious, self-serving reasons to walk the walk when it comes to your web presence: it makes it easier for you to reach more people, and it makes it easier for your supporters to, you know, support you. Candidates may not care about this beyond the lip-service stage right now, but a few things to bear in mind down the road, when campaigning really heats up:

  • 25% of Americans who have mobile devices use mobile exclusively. This means 1 out of every 4 voters expects to be able to access the full site via their device.
  • According to the source in the point above and to this report from Pew Research, many members of the mobile-only group are technology late adopters, skewing toward older people and those with lower incomes. These groups have traditionally been heavily targeted by Republican candidates.
  • By the same token, people with lower incomes are more likely to be users of Androids and non-iPhone devices, and more likely to access the internet via 3G.
  • Only 28% of smartphone owners use an iPhone, according to Nielsen. Having a mobile site optimized only for iPhone users is like slamming the door on almost three-quarters

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