World Series of web speed: Are online ticketing agencies ready for Opening Day?

With Opening Day just around the corner, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at how some of the major online ticketing agencies perform. I got a few surprises. While a couple of sites offered a fairly speedy transaction experience, most were slow, and I was surprised to see which ones were slowest. But my biggest takeaway is that none of these sites are ready for the massive growth in mobile ticket purchasing that’s just around the corner.

Methodology

  1. Targeted 9 ticketing sites, ranging from smaller agents like FindTicketsFast.com to Ticketmaster and the official MLB.com site.
  2. Used Webpagetest.org to test the load time of each page in a transaction (ordering tickets for the same Rays vs. Red Sox game) up to, but not including, completing the purchase, as it would appear to a visitor using Internet Explorer 8. (Note that I used a custom script for running the tests, which took caching into account for each page of the transaction flow.)
  3. Calculated the total transaction time for each site.
  4. Took a deeper look at the numbers and individual test results to see if there were any trends.

Results

Transaction times: MLB ticket sites

Observation #1: Most transactions were slow.

While a couple of sites – Cheap MLB Tickets and Find Tickets Fast – had relatively fast total transaction times (12.08 and 15.03 seconds, respectively), the rest were much slower, with transaction flows ranging from 19.01 seconds to 43.37 seconds.

The average load time for all transaction pages across all the sites was 5.85 seconds. This might not sound like much, but as I regularly remind people, more than half of online shoppers will abandon a page after 3 seconds.

Observation #2: The official MLB site and Ticketmaster offered the slowest user experience — by a large margin.

I assumed these two sites would be among the fastest, but in fact Ticketmaster and MLB.com were by far the slowest, with total transaction times of 39.67 and 43.37 seconds respectively.

Looking at the test results, it’s easy to see why these transactions took so long. Over the course of the MLB.com transaction, there were a total of 636 page requests – content like images and third-party scripts that have to travel from the servers to the user before the page can render. MLB.com is pretty graphics intensive, so a lot of that content is individual image files. But when you look at waterfall charts for the site, you can see dozens of JavaScript and CSS files that are preventing visible content from loading. This is the kind of content you should defer or have load asynchronously to give your pages a huge performance boost right out of the gate.

Observation #3: The average transaction took five pages, not including checkout.

The number of pages in each transaction varied from four to six. From a usability perspective, this is a significant amount of friction. We know that the fewer pages in a transaction, the higher the number of visitors who convert (make a purchase, download an app, etc.).

There’s a reason why Amazon initiated one-click checkout a while back. They know that getting shoppers through the sales funnel faster leads to higher conversion rates, greater order value, and better customer satisfaction. To illustrate, there’s a case study that came out a few years ago that showed how one e-commerce site eliminated just one page in an online transaction and dropped their transaction abandonment rate from 45% to 33%.

Observation #4: For a fast ticket-buying experience, eBay is a solid bet.

I chatted with Sam Laird at Mashable about these results (read his subsequent post here), and he wondered how fast it would be to buy the same tickets on eBay. A few tests later and we have the number: 12.2 seconds, making eBay among the fastest options.

Observation #5: If these transactions are slow for desktop users, they’re even worse for mobile users.

These findings have huge ramifications for mobile consumers. A page that takes 15 seconds to load on your desktop could take a minute or longer to load on your smartphone, depending on your device and connection. Or worse, the transaction could end in an error message, which is what happened when I tried to time the MLB.com transaction on my iPhone:

Device/connection Transaction time
iPhone 4GS (3G network) 46 seconds (ended in error)
iPad (wifi) 62 seconds

 

MLB.com iPhone error page

Mobile ticket buying is already a big industry, and it’s only going to get bigger:

Should giants like Ticketmaster be running scared from smaller, faster ticketing agents like Cheap MLB Tickets?

In the short run, no. But in the long run, as the mobile ticketing market matures and consumers conduct more and more transactions via smartphone, those people aren’t going to wait minutes for each page in a 5-page transaction to load.

Some would argue that apps are the answer to these problems, and this is somewhat true, but only for power users. Mobile shoppers still use the web more than apps, according to a recent Nielsen study. While apps will continue to be popular, it’s incredibly short-sighted to think they’re a cure-all for performance.

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