News Leadership 3.0

April 24, 2012

Why the mobile web is slow, and your mobile site must be FAST!

By Amy Gahran

Take out your cell phone, look at it and count to nine. That’s just slightly less time than it takes the average web page to load on a mobile web browser over a U.S. wireless carrier’s data network. It feels painfully slow. And unfortunately, the widespread rollout of carriers’ faster “4G” networks probably won’t help that situation much.

Which means that if your news or community site isn’t optimized to load very quickly on cell phone web browsers, and be easy and fast for mobile users to navigate, you’re facing a major and growing disadvantage to building your digital audience and business…

For lots of reasons, a mobile-optimized website should form the core of any news or community site’s mobile presence. Even NPR recommends that in order to grow their mobile audience, news sites should focus resources on the mobile web, rather than on building platform-specific mobile apps.

Last week Olga Kharif of Bloomberg reported that “twice as many mobile-phone users abandon a website for reasons such as sluggishness than their desktop counterparts.”

The Bloomberg article was focused mostly on e-commerce sites, which lose sales when mobile users get frustrated and leave. However, the same principle can apply to any type of website.

According to Kharif, the typical webpage currently takes 9.2 seconds to load on a mobile browser over a U.S. carrier’s data network. (Wifi load times are usually faster, but carrier networks are far more ubiquitous than wifi connections.) Also, “Almost half of mobile users are unlikely to return to a website at all if they had trouble accessing it from their phone.”

Kharif reported on new efforts by Google, Microsoft, Akamai Technologies, and other major internet companies to improve mobile web browsers, offer new mobile performance optimization tools for website owners, and to change how some basic internet technologies function.

Google’s goal is to make the overall mobile web experience twice as fast as it is today.

...OK, take out your cell phone again, look at it, and count to four-and-a-half. That’s better—but compared to the desktop experience it still feels a bit long to wait for a webpage to load.

Why is the mobile web so slow? Sometimes it’s a combination of where the mobile user is and how strong or congested the carriers’ network is in that location. But the servers where websites resides, browser technology, and other internet software also play a role in slowing down the mobile web experience, despite faster carrier networks. All of this is beyond the control of web publishers.

But Kharif notes: “Often it’s because the webpage wasn’t designed to load quickly on a wireless device.”

That’s where news and community site owners can take action to turn mobile media to their advantage.

Where’s your mobile site?

Many news and community sites lack a simple mobile-optimized layout. Instead, they display a miniature version of the full website in the mobile browser—which then requires more time and effort to pinch, zoom, and scroll merely to see what’s on the page.

For instance, the Bay Citizen (a nonprofit, well-staffed local news site in the San Francisco Bay Area that has attracted millions of dollars in funding) apparently lacks a mobile-optimized version. Try loading in your phone’s web browser and see what happens. (Note: On Apr. 25 The Bay Citizen tweeted: “We’re working on a mobile site as we speak!” Stay tuned.)

For contrast, try loading (a smaller nonprofit news site) in your phone’s browser. That’s how a mobile-optimized site can look and perform. See the difference?

I’ve heard some smaller digital news publishers say they don’t offer a mobile-optimized layout for revenue reasons: the ads they run on their full site won’t display well or at all in a single-column layout on a small touchscreen.

Meanwhile, I’ve noticed that the mobile versions of mainstream daily news sites often offer few ads, and these are generally supplied through mobile ad networks—which typically provide relatively lower quality, less relevant ads and less revenue per ad. This, combined with a “shovelware” approach to the mobile web (which replicates the worst digital missteps of the news business from the 1990s), signals to users and advertisers alike that the mobile site is a less-valued, lower-priority product.

That’s just plain bad for business.

However, since mobile devices are fast becoming the most common way for people to access the internet in the U.S., failing to figure out how to place and sell relevant mobile-optimized ads because you believe this might undercut the ads on your desktop site seems shortsighted, to say the least.

So far, many news publishers have developed mobile apps which deliver ads as well as content. Since apps store many design elements on the phone, they have to download relatively less data each time they’re used compared to a mobile webpage. So news venue apps often perform faster and display ads and content more uniformly and reliably than the mobile web.

...Which is really nice—except that apps don’t always support inbound links that people encounter on search engines, around the web, in social media, or in e-mails or text messages. Plus you need to build and maintain separate versions of your app for each mobile platform (Apple’s iOS, Android, etc.). And finally users must download, install, and remember to launch your app. (According to research by Localytics, over 75% of mobile apps don’t get used more than 10 times.)

So until typical U.S. mobile web pageload times improve substantially, the best strategy to grow your digital audience and build your business is to offer a mobile-optimized version of your website. Today.

How to make your site mobile-friendly and fast

This can be accomplished by offering a separate mobile layout (“theme”) that gets served when a mobile visitor is detected by your server—you can use cookies to give individuals the option to display the full site on return visits if they prefer.

Or, if you’re building a new site or doing a total site redesign, you might adopt more advanced web design strategies—notably responsive web design, which reflows and changes dynamically to best suit the type of device a user happens to have, from a large computer monitor to a tiny mobile web browser.

Smaller and newer sites often have an advantage on this front—their websites typically rely on newer content management system technology that makes it easier to deploy mobile themes and responsive design.

Regardless of how you deploy your mobile web presence, if your site is ad supported it’s crucial to learn about, and to educate your advertisers about, mobile advertising. The Mobile Marketing Association has compiled detailed, useful mobile advertising guidelines.

Eventually mobile web speeds will catch up with the desktop web experience—but when? Lelah Manz, chief strategist for e-commerce at Akamai, told Bloomberg this could happen by 2014.

That might be true for the average e-commerce site focused on direct sales, since they have the strongest motivation to optimize. But for content-focused sites, including news and community sites, I’ll bet mobile users will still be waiting, and waiting, and waiting, for a while past that.

Which means that publishers who start taking their mobile web performance seriously right now have a window of opportunity to gain a competitive advantage not only with the fastest-growing part of the digital audience, but also with advertisers.

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The Knight Digital Media Center at USC is a partnership with the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. The Center is funded by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.


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Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

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