Five mobile site performance challenges (and how to fix them)

Discover common performance issues that slow down mobile sites, and then learn best practices for mobile optimization.

This article was originally published on the SiteSpect site. It has been revised slightly for TechRepublic.

Mobile devices represent a significant, and growing, portion of all Internet traffic (15% according to the latest Mary Meeker Internet Trends report). Clearly, having a mobile site is important, but it also has to be fast and functional in order to deliver the best and most enjoyable user experience possible. 

So, what are some of the most common performance issues slowing down mobile sites?

  1. Making too many HTTP requests. Connection time and latency are two of the primary factors in mobile site performance and are directly related to the number of requests. As the number of HTTP requests made for different components (images, scripts, stylesheets, etc.) increases, so does the time it takes for the website to load on a mobile device.
  2. Images are large and not optimized for the screen size of the visitor's device. Larger images generally mean larger file sizes. As a result, the mobile browser will take more time to display images properly. Images should be served based on the visitor's device type, and should be appropriately sized to that device's screen size. Compression of images is naturally important to both the web and mobile, especially when a mobile device is using a 3G or 4G cellular connection.
  3. Redirects take up valuable loading time. According to Nicholas Zakaz of Yahoo!, redirects consume 40% of the time to load a page. Client-side redirects that utilize JavaScript are especially costly, as the mobile page will first have to render on the visitor's browser, and then redirect to the new page and load within the browser all over again.
  4. External JavaScript inhibits performance. As Bryan McQuade of Google's Page Speed team has said, "external JavaScript loaded early in the document (e.g., in the <head>) are performance killers, and they are especially expensive on mobile due to the higher round trip times associated with mobile networks."
  5. Loading the entire page takes time and creates a poor user experience. Loading the entire page of a mobile site can consume a significant amount of extra time and increase the number of requests that make the overall user experience poor. For example, if you have an image gallery on the lower section of a page and a smartphone visitor will not immediately see the gallery on their device, it will still cause everything else on the page to load more slowly as a result of the whole page loading at the same time.

There are a number of best practices for mobile optimization to address each of these five challenges and to ensure your mobile site is loading as quickly as possible. The end goal should be to load the mobile version of a page in one second, as that is when visitors begin to lose attention to your site. To get started, measure your mobile site performance, and then jump into the list of suggestions below to reduce mobile response times as close to one second as possible.

  1. Remove HTTP requests. This is crucial for mobile web performance, but how do you remove these requests without removing features and functionality? Image spriting is one example that removes individual HTTP requests as a result of concatenating images into one image. You can do the same thing with stylesheets and JavaScript files, but research from Google suggests that modern browsers perform better without concatenation of CSS and JavaScript. Another approach is inlining small images, CSS, or JavaScript into the HTML page. Regardless of which approach you take, I recommend A/B testing these optimizations, as they will have different impact on different pages, browsers, and devices. Then segment by device and look at the impact of testing by device and browser types on your optimizations to really focus on specific performance improvements for core segments of your audience.
  2. Reduce image size by compressing images and ensure you are using the optimal web format. Some common formats that generally produce small image sizes are JPG, PNG, and, in certain cases, GIF. In addition, mobile versions of the Chrome and Firefox browsers support a new image format called WebP that generally has much smaller file sizes. 
  3. Use server-side redirects to make page changes more efficient for the end-user. This may require changes to your URL structure and should be discussed with internal IT personnel before any changes are made.
  4. Minimize the amount of extraneous JavaScript and third-party scripts on your site. Ensure that any JavaScript content is loaded asynchronously so that the browser will not be blocked from processing other static content. Also, if you have JavaScript that only applies to the desktop version of your site on your mobile pages, be sure to remove it.
  5. Load content that the user will see "above the fold" right away. Lazy-load any additional content until needed. For example, for an image gallery, you may be able to load the current, previous, and next images only and then lazy-load remaining images to optimize performance. In addition, there are many cases where you can use CSS3 instead of images.

Take into account these best practices as you optimize your mobile site and, more importantly, A/B test each change to obtain a data-driven understanding of what works for your visitors. Real User Monitoring (RUM) metrics will allow you to measure crucial time-based information such as the amount of time a visitor stays on your mobile page.

Jeffrey Vocell is the Product Marketing Manager for SiteSpect, where he's responsible for strategy and communication of product messaging. Prior to SiteSpect, Vocell co-founded Trendslide, a mobile business analytics startup. He holds a B.S. in Business Management and Leadership from Daniel Webster College.