The Performance Revolution Part I – Web Performance Optimization (WPO)

One aspect of sustainable web design is making your website efficient at the code level. Efficiency also extends to higher level (User Experience, or UX, is essentially the art of efficient user interation design) but code is a common level that there’s no excuse for not fixing on your site. Efficiency gives immediate payoff for your users, and also can be part of a long-term sustainability plan. If your website is efficient, it has less impact on the Internet ecosystem’s resources.

New measures of web performance are being developed, which will make it easier to compute the efficiency of your website’s operation. In many cases, these will be APIs that you can access in JavaScript.

There are also plenty of companies already in the Performance Optimization space. For a fee, they’ll analyze your site and make it more efficient – a sort of “site engineer for hire”. This translates to sustainability locally, since you will pay for less electricity and bandwidth, and at a higher level in the system by making the web faster, less energy-intensive, and easier to use for your audience.

The two big areas which impact sustainability are Web Performance Optimization (WPO) and Search Engine Optimization (SEO).

Web Performance Optimization (WPO) looks at speeding up your web pages. Many WPO companies also offer “fast” Content Delivery Networks, or CDN.

WPO companies grew out of earlier Performance Monitoring companies. If you look for these services, be advised that many companies do monitoring, but only a few can provide the tools you need to optimize youre website.

Good WPO wil have the following Effects:

  • Faster Page loads
  • Smaller downloads
  • Less frequent downloads of content that is already cached
  • More efficient code processing by web browsers (the main issue) and servers
  • More efficient rendering by web browsers

The net effect at each level is this:

  • At the “website as a machine” level your site will run more efficiently, faster, and consume less bandwidth, affecting server-side sustainability
  • Your site will require less processing. Un-optimized downloads causes servers and browsers to run in a “quirksmode” – like way, burning up extra CPU cycles to download and render the page. So, WPO will result in a net drop in the required electrical power to deliver its services. Since most of the inefficiency is on the client side, the biggest gains may be at that level.
  • At the audience level, the User Experience (UX) will be better simply because the site is faster and more predictable in its operation. This means people spend less time looking at their screens to complete tasks, use search engines, less, and so on. The “bump” in sustainability is probably smaller, since site optimization doesn’t fix bad  Ui and UX which impact sustainability

A good general reference on the value of WPO is found here, on Steve Souders’ blog:

Lots of “higher-level” optimization (e.g. CSS) stuff here – great!

Related: (lots of business wonder stories of the effect of speed on conversion)

What’s missing, at the engineer level, and the WPO company level, is the realization that WPO is one of several routes to sustainablity. Unlike SEO, the WPO industry doesn’t tout “sustainability” as a benefit yet.

The same positive effects that cause audience conversion to customers will reduce energy and resource consumption, both at the level of your website, and at the level of user experience. That makes the overall site, and the Internet as a whole, more sustainable in the long run. At present, the site engineers are trying to justify WPO solely at the level of increased “conversion” or business. But, in the future, as “sustainability” becomes part of all projects, WPO will be one of the key “green ingredients” mixed into a sustainable model.

Linkedin group:

Here’s a fast test you can run on your site to make a preliminary examination or your own efficiency. I might add that has greate articles and resources on trends in web usage:

Google’s online Page Speed

Pingdom online web performance tool 

AOL WebPageTest


Here’s a longer list of various online optimization tools:

Some companies in the WPO space include:

Currently smaller companies and freelances do little or no WPO. This is unfortunate, since there are many relatively easy-to-use methods for accomplishing it during development. While some aspects of WPO are arcane (server directives) or only available to larger companies (Content Delivery Networks), others are easy to implement.

I said that WPO is not the same as sustainability, and one reason is efficiency “rebound”, often described as “Jevons’ Paradox”.

According to this principle, if you ONLY increase the efficiency of a process, all you do is induce greater consumption. Jevon noted this in the 1860s – more efficient use of coal to produce energy resulting in a net increase in coal consumption. On the web, just increasing the speed that I can order products may simply trigger overconsumption of goods and services, with a net effect that the Internet has to consume more power and resources than before efficiency was implemented.

Sustainability rescues us by focusing us on the design level. Increases in efficiency have to be coupled with re-thinking our front-en UX and UI, even our business model so we wipe out efficiency gains.

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