We now access the Internet at an average global speed of 4.5 Mbps, according to a recent Akamai report. Compare this with the days of tweaking and cajoling already lean sites to squeeze through a dial-up connection and it would appear that web designers in 2015 have a much easier time than in the 1990s when it comes to serving content at top speed.
But websites can still seem surprisingly slow, even when accessed on a modern desktop machine connected to a fat pipe delivering them at several times the global average. Switch to a tablet or a smartphone on even 3G and you can end up thinking that web designers have given up on the old Holy Grail of fast-loading pages. Regardless of the connection we’re using, many of us have seen ads popping into existence on our tablets after a page has apparently rendered, mischievously intercepting a touch meant for a different link.
A recent study by the Monday Note of some popular news sites showed that ads could certainly play a part, but advertisers are slow to admit any blame. To make things even more confusing, many sites also include dozens (or hundreds) of trackers which – although relatively small – can add up.
But in the end, it may not matter whether publishers or advertisers are ultimately responsible. With little control over other factors, some users are already being tempted to strip out ads and regain at least the impression of speed.
Data from our 2014 Adblocking Report (PDF) shows that 8% of adblockers are motivated by performance concerns:
The reality is that extensions such as Adblock Plus have been shown to actually slow down some websites, but there are lighter alternatives on the way, such as the upcoming adblocking capabilities of iOS9. Ultimately, users concerned with speed will find ways to remove elements which they perceive as slowing them down.
Advertisers are not yet fully aware of the threat of adblocking, so it may be premature to expect them to do anything, but publishers are already noticing the effect on their bottom line. Faced with extinction, maybe publishers and their web designers can at least do their bit to stem the tide of adblocking by turning to some old but still valid principles:
Web design needs to cater to the masses. Only rarely can a site be successful if it is aimed at the most advanced 10% of users. Thus, even though high-end users may have very fast broadband these days, web design must aim at optimal usability over more widely available speeds. Jakob Nielsen
Where publishers may see a challenge, Facebook has seen an opportunity, offering an easy way out by allowing content producers to abdicate responsibility and deliver content via the sleek siren call of Facebook Instant Articles. Facebook has done much to assuage publisher fears and get some big names on board, but join us again in a future post to find out why Instant Articles could be a poisoned chalice and a potentially devastating threat to the Open Web.