Why Webpage Speed Matters
How do you want prospective students to react when landing on your institution’s homepage? Stay on the page long enough to read the copy, look at the images and understand how to navigate to the page(s) that will let them accomplish the tasks they came to perform?
The likelihood of all three happening increases when webpages load quickly and more so, on mobile devices.
Although there is evidence prospective undergraduate students tolerate confusing or slow university websites delivering high performance complements work in information architecture, page content and design to deliver the best user experience.
Performance is user experience
Prospective students spend hours a day on social media and the internet. They visit performance-tuned sites and use apps optimised to attract and retain end-users. Higher education website visitors already know what good user experiences feel like.
That feeling can be reinforced by ensuring content loads fast and that screens respond quickly to interactions.
Moreover, many prospective domestic and international students access university and college websites from mobile devices. They do so over networks of varying speeds and with constraints on the amount of data they can pay for. Designing and building higher education websites serving optimised, fast-loading pages respects and acknowledges how end users are accessing those sites.
Performance retains visitors
Post-secondary institution websites exist to meet many goals, but one of their primary functions is student recruitment. To make that outcome more likely, prospective students need to browse and interact with site content and be able to navigate to pages relevant to the tasks they want to perform or information they seek.
A combination of content, design and performance helps increase the amount of time visitors spend on sites, and by lingering on university webpages, future students can engage with content and learn how an institution could fit their needs.
Performance improves conversion
The on- and off-line factors at work in turning prospective students into applicants may be tough to disentangle, but a portion of visitors to higher education websites start that journey by visiting a website.
Extensive e-commerce research shows that keeping visitors on-page results in more paying customers. Good user experiences are one factor in ensuring website visitors stay long enough to complete forms, request information or connect via social media.
Google Says Performance Matters
Google has emphasised webpage speed importance over the past two years, by publishing benchmarks, adding a Speed Index to its PageSpeed test and a mobile speed score. These announcements should be understood as Google signalling webpage performance will become more important in search results ranking.
Ultimately, Google may de-rank search results from slow sites or institute warnings, like the one for non-HTTPS sites, when sites load too slowly.
In summary, the better user experience of fast websites makes higher education digital marketing execution more effective.
Next, we’ll review why university homepages can be slow. Then, we’ll examine data we’ve collected for UK university websites and finally explain how to fix slow pages.
What Makes University Webpages Slow Down?
Advancements in website development combined with a greater emphasis on digital in higher education marketing has encouraged larger, more complex and feature-rich websites.
A typical university homepage now downloads more data to devices than it did in the past and end user interactions can be frustrating, particularly on mobile devices. Without getting too technical, it is worth knowing the three elements behind webpage slowdowns.
Using more resources than necessary to render pages
The supporting files for page layout and page interactivity ("resources") need to be downloaded and browsers need to parse the file contents and apply the directions within the files, as appropriate. The more complex a page and the resources needed to make it display correctly, the slower it loads.
Failing to properly organise the resources needed to render pages
The web’s underlying technical infrastructure is evolving to move data more efficiently. Past techniques used to handle limitations in the interactions between end user devices and servers are often no longer the best ways to optimise performance.
It’s likely time for technical infrastructure and web development staff to head over to Google’s Web Fundamentals pages to review some recent developments on how to streamline resources for more efficient data delivery.
Not optimising the amount of data sent to render pages
The third element in why pages load slowly relates to the amount of data downloaded to browsers. The larger the volume of data the longer it takes a page to load.
One way or another, over time, by design or accident webpages gain weight. Pages typically bulk up as extra or larger images are added, through increasing text content and with more video.
That data, along with files supporting page rendering, is downloaded each time a user requests a page. The smaller the amount of data that needs downloading the faster pages load.
While technical issues are to blame for slow webpages. Organisational and cultural reasons lie behind those issues. Content creation and editing workflows tend to be separate from technical updates and reviews, so performance hits from content changes aren’t always noticed or subject to systematic review.
Content editing workflows just need an additional step: run monthly or quarterly performance checks.
How Fast Are University and College Homepages?
We’ve just run performance tests on homepages for institutions, in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, United Kingdom and the United States: a total of 550 higher education websites.
We used Google Lighthouse for the exercise because its speed tests are specifically designed to reflect actual user experiences: prospective undergraduate students. Lighthouse does this by measuring the speed at which visible content is painted on device screens, rather than timing events during page loading.
Capturing the user experience
Lighthouse also, conveniently, combines its sub-tests into a standardised Speed Index: the higher the score the faster the page.
We ran each institution’s test three times (1,500+ tests) and the average value of the Speed Index is plotted below. While the Lighthouse speed tests measure user experience they are still synthetic, in the sense that they mimic typical user experience. In the real-world a mix of devices, network connections and browsers mean that users see different results.
Nevertheless, responding to the results of our testing by improving page loading speed will help deliver the benefits to digital marketing activities described earlier.
In passing, we’ll note that running multiple tests, over large numbers of webpages, collating and analysing the results is not for the faint of heart. But, we think we’ve got it sussed, now.
What did we find?
The graph below lists the average Speed Index scores for 170 UK university websites. Sticking with Google’s classification scheme, fast pages show as green bars (top 10%), average pages are shaded in amber (next 40%) and slow pages appear in red (bottom 50%).
If you click on a bar it will open the homepage of the site listed in the axis label, allowing a comparison of fast, average and slow. Fast homepages load in about three seconds, average load in about six seconds and slow pages load in 10+ seconds.
Google’s research suggests visitors leave pages taking longer than three seconds to load, but it seems unlikely that prospective students will abandon university websites that quickly and the research we cited above supports this view. On the one hand we wouldn’t get too hung up on hitting a three-second threshold, on the other hand, trading on user forbearance isn’t consistent with the experience that most institutions should be striving to deliver.
We’ve posted the UK results with this article and there’s also a full-screen version: United Kingdom University Homepage Google Speed Index Ranking. Click on the links for Google Speed Index results for Australian and New Zealand universities, Canadian universities and colleges and United States higher education institutions.
How to Make Higher Education Homepages Load Faster
Compress Text and Images
Start with the easy wins. The median UK university homepage downloads 2.8MB of data, the smallest site 0.2MB and the largest (but not slowest) 25.7MB – a wide variation.
Get your IT staff/hosting provider to turn on web server compression – it matters how you send resources to browsers. Compression shrinks text-based content, speeding up the user experience. In our testing about 1/3rd of the UK university websites could reduce text file-related downloads with compression.
Content creation and editing workflows should include a step in which images are compressed before uploading to a content management system (CMS). Image compression can have the single biggest impact on page speeds and free online tools such as TinyPNG or CompressorIO allow images to be readily compressed without loss of quality.
Optimise Page Loading
Faster loading pages improve digital marketing by giving users a better experience encouraging them to stay, read content and complete tasks. Webpage performance shouldn’t be a technical after thought.
The only way to know if pages are optimised is to test them regularly, or have some else test them regularly. And, it's not sufficient just to test homepages. Prospective students head to many other pages or to other websites across campus as they figure out if an institution is for them. The digital experience your website delivers should convince them it is.