3 ways to audit web page load time on your VPS or dedicated server

Speed test

Bring up your website. Was your home page visible and fully loaded after three seconds? A third of a second? Or maybe 30 seconds?

You might expect that the first impression your website makes is a visual one. Do your words and images grab the right attention? Are the colors bold, but not garish? Those visual cues are important, but they’re not the most vital factors for a strong first impression.

Your site’s true first impression is temporal. Is your site ready for your customers quickly enough that they don’t wander off to something more captivating, more responsive?

That requirement is more demanding than you might realize. Consultants for retail-level sites typically talk about one second, or eight, or perhaps four, as an appropriate target. Yahoo comes up in under a second. Amazon has a reputation as a dense home page, and it usually finishes in five seconds. If your site takes 10 seconds to load, its content must be exceptional because consumers certainly will recognize that its responsiveness is among the worst — and they rarely stick around such sites.

Faster = Better is only the beginning of the story, though. Here are three specific steps you can start today to ensure your site receives the attention it deserves.

1. Read your speed right now.

You can’t improve what you can’t measure. While there are plenty of challenges in improving load times, the great virtue of work in this area is that it’s so measurable. While we might all agree that “actionable content” or “balanced layout” are virtues, reasonable observers don’t always judge those qualities the same. Everyone understands what a two-second load-time means, though. That clarity also means you can set clear targets for your web team, and track progress precisely.

Start immediately.

Use Pingdom to tell you the load time of your home page, and even point to trouble spots that might be quickly fixed. Here’s an example of what Pingdom says about the “Popular Mechanics” home page: it loads for a New York City customer in about two-and-a-half seconds. That’s better than 60 percent of all websites.

PingdomTest

Clicking on Pingdom’s “Performance Grade” tab brings up a report that shows web redirects appear to hold back this sample site’s performance.

PingdomReport

Pingdom and at least a dozen polished competitors offer services such as this for free or for a remarkably low fee. However much you think you know already about your own website, you will learn something new — usually within the first five minutes. These services do more and better than you would do on your own, trying to put a stop-watch to your own site.

2. Keep a robotic eye on your site.

You take the need for speed seriously. You’ve thoroughly measured your site, and you took advice on its construction. Nearly every one of your pages loads in less than two seconds. You’re feeling pretty good about solving the problem, and you’ve moved on … and then you get a frantic call from the VP of Sales. She’s heard from customers who’ve waited 30 seconds or more for pages to load — and that’s been going on for the past week.

The lesson: you need a way not just to measure and improve your site load-times, but to monitor them on an ongoing basis.

Site responsiveness can go sour at any time; all it takes is a tiny, unforeseen interaction between your hosting provider’s DNS and your analytics JavaScript, or some equally obscure technical glitch, and your prospective customers are all looking at blank screens. To minimize this risk, Pingdom and similar services have a variety of features to track site performance through time, and even alert you when it goes out-of-bounds. Finding out about such problems before they affect your customers is entirely better than reacting to their disappointment, anger, or migration to your faster-loading competition. (Psst … GoDaddy Pro includes this kind of site monitoring. And it’s free.)

3. Plan for the future.

Even organizations or sites with a good record on speed too often manage intuitively. Don’t speculate about how well your content will play on mobile devices, or whether your databases will keep up as you double in size a couple of times more, or how difficult it would be to improve support on the browsers where you underperform now. Get the numbers!

While such projections can be difficult, they’re far less expensive than the waste one sometimes sees at sites that rework their implementation without good real-world metrics on what they have and what they plan to achieve.

As development of your website grows more technically sophisticated, your development team might profit from the detail of an “audit” in the sense of higher end analysts such as Paul Irish. Here is a work-up his team did on (the desktop version of) Wikipedia. It concludes with specific recommendations about how to shift from jQuery, how to manage visibility explicitly, and so on, that are likely to pay off best in improvement of Wikipedia’s performance.

Wikipedia2

Only you can decide how this kind of technical wizardry fits with your own goals. What you need to understand today, however — what you need to experience for yourself — is how quick and rewarding it is to make at least the simplest measurements of your website’s speed, and then stay on top of any performance problems that might occur unexpectedly.

Image by: funktionhouse via Compfight cc

Cameron Laird
A full-time programmer and project leader, Cameron Laird also has regularly reported on technical topics since he began reading farm commodity prices for early-morning commercial radio decades ago. From his base on the Texas Gulf Coast, he studies logfiles and support tickets in at least half a dozen time zones.