Slowly Going Mobile — Poor Site Performance Is Holding Us Back

The mobile web is growing rapidly, but in stark contrast to the pace of the mobile web’s growth, the speed at which it performs has lagged behind most consumer expectations. The performance gap poses a great risk to mobile-commerce sites, as well as mobile sites that rely on advertisements for revenue.

So long as the astronomical growth in mobile web surfing continues, it’s quite possible that many will overlook the performance issues of their mobile sites and content. But a site owner can’t rely on the carrier networks to deliver a clunky, un-optimized mobile site at desktop speeds. If a company isn’t optimizing its site for mobile performance, it’s literally throwing money out the window.

How much money could mobile possibly be worth? Well, eBay (s ebay) reported $2 billion in mobile sales in 2010, up from $600 million in 2009, and eBay isn’t an outlier. Reports indicate that mobile commerce more than doubled in 2010 to $3.4 billion, and that didn’t include travel sales, like buying plane tickets online, which added another $1.5 billion.

That’s the opportunity — the upside. But there’s also a downside if a developer doesn’t choose to improve a site’s performance. The e-commerce world has long been familiar with abandonment rates, particularly when the abandonment happens in the shopping cart. The same issue is presenting itself in mobile commerce as well – with data indicating that after three seconds of waiting, mobile abandonment rates behave much like their desktop counterparts.

Now, consumers abandon shopping carts for many reasons, and slow load times aren’t the most common reason. But load times are one of the few factors that are within a site owner’s control. An e-commerce site may not necessarily be able to offer free shipping (shipping costs are the top reason for cart abandonment) but it can drastically reduce the amount of abandonment that results from slow performance.

Don’t Wait for 4G, 6G, 10G or LTE – Speed Is Relative, and Upgrades Are a Red Herring

Verizon (s vz), AT&T (s t) and Sprint (s s) aren’t going to fix site load time problems with the fastest mobile networks the world has ever seen. It’s not just about how many seconds it takes for a site to load. It’s also how those load times compare relative to competitors’ sites. This is about owning up and taking control and differentiating against a widespread pain point – speed (indeed, the lack thereof).

Customers have come to expect that a site will load at the same speed as other sites they visit. So if Amazon’s (s amzn) mobile site loads twice as fast as’s (s ostk), consumers will spend their time shopping on Amazon on their mobile devices. The top complaint from consumers about mobiles sites is that they take too long to load. Speed is a fundamental part of the user experience.

That’s precisely why you can’t count on the networks. Any performance improvements they make will generally improve both your site and your competitor’s site equally. Thus, it all falls back to you to create the ideal experience for your customers; it’s a competitive advantage for any business. The majority of mobile sites are still sized for laptop and desktop screens, with media functionality that’s not even supported on most mobile devices.

For example, mobile Safari (s aapl) still downloads desktop-sized images, then converts them to mobile resolution at the point of consumption on an iPhone. It’s no wonder the phone and the network are slow: We’re downloading 2 – 3 times what we need to download. That’s not a mandate for bigger pipes; instead, it’s an efficiency issue that isn’t going away. We need to better utilize what we already have.

We’ve been wasteful. Our sites are bloated, and we don’t think critically about the mobile experience in terms of speed, even though speed matters even more on the go than it matters in the home.

How You Can Do Better, Starting Today

There are a variety of techniques to optimize a mobile site for performance, and it’s best to combine a variety of methods such as optimizations on the server side with content delivery optimizations. A developer can even adapt a design to be more lightweight. For example, the Google (s goog) homepage is nearly a blank page, and that’s a big time-saver for its average load time.

Even without redesigning, some basic adjustments to a site can make a big difference right away — and this low-hanging fruit can provide some of the biggest gains of anything you do to improve performance. The trick is in understanding how mobile sites are different from the standard site that’s designed for the desktop.

First, understand that most websites are built for the large screen.

Let me make this point again: A visitor’s iPhone is literally downloading giant desktop files and resizing them for their 3.5-inch screen once the files reach the smartphone. Needless to say, smartphones and their browsers don’t have the processing power to make this a quick procedure. This is particularly noticeable with images on your site, which should be re-sampled to reduce their size for mobile devices.

Second, optimize even the seemingly “lightweight” components of your site, like the text-based HTML, XML and stylesheet files. All these can be compressed before being sent to the browser, and it can shave a good chunk off of load times when optimized in aggregate, particularly if the site is heavy with these types of files (media sites and other content-rich properties are prime examples).

Third, consider a more aggressive approach to caching settings. If a site owner sets his caching for far-future expires, it will dramatically lower load times, and the site owner will reduce the data traffic between the server and the user’s mobile device: a win on both sides.

The Big Performance Picture

Ultimately, this issue is all about perception. Web performance has long been perceived to be a network issue, an infrastructure issue or a hardware issue. However, web performance has as much to do with the way someone codes and optimizes a site as any other factor in delivering it to the end-user’s device.

This misperception has also masked the fact that load times are about much more than just “being fast.”

Load times directly impact your customers’ experience of your brand and your service. They dramatically impact revenue and sales on both mobile and desktop devices. And load times can make an advertising revenue model much more effective for your business. We have empirical data on top of empirical data to support this.

With the dramatic rise of the mobile web upon us, it’s about time site owners stop ignoring performance woes, and start providing better experiences to users, while also fuelling revenue growth. These are multi-billion-dollar market opportunities.

Taking control of a mobile site’s performance issues is responsible business decision-making in today’s mobile world. You’re just kidding yourself if you think otherwise.

Ed Robinson is the CEO of Aptimize, a company that produces software to accelerate websites.

Image courtesy of EraPhernalia Vintage . . . here only occasionally.