Is third-party content holding Britain’s retail websites back?

Press release

New figures from global information assurance firm NCC Group show that the UK’s top 50 retail websites are getting slower and third-party content could be to blame.

Average load time for the sites was 10.29 seconds in Q2 of 2014, up from 9.36 seconds in Q1. While it’s too early to call this a trend, it is certainly a step in the wrong direction. The standard for page load time is normally three seconds for ecommerce sites, based on research which showed that 40 per cent of online shoppers will abandon a site that takes longer than three seconds to load. As retailers drift further away from this standard, they’re almost certainly missing out on more and more revenue.

The picture wasn’t wholly negative, and one or two high-performers are hidden among the average times. But the overall message is that UK retail sites could do a lot better.

Part of the problem is the sheer volume of content, and average page size has also increased from 1.44MB in Q1 to 1.55MB in Q2. However, retailers also need to look at where that content comes from, with many websites making use of a large number of third-party services. These are often used to display ads or add features such as social media feeds. Site owners also use third parties to access code libraries, to track visitor behaviour or to test different versions of their site.

NCC Group’s latest figures show that faster sites tend to use less third-party content. On average, the ten fastest sites loaded content from just four different third-party domains. For the ten slowest sites, the average was 46.

Bob Dowson, director of NCC Group’s website performance division, said: “The wide range of third-party services can be incredibly useful to retailers. They often provide a cheap and convenient alternative when developing an in-house solution would prove too expensive or too time-consuming. However, there is frequently a hidden performance cost. Site owners have no access to those third parties’ infrastructure and no control over their performance.”

This puts retailers at risk, especially when third-party servers are struggling under heavier than normal load. As Bob explained, “If you’re using third-party content on your site, the chances are you’re not the only one accessing it. You therefore need to be aware that a surge in visitors to someone else’s site could cause your site to slow down.”

To remedy this, retailers should first audit third-party content and assess whether it’s all needed, and whether it could be hosted internally. Some third-party plugins will more than likely be too complex to replicate in-house, but others, such as social media buttons, can normally be implemented with minimal development work.

Secondly, if a third-party service is regarded as essential, it’s important both to shop around and to ensure that response time is included in any service level agreement.

Finally, retailers can mitigate the effect of poor-performing third-party services by loading them asynchronously. This is a way to ensure that those services don’t interfere with the rest of the content on the host site. Failing to do this can create a “single point of failure”, whereby the site simply stops loading. Visitors could see a partially loaded site or even just a blank page.

Retailers that take these simple steps won’t necessarily cure all their site’s performance problems, but they should go a long way towards improving their customers’ online experience.

About NCC Group

NCC Group is a global information assurance firm, passionate about making the Internet a safer place and revolutionising the way in which organisations think about cyber security.

Through an unrivalled and unique range of services, the company provides organisations across the world with freedom from doubt that their most important assets are protected and operational at all times.

Listed on the London Stock Exchange, NCC Group is a trusted advisor to more than 15,000 clients worldwide. Headquartered in Manchester, UK, NCC Group has 20 offices across the world and employs over 1,000 specialists in information security, assurance and technology.

NCC Group delivers security consulting, software escrow and verification, website performance, software testing and domain services.

Published date:  27 July 2014

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