Erik Runyon is one of the leading technical minds in higher education.
Erik, Technical Director at the University of Notre Dame, recently joined us for a podcast interview to talk about how Notre Dame uses web speed as an enrollment strategy. He made a very compelling case for taking a performance-based view of web development.
We’re going to hit the highlights from his interview here.
How Website Performance Affects Prospective Students’ Web Behavior
Erik and his team have been focused on web performance for quite a while. Erik started giving presentations on the subject around 2008, when the iPhone had recently come out and mobile was clearly going to keep growing.
At the time, websites were growing in size, with cellular connections that needed to back down—which obviously hasn’t happened. They have grown exponentially, and that higher-ed sites are no exception.
The rendered start time for these sites is around eight seconds, which is a long time. The picture isn’t visually complete until 21 seconds.
Here’s the problem with that: last year, Sony-Ericsson studied stress and mobile delays with streaming and websites. They found that heart rate increases 30% during such delays. According to the report, stress level from experiencing mobile delays is slightly higher than watching a horror movie.
Think about that: horror movie are seared into our memories because of the stress they intentionally bring on. The last thing you want to do is deliver a similar stress to potential students who are coming to your websites and who associate their experience with your brand.
The faster you can make your sites, the more likely you’ll be to create a positive experience and view of your university.
How to Track Performance Stats
Erik publishes Notre Dame’s web stats each month. With those, he’s primarily looking for trends with browsers and mobile traffic. He’s not really looking from a performance standpoint.
For performance stats, he relies on webpagetest.org. There, you can put in your URL and some other website you want to benchmark against, then look at side-by-side video of how quickly your site loads versus the other site.
It’ll also help you catch regressions. For example, Notre Dame recently updated the architecture for their main site. Erik ran a test and realized that their score dropped dramatically.
In the move from the old to the new architecture, a server technology was not on that compresses files before sending them down to the user. That’s a major performance hit.
They were able to fix it within 30 minutes, but if they didn’t monitor things like that, they could have gone for weeks with users getting a subpar experience.
Google and Facebook Are Embracing Site Speed
Google has been famous for trusting faster sites more. Now Facebook is teasing a similar algorithm.
They just released an article on this. They’re going to start taking page speed into account for stories they show, and they will factor load times into which stories will be promoted more than others.
Site Performance Needs to Become Part of the Culture
Erik gave benchmarks of 300k for a subpage, with a load time of less than two seconds. 600k max for a home page. If you can hit those benchmarks, he says your performance will absolutely be in the top 1-5% of higher-ed sites.
“As pretty as you want it to be,” Erik said, “if it’s slow for the user to connect, you’re breaking them out of a positive experience.
“Performance should be part of the conversation from day one.”
If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.
Higher Ed RWD Directory
Facebook Newsfeed Site Speed Algorithm
Ericsson Mobility Report: The Stress of Streaming Delays