April 25, 2012, 4:15 PM

Mobile merchants: Google wants to make your site faster

And a faster mobile web could mean more mobile sales, analysts say.

Lead Photo

Few consumers have the patience to wait more than a few seconds for an e-commerce site to load. Today, as more consumers browse the Internet from smartphones, those impatient web shoppers rapidly turn into impatient mobile web shoppers as well. They want sites to load fast so they can get in, get their product and get out.

Google, it seems, wants to help. The search engine giant says it is looking for ways to make the mobile web faster. And that could mean more sales for mobile web merchants, analysts say.

“We aim to speed up the whole web, and mobile is part of that,” a Google spokesman says. “It’s about making the web a better experience for users and businesses overall, which, broadly speaking, also helps our business since we’re native to the web.”

Google recently announced a version of its Chrome web browser designed for mobile devices using its Android operating system. The mobile browser, now in beta, is focused on speed and simplicity, the spokesman says. For example, as a mobile Chrome user types search terms into the Google site search box, search results instantly appear.

Other efforts include a recent program with Akamai Technologies that helps site operators test their mobile site performance. Akamai operates a network of web servers around the world designed to speed content to web and mobile sites. Google also just published mobile and desktop speeds from global web sites on its Google Analytics blog to help mobile web operators see how they measure up.

“Slow mobile web speeds are a huge headwind for mobile commerce,” says David Eads, founder of Mobile Strategy Partners LLC, a mobile commerce consulting firm. “Even mobile-optimized pages often load slower than desktop equivalents—and many pages aren't mobile-optimized. This means m-commerce abandonment rates are much higher than they should be. Unfortunately, most m-commerce providers have spent time getting sites up and haven't had the resources to focus on improving performance.”

According to reports, Google’s goal is to get web sites to load on mobile devices twice as fast as they do today. A better mobile web experience likely will lead to more consumers using the web on their smartphones and clicking on Google’s paid search ads, generating more ad revenue for Google. Google made it clear in its recent earnings call that it has big hopes for mobile ad revenue, despite the fact that Google currently earns less on mobile than web search ads because of lower demand.

“Mobile is quickly becoming a backbone of many clients’ overall advertising strategies and has huge headroom to grow,” Nikesh Arora, senior vice president and chief business officer at Google, told analysts. “In the long term, we think mobile will monetize better.” 

For the week ending April 15, mobile site home pages took an average 10.09 seconds to load and loaded successfully 97.25% of the time, according to the Keynote Mobile Commerce Performance Index, a weekly analysis of the speed and performance of 30 representative m-commerce sites exclusively for Internet Retailer. That’s a significant difference from that of traditional sites, which load on average in about six seconds, according to web application performance tool New Relic.

The solution for faster mobile site load times, Eads says, starts with retailers and other organizations with mobile sites. Retailers should ensure their pages are optimized for a variety of devices and thoroughly test across devices and in a wide variety of situations, such as weak signal strength, Eads advises. Retailers should also monitor mobile page load performance and abandonment rates closely, he adds. “Retailers and their m-commerce technology providers need to look at the entire chain to identify slowdowns and other barriers to conversion,” Eads says “Once they detect the problem source, they can find solutions.”

Beyond not optimizing for mobile, Eads says the biggest mobile web slowdowns stem from overloaded carrier networks. “The carrier move to very fast 4G networks helps significantly, but this is also likely to encourage even more data use as more audio and video goes across the network,” he says.

A number of companies, such as content delivery network Akamai, are working on mobile caching technologies similar to those available for traditional web sites, analysts say. Content delivery networks store web page content on servers located around the world, and thus can deliver content from servers geographically close to the consumer, making web pages load more quickly. 

Meanwhile, browser makers such as Google are improving page load speeds, and handset makers are adding more processing power to load pages faster, experts say. 

“With the incredible rise in mobile web traffic, mobile commerce players including Google see the need for, and business potential in, optimizing the mobile experience for speed and efficiency,” says Tom Nawara, vice president of digital strategy and design at Acquity Group, a digital marketing firm that specializes in e-commerce strategy and technology, web design, and mobile commerce. “The context of the mobile web is almost completely focused on immediacy and speed, so the slower a transaction is, the less likely it is that a user will have a satisfactory experience or even complete the transaction.”

Google’s desire for a faster mobile web is clear in its Google Developers hub, which features a long list of specific tips for making sites load faster on mobile devices.

For example, Google recommends reducing the number of server requests on mobile sites. Single large objects load faster than many small ones, Google says. So, rather than having a JavaScript file that loads other bits of code, for example, site operators should consolidate all page elements into a single file. It also suggests minimizing code, as the less code and the smaller the amount of data transferred, the faster a page will load. Other suggestions include using CSS, or Cascading Style Sheets, to design a page instead of images. CSS uses HTML-based templates that define where various objects, such as images or text boxes, appear on a web page. Using them can reduce data transfers and cut down on page load time, Google says.

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