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How to Get Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger: An examination of travel website load speeds.

The author

Drew Brigham

Technical Director

Google want to make the web faster and they are working hard to accelerate everyone’s efforts to make the web more responsive. Firstly, they've produced a dedicated site giving info on how to make websites faster; they've generated developer guides, tools for measuring site speed and are even working on technology to improve the speed of the web for all.

For several years I’ve been pushing the merits of making sites faster – not only does it make for a better user experience (no one likes a slow site), but it’s going to become increasingly important for SEO purposes too. Having a fast website is very, very important; slow sites have higher bounce rates, lower conversion rates and can generate a stream of frustrated users who will often go to a competitor simply because their site ‘works’ (read: loads in a reasonable time on their internet connection). Applying this specifically to the high number of travel industry sites found online - the travel sector is highly competitive and thus, site speed is of upmost importance. Travel websites get a very high volume of visitors, their ‘wares’  - holidays, packages, flights, et cetera - are mainly sold online and conversion rate is key to a successful travel company surviving in the current economy.  So, you'd expect travel sites to be quite speedy, right? I’ve surveyed 52 popular travel website home pages to see how they perform. Why the home page? For well-known brands and many sites in general the home page gets a lot of traffic, often it’s the first page that a new visitor lands on – it’s a valuable space for capturing a visitor's interest. The test Tests were run from an internet connection with around a 56MB speed to reduce the chance that the connection itself was adding latency; the browser used was Firefox v12.0. Quite a few elements impact on the load time of a page, but I’ve focused on the common (and easy to fix!) issues that slow down many sites on the web, they are: •         Overall page size •         Number of external files (images, CSS, JS) •         Number of large images I’ve done a fresh load for each home page five times – this means that nothing will be ‘cached’ or ‘saved’ on my machine to make the page faster the next time it is loaded – and then taken the average load time. Overview •         Average load time for a travel site home page is 6.55 seconds – that’s pretty slow! •         Average number of requests is 78 •         Average page size is 1MB The 5 Slowest Sites Interestingly the top four slowest travel sites I found belonged to cruise companies, with review site Zoover coming in fifth. Monarch, the first non-cruise or review site lands in sixth position, with an average home page load time of 10.6 seconds. •         FredOlsenCruises.com – 12.69 seconds •         BolsoverCruiseClub.co.uk – 12.42 seconds •         Cruise1st.co.uk – 11.08 seconds •         CruiseDirect.co.uk – 11.05 seconds •         Zoover.co.uk – 10.97 seconds The 5 Fastest Sites Reassuringly, there are some pretty quick travel sites out there – the top five in my test were a good mix of holiday and flight websites. •         Trivago.co.uk – 2.1 seconds •         Sunshine.co.uk – 2.3 seconds •         GoCompare.com/holidays/ - 2.44 seconds •         BritishAirways.com – 2.5 seconds •         Ryainair.com – 2.6 seconds The 5 Most Common Problems The most common problems are also those which are the easiest to fix and also have the biggest payoff for making a site load faster. It’s surprising that so many sites had these problems. Some sites such as EasyJet.com and bmibaby.com are great examples of how travel sites can be built to function quickly. 1) Too many JS files  – Because each file is loaded individually this slows the process down. The worst offenders were TravelSupermarket.com and Superbreak.com with 46 and 45 JS files to load respectively. Some sites had between 15 and 30 JS file references! Many of these could be combined into fewer resource calls to help the page load faster. 2) Too many CSS files  – Although not in the same league as the JS file count, most sites had between 5 and 15 CSS file references, these all take time to load. They could be combined into fewer files, so fewer requests would be made. The worst offender was FlightCentre.com, which had 35 CSS files referenced for just the home page. 3) Lack of CSS and JS minification  – Minification is simply the process of automatically removing all the spaces and lines from a CSS or JS file, this helps reduce the file size so it downloads quicker. Most sites didn’t minify their CSS and JS resources. 4) Lack of CSS sprites  – If a site design has lots of images  - such as flag icons, arrows and commonly used logos - these can be combined into a single image. So, instead of waiting to load 20 separate files, only one file is loaded with all the icons on. Very few sites made use of CSS sprites. This technique is very easy to implement and can really help speed a site up! 5) Over Use of Third Party JS Libraries – There was evidence of high-level use of third party libraries, many of them based on jQuery or several visitor tracking applications. Not all of these files were needed, but they were still being referenced on the page and loaded, adding more time to the overall page-load speed. The 5 Largest Web Pages The overall size of a webpage has a big say in how long it takes to load. The larger the page the slower it will load (usually). In my test, some pages were found to be large due to the number of images used, others due to extra ‘bloat’ of CSS and JS files referenced that could have been combined or minified. It’s no coincidence that the top two slowest pages were also the two largest. FredOlsenCruises.com weighs in at 3MB – that’s the same size as a standard MP3 file. •         FredOlsenCruises.com – 3,072KB •         BolsoverCruiseClub.co.uk – 2,969KB •         CrystalTravel.co.uk – 2,969KB •         CumbriaCruise.co.uk – 2,150KB •         CelebrityCruises.co.uk – 2,048KB The 5 Smallest Web Pages On the other side of the coin, some of the sites made use of fewer images, or they had heavily optimised their site to reduce its overall size. It’s no surprise that the fastest travel site surveyed is also the smallest, Trivago.co.uk, coming in at only 197KB – that’s 15 times smaller than the FredOlsenCruises.com website. •         Trivago.co.uk – 197KB •         ThomasCook.com – 270KB •         Thomson.co.uk – 283KB •         TravelZoo.co.uk – 324KB •         Ryanair.com – 343KB Conclusions This has been a brief overview looking at the main issues with most sites, issue that are very easy to fix. Of course there can be a lot more to page speed – and there is, from network and server load to the file types used, but these points are the main ones that often have the biggest impact. Many of the site home pages I looked at loaded in roughly the same time over each of the five requests, such as Sunshine.co.uk, which only changed by around 20 milliseconds, whereas some sites had wildly varying load times. For example FirstChoice.co.uk varied between a speed 4.22 seconds and a lumbering 12.06 seconds to load the home page, virgin-atlantic.com also had a wide range of load times. It’s very interesting that although many of the home pages share the same features, such as being able to search for a holiday, lists of deals and images – there is a massive variation in their speeds. Some of the load times are quite scary, especially when you reconsider that they’ve been loaded on a 56MB connection  - they will be an order of magnitude slower on standard internet speeds, never mind the large portion of UK users still using 56K dial-up or even mobile internet connections. How important do you think home page load times are? How long do you think people ‘will wait’ for your content? The full CSV of data is also available to download here: Travel Site Homepage Speed Data