Facebook Ads – App Store Installs Directly Within Facebook

facebook mobile app install ads

Yesterday Facebook made use of a new Apple iOS 6 feature and made App Store installs a whole lot easier.  Facebook introduced mobile app install ads in October and we’ve already seen two major changes to the ads since their inception.

First we saw Facebook change the CTA button to read “Install Now.” This was thought to dramatically increase CTR’s which would lower the cost per install for developers and advertisers running these ads.

Now we’re seeing another major change – the ability to install an app from an ad without ever leaving Facebook. While some reported this could be a sign of a deepening relationship between Apple and Facebook, others have pointed out that it’s merely Facebook making use of a new feature in iOS 6 available to all app developers – the ability to display the App Store to a user without leaving the app. So aside from the drama and sensationalizing reports, what does this all really mean?

Benefits for Users: You can now install iOS apps from Facebook without ever leaving the Facebook app. This means a seamless process without getting too far off track from the photo browsing and OMG’ing you were doing on Facebook,

Benefits for Developers: A streamlined app install process means increased conversion rates. Increased conversion rates means it will be cheaper to get users on your app. This is potentially huge for for developers looking to beta test, drive specific demographics to use your app, and much more.

Benefits for Facebook: More money! While Facebook primarily drives revenue from ads based on clicks or impressions (and this likely won’t affect either directly), if developers are more successful driving conversions via Facebook ads, they’ll put more money into ads and this will translate to more clicks and impressions on Facebook.

So with all this holiday good will going around, is there a loser in the mix? Yes, and its name is Android. They better hurry up and introduce a similar feature to their OS. With app install ads popping up in apps everywhere (not just Facebook), this is a great feature to make developers on your platform more successful.

Posted in Social Advertising | 3 Comments

The Naughty & Nice List of Email Marketing Tactics

Email marketing is an effective, low-cost way to keep your business and products on customer’s minds. With the holidays right around the corner, now is the time to optimize your email marketing campaigns to help boost your end-of-the-year return. Check out our infographic below to find out if your email marketing tactics are putting you on the naughty or the nice list this holiday season. If you don’t want a lump of coal for Christmas, use email marketing best practices! Happy Holidays everyone! Email Marketing do's and don'ts

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Consulting, Email Marketing, Marketing Tools, Online Advertising, Strategy, Strategy Planning | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Hark! The Mobile Web Will Sing!

Mobile Web as Your Core Development Directive

How many times a day do you hear a cell phone ring? Mobile devices are no longer our future, they are our present, ingrained in almost every facet of our lives, and getting more important every day.

There are thousands of articles and blogs about the mobile web, and I’m very thankful for that. It allows me to share an aspect of the mobile web that’s seldom discussed: integrating mobile browsing as a core concept of new site development rather than retroactively transforming a mobile site out of a desktop site.
Many people think of a "mobile web site" in terms of "screen size," and deduce that if they can pop out designs to fit, all will be well on the mobile web. The challenges are far greater than that:

  • Limited RAM (memory) and disk/drive space.
  • Lean and not so mean operating system, slower than full computers.
  • Web browsers are often proprietary, and sometimes can’t or don’t support many of the engines that drive desktop sites, such as Javascript, Flash, or Java.
  • Can be rendered in portrait or landscape mode.
  • No mouse-over events.
  • New windows/tabs are often impossible.
  • Heavy web sites can cost your users money: mobile device bandwidth is accessed over the subscriber’s phone service and heavy web sites can result in bandwidth surcharges.

In respect to the mobile web, there are two main schools of thought: build a separate site, or retroactively integrate responsive design.

The Alternate Mobile Site: Do It Once, Then Do It Over

For existing web sites, sometimes the only option is to build the mobile site from it as a physically separate second site. This is probably the least efficient and most difficult to maintain approach to the problem, likely to create difficulties throughout the life of the web site. Content changes will need to be duplicated on the mobile site, over and over again. It’s also harder to get clients to "let go" of the website design they’ve grown to love for what they see on their mobile device.

Responsive Design is Not Mobile Web Duct Tape

The distinction between the terms Responsive Design and Adaptive Design is pretty confusing.1 Responsive Design refers to the engineering of a layout via CSS and coding in such a way that it will fit on any viewport regardless of size using fluid grids, assigning fluid sizing to images, and CSS media queries to apply styling for specific devices.2 A single layout is used that morphs based on the device reading it.

Adaptive Design functions in ways that sometimes use multiple layouts and often contain fixed grid parameters. Multiple layouts and dynamic technologies such as server-side device detection or Javascript are often employed to physically change the layout itself or switch entire layouts.

Responsive design is the ultimate answer to mobile web site development, but when applied retroactively, it generally begins to look more like adaptive design than responsive design, adjusting the same desktop content to fit mobile devices. A web site that is truly mobile-ready will also address adaptive output, in which the content sent to the browser is appropriate for the device.

Let Your Developers Help (it’s Why You’re Paying Them)

If mobile compatibility is a core directive of your project development, your developers can leverage that directive to optimize the user’s experience regardless of device as the project is being built. Rather than "hide" non-mobile content, they can develop a site in such a way that it outputs the mobile content by default, adding features and content for desktop devices when detected.

The mobile web returns us to a time when the web was young (I’m humming Auld Lang Syne as I type,) urging us to develop to the lowest common denominator, the smallest subset of information, then enhance it for devices that can handle the full glory of our creations. This concept is often lost in today’s unlimited development environment. Targeting mobile devices first will prepare you and your developers for a clear path of responsive design, and the reduced data set for mobile will help you focus on the web site’s primary objectives.


1 Like most Internet buzz words, even these meanings are vague and subject to interpretation. There are many arguments and discussions around their differences.

2 Originally coined by Ethan Marcotte, April 2010: Responsive Web Design

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

What’s on my Facebook Ads Wish List? An External Ad Network!

Facebook External Ad Network

Facebook Ads have been around for quite some time but until recently, few people have taken them too seriously. Even just this year GM made quite the buzz when they pulled their entire $10 million Facebook Ads budget just before the IPO. Surrounding their high profile IPO was much talk about how to monetize those ads and specifically how to do it on mobile devices. One huge opportunity for Facebook Ads revenue that hasn’t gotten much attention lately is the possibility of an external network for Facebook ads.

In June Facebook started rolling out ads on Zynga in a rev share partnership with the gaming giant of the time. The ads looked exactly like the Facebook ads you see on Facebook and used the same targeting criteria… they were just on a different site. I see this as one of the biggest opportunities in the future for Facebook to drive revenue and for advertisers to turn Facebook into a profitable marketing channel.

Let’s dissect this a bit further and examine exactly how it would benefit both Facebook, advertisers, and publishers.

Facebook:

Currently Facebook makes money by selling ad inventory to advertisers through their self serve ad tool and third-party ad management platforms. This revenue is limited to how much inventory they have (which is limited by how many pages users view on Facebook). By creating an ad network (much like Google AdSense) they lift the gates on that inventory and limit it only by how much inventory their publishers can offer. So how would it work for the publishers?

Publishers:

If you’re familiar with Google AdSense, Facebook’s external ad network could function in a very similar fashion. Website owners apply to be in the network and after approval from Facebook, they designate certain areas of their site to show Facebook ads. From there the rest is automated by Facebook’s ad-serving engines and the publishers simply get a rev-share of every click (or impression) that occurs on the site. Who pays for that click? Well that’s where the advertiser comes in.

Advertisers:

This is where it gets exciting. Facebook ads are great for their unique ability to target users based on a multitude of very specific criteria. Despite this, many advertisers cannot make them profitable for their business. Some say that people are not in a “buying mode” while on Facebook. Other’s say that it takes too much management time because the audience sizes are too small. Others say that the click-through rates are too low. Opening the doors to putting these ads on external websites could be the remedy to all of these complaints. Let’s look at them one by one:

  • Not in a buying mode: now that we’re serving ads off Facebook, people could certainly be in a buying mode.
  • Ad Fatigue: now that the ads are being served across the web, the frequency in each ad spot is greatly decreased because of the increased inventory. Now you don’t have to spend as much time refreshing ad creative.
  • CTR’s too low: now the CTR’s could potentially rival those of traditional display media because of the limitless placement options combined with the hyper-targeting innate to Facebook ads.

So with all of these opportunities and value created across the board for Facebook, advertisers, and publishers… can you blame me for having this at the top of my wish list? I believe it will come sooner rather than later because we already saw Facebook pave the way for this external ad network in a privacy policy change last May. How can you best prepare to leveraging this potentially industry-shaking channel? Schedule some time to talk with me about getting started with Facebook advertising. It’s important to learn the game and establish yourself as a player before your competition does the same.  Leave a comment below to let me know you want to get started.

 

Posted in Social Advertising | Tagged | 19 Comments

Six Hot Holiday PPC Tips

It’s December 11; only 14 days until Christmas. You are hustling to make the most of this holiday season with on- and off-line campaigns. Conversion funnels are wrapped up with a bow on top and your PPC campaigns have been working hard to drive traffic to your site. Your entire extended family is in town for a whopping two weeks and you feel like you need an army of worker elves to make the most of this advertising season. Too little time, too few hands on deck, and significant opportunity—that’s a typical holiday season for any driven advertiser. We’ve simplified PPC for you this year to six actionable tips you can try on to improve your campaign results:

1)      Look to competitors for insights and inspiration. What ads and landing pages are they using? Note tips and techniques for this and future years’ campaigns.

2)      Use ad extensions. Ad extensions increase CTR and are a no brainer (they’re free).

3)      Run your campaigns through the holiday. Don’t sell yourself short and end on Christmas morning. Shopping overflow occurs into the new year. Tweak current holiday campaigns to serve New Year’s shoppers to make the most of your advertisements.

4)      Check your negative keywords. Don’t get caught off-guard when you spend money on irrelevant keywords. Clean house now to funnel your marketing dollars to relevant keywords.

5)      Increase bids by 15-30% to remain competitive. It’s the high-season for online advertising and your standard bids just won’t do. Increase bids to stay in the game.

6)      Review your impression share and lost impression share and allocate budget accordingly. A quick Excel draw up of impressions and shares can help you to act quickly and efficiently to increase your bids and increase performance.

There you have it: six simple steps to improve your PPC performance this holiday season. And as a final takeaway, watch year over year trends. Be strategic and apply what you learn by reviewing what did and did not work each holiday season to next year’s campaigns. Look to your key performance indicators to identify areas for improvement and key successes.

Gift of PPC

Posted in Pay-Per-Click Marketing | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Top 5 Holiday Email Marketing Must-Haves

At this point in the holiday season, you’ve successfully sent out your Black Friday and Cyber Monday emails. You know that there are those last-minute holiday shoppers you should take advantage of, but aren’t quite sure how to best leverage your final email sends before the New Year. The following top 5 holiday email marketing must-haves are intended to keep you on your subscribers’ “nice list” and prevent you from getting on their “naughty list” or in email lingo, the dreaded unsubscribe list.

1.      Keep Sends Consistent with Subscriber Expectations

I know that you have the most spectacular savings this time of year and want to communicate this to your subscribers as much as possible. After all, you have their best interest at heart and don’t want them to miss out on the perfect Christmas gift for their loved one, right? Well, even if you have the season of giving spirit in mind, your email contacts are going to get frustrated if you substantially increase frequency. Keep reading for more tools on how to prevent list fatigue during this pivotal time of year.

2.     Create Exclusionary Segments

A great strategy for preventing unwanted unsubscribes with your eCommerce customers is to create a segment within your campaign for subscribers who have already converted on one of your holiday email offers. Then, you can exclude them from additional campaigns triggered toward gift-giving and maintain their overall expectations. If you become the Christmas clutter in their inbox after they’ve already made a purchase, chances are they’ll be annoyed and wonder why you haven’t been paying attention to their purchasing behavior to begin with. Utilize segments to better optimize your campaigns and don’t forget to be creative with the content- a winter wonderland theme or surprise gifts for them to “unwrap” by clicking through can lead to higher conversion rates.

Banana Republic Christmas Email

 3.     Segment by Subscriber Preferences

This one may seem like a no-brainer, but is often ignored this time of year when there is so much content email marketers want to distribute to their lists. From special discounts to unique new product offerings, there’s an abundance of information companies are trying to get across to their ideal customers. The key is to set-up segments catered toward subscriber preferences. Depending on the type of company, this could include new email content based on gender, geography, purchasing history and preferences selected by the subscriber. If you have a large database that’s widespread throughout the country, geographical segments can be a clever way to optimize your sends. I’ll never forget when one prominent department store chain sent me an email about the warmest sweaters to wear for each day of the week, during the same time we were having record-breaking heat in Southern California. Let’s just say I didn’t warm up to the idea of converting on their email.

4.     A/B Test Subject Lines & Email Content

A/B testing is more important than ever with a high-volume email season. You’re competing with every other B2C company who wants to make their message stand-out the most. A/B testing subject lines is an important tactic to utilize when your goal is to increase open rates. I recommend A/B testing your subject lines first to determine a clear-cut winner for the remainder of your sends, but at this point in the season, it’s even more important that your emails feature conversion-focused content. Set benchmarks for your holiday campaigns and continue to optimize your content with each send. Are the emails with the most variety of products generating a higher click-through-rate or is it the email with a centralized theme producing better results? Pinpoint which campaign is going to drive the best results and make that your focus for the remainder of the season. Once you have the ideal email designs created, be sure to continue to test different email offers as well. Most eCommerce sites offer free shipping with a minimum purchase as well as special discounts on full-priced items. Based on your ideal customer’s needs, wants and demands, determine what will set you apart from the competition. It’s usually not the steepest discount that drives results, but the offer that’s catered toward your subscriber’s unique preferences that wins.

5.     Maintain List Hygiene Best Practices

Nobody wants to get coal for Christmas. This is essentially what you’re doing when you email to inactive subscribers. They’re going to give you nothing but coal in return- which means lowering your credibility in terms of email service providers because you’re sending to people who are non-responsive. Check through your contacts and put subscribers who haven’t opened an email within a few months (exact number depends on your campaign frequency) or have bounced more than five times on an entirely new list. You can always create a win-back email campaign and send to them at a different time based on your campaign goals, but for now, exclude this inactive list from your holiday sends. This will result in better engagement, clear-cut metrics and of course, presents under the tree in the form of email conversions.

With these tools tucked away in your Christmas stocking, I wish you a successful and happy remainder of your email holiday campaigns.

 

Posted in Email Marketing | 4 Comments

All I want for Christmas is Higher Conversion Rates: How to Create Amazing Tablet Experiences for your E-commerce Store

According to a report published by Monetate, visitors to e-commerce sites through tablet devices skyrocketed by over 346% in 2011. This should not be a surprise for anyone who has had the chance to play with one of these devices.  The lightweight, portable, and speedy design makes it a likely choice for checking emails or scouring Google. Research also shows that tablet users are more than just surfing—they are spending significantly more per purchase than both smartphone and traditional users.

With over 119 million tablets expected to be sold in 2012 and the Christmas holiday fast approaching, what does this mean for business owners? Optimize your websites for tablet experiences. 

Here are the top 5 things to think about when designing for tablet.

1. Minimize Content

Cat’s out of the bag; if you haven’t designed your site specifically for mobile or tablet, it is going to look sloppy. The zooming, scrolling and slow load times are not a good look for your business.

Not to worry—designing for mobile devices is a blessing for most businesses. Being confined to mobile and tablet screen sizes can be one of the best ways to focus customers on the information that is critical to conversion. Desktop websites often allow businesses to say too much, which ends up detracting from their conversion funnels. Optimizing content for mobile or tablet platforms requires business owners to consider what is truly important and helps to improve the flow of the information presented.

2. Fixed Navigation Buttons

Since Pinterest has exploded onto the scene, many e-commerce businesses have adopted its visually-oriented design and extended scroll experience for their own online catalogs. Successful execution of this design requires including fixed navigation for quick exploration of other sections. Time spent scrolling back through the same items means time wasted not viewing new ones. Another alternative to a fixed navigation is the “scroll to top” button, which allows users to jump to the top of the page at any point. Adding these to your designs will reduce frustrations, allow for easier navigation, and increase time spent on the site.

3. Chubby Friendly Buttons. 

As a victim of chubby fingers, I can attest to how difficult it is to navigate sites that do not have sizable buttons or links. Nothing is more frustrating than continuously clicking the wrong button because link text is too small or buttons are too close. Requiring users to zoom is not the answer. Make sure that your buttons are large enough for a touchscreen and incorporate enough padding around as to not interfere with surrounding elements.

4. Paypal Express Checkout Integration

The best thing about a tablet is that it has the mobility of a smartphone with the experience of a desktop. Often times though, this means that your tablet follows you where your pants and wallet don’t. Not having pants isn’t a problem when checking email, but it might be when you want to purchase something.

More often then not, situations like this lead to abandoned carts and lost revenue. Integrating paypal into your store allows users to make spur of the moment purchases when their credit card isn’t handy. Its extremely easy to integrate, requires only an additional button to your interface, and is preferred by 59.1% of visitors, according to ComScore.

Your new motto: No pants, no problem.

5. Gestural compatibility

As a touchscreen, the tablet and mobile interaction is inherently different than when using a mouse. Mouse events such as hover states do not exist, while new interactions like swiping and zooming have been created. Consider how this difference affects the way customers will engage with your content. Do your hover states display important information like price, discounts, or sharing icons?  If so, you may need to rethink your tablet design to include that information without interaction.

There you have it—the top 5 ways to maximize customer value from your tablet customers this holiday season.

Did we miss anything? Comment and let us know how you’ve increased your conversion rates.

 

Posted in Conversion Design, Ecommerce Marketing, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Avoid the Pitfalls of Performance-Based Marketing

Performance-based marketing engages individuals with presumed expertise in targeting your key persona(s) to drive traffic to your site on a pay-per-action (not pay-per-click or impressions). Think of it as crowd-sourcing your media buys. You, the advertiser, pay for a form fill, a download of your product, or for a phone call of certain duration. I was initially introduced to this market via a browser application, PageRage, in 2009. Since then, I have spent every year working with every size and shape of performance based marketer and advertiser (you!). While there are primary verticals like education, mortgage and dating offers there’s no reason you can’t compete in this space as a viable offer if the economics make sense.

Okay, so everyone says, “My business model makes sense. The economics make sense,” however I’ve found that more than half of all entrepreneurs I’ve encountered don’t keep their main metrics their main metrics. KPIs are KPIs for a reason; focus on these and if they are all performing, you’re doing the right things to get to your next milestone. In the performance-based marketing world, a set of business KPIs might make perfect sense (you can generate form fills on your site for $25 per lead) so common sense indicates that someone with more expertise can do better and earn a margin on this—and you get to do little to no work. Sweet!  But not so fast… for the economics to make sense in the performance based marketing world, you need to look at the larger world of offers, not just your model and historical metrics. You can’t look only at your competitors and substitutes and what they’re offering performance marketers out there. For example, consider that the total online addressable market for your product or service can generate a maximum of 250 leads per month and the individual advertising on your behalf makes $10 per lead (he can obtain them for $10 and you’re paying him $20). If another company in a totally different industry earns the marketer $8 per lead and the market size he can reach is 5 times the 250 maximum leads you’re generating, then you don’t have a competitive advantage and therefore would not have a viable offer.

Keep economics in mind at all times. You can learn more about what else is out there on a very basic level by visiting CommissionJunction.com and ODigger.com. It helps significantly to know someone in the industry and to navigate your way in via conversation, not pure online research.

Notice that I steered away from the term “affiliates” and “publishers,” largely because the confluence between the two and their industry of origin. The term “affiliate” originated within the affiliate marketing and affiliate network world whereas the term “publisher” arose from ad network and direct media buy world. When I look at the display advertising value chain (thank you Luma Partners for maintaining these kick ass value chains!), there is only one category distinguishing the performance-based world:

LumaPartners Display Lumascape

The emergence and continued growth, fragmentation, and re-assimilation of all companies in this space lend itself to the frenzy we all know digital marketing can be. FYI I say “can be” because it need not be. It’s the job of your digital marketing team members, consultants, vendors and partners to simplify this chaotic and fast-paced environment. Utilizing their expertise, this shouldadvise you on what will serve your unique business model and current objectives. If you’re stressed because you don’t know how or if your digital marketing efforts are serving your bottom line, email me at jen.morris@eboostconsulting.com.

Back to terminology. The overlap of these terms is reflective of the nature of the ad industry. If the margins make sense (what I’m willing to pay is more than what my marketer can achieve on a cost-per-action basis), then any marketer—pub or affiliate—will work on a performance basis. It aligns incentives. Like most genius business ideas and frameworks, it just makes sense. Beware of the overlap of these terms and when in this space, ask clarifying question to determine who comes from what industry. As you will see, those who originate from the affiliate world have certain styles and tendencies while those from the more traditional advertising world will have their own respective styles and tendencies.

And a tip—be honest about what you don’t know and don’t understand. You’ll get a lot farther faster if you ‘fess up and ask the “Captain Obvious” questions up front while communicating with partners.

Okay, I think I’ve been on the podium log enough. Time to get down to the nitty gritty. Thus far, you have helpful tips and context. Now, I’ll give you what you came for (thanks for being patient), those darn pitfalls:

1)      Never ever engage in a conversation with a performance based marketer without metrics. Take the time to invest a couple thousand (or a couple hundred if you’re absolutely desperate) to get some benchmark metrics. Key metrics: conversion rates (at each point in your funnel), cost-per-action for which you’re looking to pay.

2)      Be open to all kinds of traffic. Test everything. Sometimes incentivized traffic has a bad rap and rightly so. On the flip side, while you may receive more refunds or complaints, the cost of this traffic on an action basis is so much less that you can absorb these refunds and complaints. Test everything.

3)      A/B test your landing pages—always and forever. Never stop. Ever. You’re crazy if you’re not testing right now, with or without paid traffic. Your conversion rate is a serious competitive advantage you can use as a key point of leverage in acquiring, keeping, and growing your performance based marketing traffic sources.

4)      Be relentless. Call, follow up, go to networking events, Meetups, Tweetups, and every other kind of on- and off-line event to meet fellow performance marketers. Big conferences in the US include LeadsCon, Affiliate Summit, and to an extent AdTech. You gotta hustle or I can promise you’ll be disappointed.

5)      Start slow to go big. Test as many traffic sources and partners as possible. Start with a couple, trim the fat, grow the good stuff, and continue in this pattern. There are huge opportunities in this space, however you can kill all of your opportunity by blowing your entire budget up front if you don’t test and pivot, test and pivot, test and pivot.

There you have it: five pitfalls to avoid from me to you sent with warmest wishes that you have a very merry Boostmas. Change your “I’m not sure of the ROI of my digital marketing” to “I know where every dollar goes and what ROI is hast that contributes to my bottom line.” No excuses not to set yourself up for success in 2013. At eBoost, we love sharing Boostmas with a bow by talking through your unique case. Email me now at jen.morris@eboostconsulting.com.

 

Posted in Media Buys, Online Advertising, Online Media Planning | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

New Year, New Meet-up Group

With a passion for digital marketing and scaling start-ups, we decided what better way to share our expertise with fellow entrepreneurs at our first official SD Startup Accelerator meet-up group event on Wednesday, December 12th. This first meet-up event is entitled “Ramping Up Profits for the New Year”and will feature enriching conversation on 2012 takeaways and key strategies for leveraging your current business model in the New Year. Add in a little wine, tapas and the lovely ambiance afforded to us by the La Jolla Shores Hotel and that’s a recipe for an all-star eBoost meet-up event!

Ramping Up Profits for the New Year Meet-up

What SD Startup Accelerator is All About

With so many exciting technologies being developed around Southern California, the key to reaching scale is to launch your product with a killer digital marketing strategy. The core group is made up of entrepreneurs that have years of experience breaking down business models to recommend appropriate customer acquisition tactics. We love helping software and product-based start-ups reach critical mass and providing you with the essential information, resources and direct feedback during our meet-ups. You’ll learn how to scale revenue, user acquisition and mitigate your market risk. Our goal is to give entrepreneurs immediate value through targeted presentations, networking opportunities and one-on-one advice.

Topics of interest will include:

• Creating successful beta programs

• Who is your key customer?

• How to launch your product with a bang?

• Digital marketing strategies that will maximize your ROI

We look forward to seeing you on December 12th for our “Ramping Up Profits for the New Year” meet-up!

Posted in Entrepreneurship | Leave a comment

Is Your Site More Bloated Than After a Holiday Dinner?

code bloat

There’s nothing more discouraging than stepping in front of a mirror on New Year’s Day and seeing the travels of holiday feasting in every curve, lump and sag that you don’t remember being there in November. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just slap on a Tatum Channing or Penelope Cruz suit and step out into the New Year without the bathroom scale and mirror taunting you?

This is probably what’s going on with your web site, right now. It may be beautiful, chic, and web 2.0 on the outside, but the outer skin is probably lying to you, hiding a twisted nest of bloated code, heavy graphics, and inefficient methods under the hood. Like the extra padding that has winnowed its way to your waist on New Year’s Day, this can affect your web site’s health in ways you’ve never thought of.

I’m an old school coder. In the early days, we were forced to understand the importance of efficient coding. Broadband was just a concept and our downloads were measured in kilobytes, not terabytes. Every line of code, graphic, element or widget had to be examined for importance to the message, optimized for speed over quality, and eliminated if it didn’t make the cut. Today’s resources have left developers unbound by the limitations of bandwidth and user environment, and they can pretty much code any way they want (and get away with it.) Who cares if it’s inefficient, if it works, it works, right?

Things are changing; the rise of the mobile web has brought the need for efficient coding full circle. Today it’s more important than ever to consider your end user’s environment and code as efficiently as possible.

We Don’t Mean To. Really.

The coders of today aren’t evil (well, some of them are, but that’s a different story.) They’re trained by a very basic programming concept: "don’t re-invent the wheel." If a class or library exists that does what you need it to, no matter how monolithic its libraries or how demanding it is on resources, then use it. This is how one bloated resource gets piled on top of another, dependency on dependency, until what you wind up with is a very slow web site that does poorly in search results.

Did that one get your attention? In 2010 it became clear that Google added the speed at which a web page loads to its ranking algos.1 Page speed is indeed one of the many factors that helps you achieve respectable positions in SERPS or sends you to page 50.

It’s also important to mention that developers aren’t always the culprit of a heavy web site. To code a site efficiently one must first have a design that lends itself to lightweight implementation. Full page or other heavy graphics are an issue with design, not coding.

Cutting the Fat

What are the signs my site is not as efficient as it could be, and what can I do about it? There are several things even the non-technical site owner can check to increase performance. Let’s look at the client/design side, where the pages are rendered in your browser, and work down to the server level, where your web page requests are served.

Speed Test

There are many speed test web sites out there to check your site’s performance. Pick at least two of them and run some tests on an average page of your web site. One such site:

Web Site Optimization Test

The reason for this is that different sites will check your site over different networks, and you can eliminate a reasonable variation in bandwidth from your load time assessment. Be sure to print out or save the results of your tests for comparison after making changes to your site.

Client/Design Side

#1: Number of Requests

From the tests, look at the number of requests sent to the server for this one page, and compare those with your competitors or a similar page. Are there ways you can reduce the number of those requests? According to Google’s metrics (from 2010,) the average web page makes +-44 request to the server.2 Every time you load a page, you’re making requests from that server 44 times. Any slowness in the connection or difficulty in making the request is amplified by 44. It’s important to note that this is just an average – larger sites often make many more requests.3

Can multiple CSS files be combined into one, then optimized, and the same trick applied to included Javascript files? Are there features that aren’t so necessary that they cost your customers extra wait time when visiting your page? The first stop is to reduce the number of requests.

#2: Optimize Files

File optimization is as necessary today as it was in 1995: can your images and included files be compressed into smaller file sizes? A common trick for Javascript, CSS, and other text-based file includes is to run the deployment copy through an optimizer that removes all white space (a process called "minifying",) sometimes saving up to 40% of the original file size.

#3: Use CSS Sprites

The genius of proper use of CSS sprites is that you can convert multiple requests into one. Instead of, say, 10 images for a graphic-based navigation, we just load a single image and position it on each element as needed.

#4: Combine Files/Eliminate Excessive Files

View the source code of your page. Look in the <head> section for included files; these will generally come in two flavors, CSS and Javascript. Examples:

<link type="text/css" rel="stylesheet" media="all" href="/defaults.css">
<link type="text/css" rel="stylesheet" media="all" href="/system.css">
<script type="text/javascript" src="/jquery.js"></script>
<script type="text/javascript" src="/utilities.js"></script>

How many of these included files can be eliminated or combined?4 Do you really need jQuery on every page to do something that can be coded in 20 lines of Javascript or less? I have observed pages with up to 20 Javascript library includes for functions that can be coded with a single jQuery library and a few lines of code. Which brings us to . . .

#5: Uncomplicate Dynamic Coding

Javascript and its jQuery library are the tools responsible for most of the fading, sliding, flashing, and animating you see on the web, and often manifests itself via multiple libraries in the head sections of web pages. Are these libraries overkill for some of the more simple functions on your web site? One example is the use of Javascript to create drop down menus. This can be done with pure CSS6, no Javascript required. Review your site’s dynamic features to see if there is a less complicated way to do the same thing.

#6: Uncomplicate Your Layouts

One of the gripes I have with WordPress is that the underlying structure, "out of the box," is excessively complex. Div’s inside div’s inside other div’s when usually only one or two of these are required to output a page. For each of those extra elements, there are multiple selectors in the CSS that also aren’t necessary, increasing the problem. Additionally, the more elements there are, the more time and memory it’s going to take the browser to render. Every byte you eliminate from your page will increase its speed, and it all adds up. Can any elements, containers, or boxes be eliminated from the markup to reduce its load time?

#7: Avoid Inline Markup

The initial source code of your page can be optimized too. If you can view the source code of your page and see multiple instances of inline markup (<style> tags, <font>, or other presentation elements,) your page can be optimized considerably. All of your presentation styles should be in an external style sheet. Adhering to these coding practices will make your pages easier to maintain as well.

#8: External Requests

Not to be confused with external requests to a CDN (Content Delivery Network,) try to localize files that you can localize and minimize external requests, which sometimes can’t be avoided (such as tracking, analytics, and social media codes.)5

Server Side

#9: Use Only the Resources You Need

At its most basic level, serving up web pages is a very fast process, taking nanoseconds to perform. In later years this process has been complicated with CMS technology (Content Management Systems.) CMS’s are database-driven server softwares such as WordPress, Drupal, modx, and others that allow site owners to modify their site content and output dynamically driven pages. Your website now doesn’t directly serve a page, it connects to a dynamic programming language, which connects to a database, does some magic stuff to it, then serves the page.

Consider it an "added feature" to your web site: you can now edit it but it’s going to require more players in the game to serve your pages, consume more memory and resources, and can potentially affect site responsiveness. Do you really need a CMS? If so, does it require large resource intensive libraries or frameworks? Are there lighter weight solutions that serve your needs?

#10: Eliminate Excess CMS Code

No matter what CMS you are using, find out if the database server is a local or remote server; if the remote database server is slow or unresponsive, it will slow your web site with every page request. Find out what plugins, modules, or add-ons your CMS software is using, and the performance effects of each. Can you live without any of them or find faster ones?

#11: Enable Gzip

Gzipping basically compresses all files on the server, then when requested, the browser will uncompress them prior to rendering. This is a fairly technical implementation and often not supported by all environments, but if you can implement it, you should.

#12: Server Environment

Are your expectations unrealistic for the environment you’ve selected? A CMS may suffer performance hits in a shared environment, but may thrive in a VPS/VDS. After pursuing all the items above, consult a developer for advice on whether the selected environment is underpowered to run your web site.

#13: Server and Rewrite Optimization (warning: tech talk ahead)

Here is one quick fix for WordPress (and most CMS softwares like it) that I’ve seen speed up web sites as much as 200%. Unfortunately it’s a bit technical, but it’s also the one server-level optimization that can do you the most good with the least investment.

Most CMS software that implements "pretty" or "search engine friendly" extensionless URL’s comes with this bit of mod_rewrite code for the domain’s .htaccess file. It is the "engine" that turns ugly query string URL’s into pretty, keyword-rich, extensionless URL’s.


RewriteCond %{REQUEST_FILENAME} !-f
RewriteCond %{REQUEST_FILENAME} !-d
RewriteRule . /index.php [L]

What does that do? "If the request is not a file, and the request is not a directory, send the request to index.php." Index.php then determines what "the request" is (identifies the URL) and outputs the appropriate resource.

This is a very bad approach because it tells the rewrite engine to search the entire file system twice. It first searches the hard drive to see if the request is a file, then again to see if it’s a directory, before sending it on to index.php. A better solution starts with the fact that all other files – CSS, images, Javascript – will all have a dot in their file name. Anything without a dot should be sent to index.php, correct?

RewriteRule ^([^.]+)$ /index.php [L]

"If there’s no dot in the requested file name, send it to index.php." No searching the file system at all.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, and each web site will have unique conditions that will determine the degree to which these suggestions will apply.3 You may not need to implement them all, and sometimes you won’t be able to follow all the rules (like this blog post,) but if your site is slow and bloated any of these suggestions could help. As you dig into the details of your site and see what pages are slow, you’ll also see which ones are fast, and learn why, which will lead to faster loading pages for your visitors – which is really why we’re here, isn’t it?


1 Using site speed in web search ranking, April 9, 2010, Webmaster Central Blog

2 Web metrics: Size and number of resources, May 26, 2010, Google Developers

3 Including this one . . . including this one.

4 Often multiple files is an optimization in itself; for example, if there is a single page that requires additional CSS, it does the rest of the site no good to carry around that added CSS in the master style sheet.

5 A browser can make multiple connections at once, which makes external connections to CDN’s or subdomains a way of speeding up the web page. Here we refer to connections to sites that, if they have a slow response time, will affect the performance of your site.

6 Most of the time.

Posted in Team eBoost | 2 Comments