It Only Takes 3 Seconds to Lose a Customer

Abi Hough
  • Lack of speed will kill website conversions
  • People pay less attention now than they ever did
  • You can, however, take action to ensure your website is fast and gets attention

According to a recent article on the BBC news website1, you can lose quite a lot in 3 seconds, because that’s all the time about half of your customers are willing to give you to get your website loaded in their browser and ready for action.

The other half will only give you 8 seconds.

If it takes any longer than that, you are flogging a dead horse; your users have moved on elsewhere (probably to a competitor) to spend their plastic cash elsewhere.

This is an interesting statistic for me, because it highlights how customer behaviour has changed over the past decade or so. In fact, I remember doing a presentation on this very subject back in 2001 and the figure then was around 10 seconds.

The need to speed up website loading speed is evident. For example, fashion retailer Nordstrom saw a massive 11 per cent drop in sales when its website experienced a 0.5 second increase in page load time.1 What’s that in cash? For them it was £10s of millions in revenue lost for what might seem like a hardly perceivable lag on their website performance.


So what’s changed?

1. Connectivity

Faster land-based fibre internet connections are offering fast download speeds and lower latency (as low as 1 millisecond). And, customers also enjoy predominantly 3G and 4G connections while out and about, or they hitch a ride on a free Wi-Fi spot when using their mobile devices to browse the web.

2. Availability

Mobiles, tablets, light-bulbs, you name it. Everything is becoming connected to everything, and, as such, users expect to be able to access content quickly and it needs to be no further than an arm’s reach away.

3. Software

It may be a bit of propaganda, but this video produced by Google to promote the Chrome browser makes a very valid point. We are a long way from the browsers of old and their sludgy rendering of websites.

4. Infrastructure

Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) are serving content to users quickly across the globe and fuelling the demand for the “everything now” culture.

5. Humanity

We are turning into a bunch of WHINERs (Want to Have It Now via Easiest Route), where waiting for something seems to be less desirable and the effort required to obtain something needs to be minimal.

Film rental is a good example.

Remember Blockbuster? You’d have to walk/drive to Blockbuster store and hire a film on a cassette; then came services like LoveFilm, where you could hire a film on a DVD, which was mailed to you (more convenient, more choice, and possibly faster depending on the location of your nearest Blockbuster).

And, now we have services like Netflix, iTunes and Amazon Video where the film or TV show you want is just a button press away from being played immediately.

Or, for the musically minded amongst you, what about Spotify?

When it was first released one of its main selling points was that was faster to search and play a song over a 2 Mbps internet connection than it was to search for the same song on your own iTunes collection sat on the computer in front of you. For a company reporting US $2 billion revenues last year, speed has paid off for Spotify.


Some top tips to satisfy the WHINERs

There are lots of ways to ensure your website loads quickly and performs well, some are expensive, but others are more achievable and can help you retain your customer’s ability to stay put within that 3-second window of opportunity. Here are some examples.

1. Speed perception

By decreasing the time a visitor/customer perceives it takes for a website to load, you are on to a winner. Note the key words here are perceives and perception, which can be influenced psychologically (see Improving land page conversion with persuasive psychology) and so it’s not always the actual speed of loading.

There is a great study going on relating to this which you can take part in and I recommend you do so, to understand the principles at play here. Some of the primary techniques in use are:

  1. Using progressive JPGs—the whole image is displayed at once and refined, rather than loading from the top down.
  2. Selective loading of the page—make sure central content is loaded first.
  3. Play with how long a page’s content is shown whilst the new content is being served up and displayed.
  4. Give quick feedback on interactions—simple things like button colour changes on hover and click, and using progress bars over spinners where possible and even the type of animation you use on those progress bars can alter perceived loading times.
  5. Make sure your landing pages are the best they can be, get rid of any bloat. Bells and whistles can be added further into the site when you have got past that vital 3 seconds rule of hooking a user in the first instance.

2. Coding

How your site is coded is also going to affect its performance. Always make sure your CSS and JavaScript is minified and lean. You also want to make sure there are no render-blocking issues that will affect your perceived loading time.

3. Images

It’s an old issue, but very much still a valid one. Ensure your images are optimised correctly and served appropriately to the audience that is viewing them. Don’t rely on CSS to scale your images, upload them at scale instead.

4. HTTP requests

HTTP requests are made when the browser needs to get something from the web server, the more requests made, generally the slower your site will be.

5. Use a CDN

A content delivery network (CDN) will speed up delivery of website content and assets around the world—so if you have a global customer base, using a CDN will ensure they get content quickly.

6. Redirect with caution

A redirect is what it says, it redirects your users from one place to another and can be useful for all sorts of reasons such as SEO. There are several types of redirects available and can be server-side (301, 302) or client-side. Avoid client-side redirects where possible, and if you use server-side redirects then ensure you have a regular regime of checking for defunked redirects that link to non-existent content. It is also important to check regularly that redirect chains are efficient and logical – are they taking the shortest route to get the user to where they need to be? Without regular maintenance, redirects can really hinder your site performance and your users are going to notice.

7. Fix 404s

A 404 error occurs when a website visitor requests a file but it is no longer available, but also when your page asks for an old stylesheet, JavaScript or image that’s no longer there. Each of the 404 requests has to be dealt with by your server, so the more you have, the less resources the server will have to deal with other requests, such as serving up your website content that is available.

8. Caching

There are two types of caching relevant here: browser caching and server caching. Browser caching allows temporary storage of files downloaded by your browser to view a site. If the browser has cached content it won’t take as long to display the next time a user visits the site. Server caching works on the same premise, but the cached content is held on a dedicated server and then retrieved when necessary.

9. Compression

Using compression techniques can really save on bandwidth (between 50 and 80 per cent using Gzip, for example) so you’d be wise to ensure that this is enabled at server level.

10. Database clear outs

Make opportunities to optimise your database(s). Have a look at any databases to identify whether you can make savings.  From simple defragmentation of data and indexes to removing unused tables or even optimising queries and creating indexes, there are many ways to optimise a slow database and it may be that’s just what you need to trim vital seconds.

11. Infrastructure

Your infrastructure is just as important as everything else. There is little point investing time and effort optimising your site for performance if the very thing you are using to serve up the content is inefficient. Fast and reliable hosting is key here. Try and remove any bottlenecks on your network, ensure the servers have capacity and that firewalls and switches have equal headroom, and that you’ve sufficient bandwidth outwards. (Also see “Speedy pages convert more sales”.)

12. Stop freeloaders

It is possible for other people to embed your content onto their website. Every time someone does this it means your server is using its resources to serve content onto someone else’s website, rather than being busy serving up your content on your website. And, if this sort of thing gets out of hand, your site performance is going to get hit.

You can prevent other people from embedding your assets on their websites by using hotlink protection, which restricts HTTP referrers dead in their tracks.


…although reducing attention spans and webpage loading speed are big challenges for e-commerce companies in all markets, there are things that can be done to optimise the user experience to combat the problems. Being very cognisant of the issues and the conversion optimisation techniques available is definitely a step in the direction of success.


[1] M Wall, “How long will you wait for a shopping website to load?”, BBC News, Business, 19 August (2016). http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-37100091