Are Third-Party Tools Secret Conversion Killers? [Infographic]

By , June 29th, 2011 in Conversion | 51 comments

Google’s new +1 button is the widget du jour, with countless installations since its launch on June 1. But as it turns out, the +1 button could make pages up to two seconds slower, according to performance consultant Aaron Peters.

Certain tools can make you’re site load at a snails pace. Image source

Since Aaron documented his performance audit on his blog, Google has responded by saying that they’re working hard on fixing the +1 button’s performance problems. But that doesn’t change the fact that there are a lot of people out there who have unwittingly inserted a chunk of code on their pages that could be dragging down their website’s performance.

The myth of “just a single line of Javascript”

Just because a widget provider is trusted and well known, that doesn’t mean you can assume they’re building fast tools. These tools often get touted as “just a single line of Javascript.” I’m here to tell you that “just a single line of Javascript” is a meaningless phrase that third-party tool vendors have invented to make their apps sound easy and low-impact.

To illustrate, here’s what the uncustomized +1 button’s code snippet looks like:


<!-- Place this tag in your head or just before your close body tag -->
<script type="text/javascript" src="http://apis.google.com/js/plusone.js"></script>

<!-- Place this tag where you want the +1 button to render -->
<g:plusone></g:plusone>

That’s it. But that little snippet of code contains one serious performance faux pas (recommending that you place the tag in the head, the negative consequences of which Aaron explains further in his post). It also includes a typo – the file is called over HTTP, but will be served over HTTPS – that will cause a redirect (read: delay) in how the page renders, most notably for people using IE8.

I don’t want you to think that I’m singling out Google for criticism. I’ve collaborated with folks at Google several times. They’re smart, conscientious people. They do good work. So let’s look at another famous widget: the Facebook “Like” button. Ecommerce consultant Matthew Ogborne did his own audit of the “Like” button, and immediately removed it from his site when he realized it was making his pages 1.34 seconds slower.

These are just two examples. The internet is rife with more — companies who, with the best of intentions, are creating widgets that bung up your page load. Taken individually, it’s easy to brush this off. What’s a second here, or a few hundred milliseconds there, after all? Not much, until you do the math and realize that you’re adding several seconds of load time to your pages.

(As an aside, if you want to learn the load times for a handful of common third-party tools — including the Digg widget, Google Analytics, and Quantcast – check out Steve Souders’s P3PC project.)

Why you need to care about site speed

John Ekman has already written an excellent post here about the impact of page speed on your Google search ranking. But site speed has also been linked to pretty much every other metric you care about: bounce rate, conversion, page views, customer satisfaction, and revenue. Whether you’re talking about mega-giants like Amazon (Powerpoint download) and Shopzilla (report) or smaller “mortal” companies like Artbeads (case study) and Edmunds (report), they’ve all found the same thing: when you make your site faster, you increase conversions by anywhere between 1% and 16%.

How to calculate whether a cool new third-party tool is going to help or hurt conversions

So… given the importance of making websites as fast as possible, and given the potential for third-party widgets to leech performance, how many people actively investigate the impact of button on their site? (If you answered “Practically none,” give yourself a prize.)

Third-party content is here to stay. Ads, social media widgets, recommendation engines — these are all here to stay, and with good reason. Overall, they add value and generate revenue. But you need to know how to separate the ones that are going to help you from the ones that could hurt you.

Here’s how to conduct a simple cost-benefit analysis when you’re evaluating prospective third-party tools:

  1. Perform an A/B test of your site, with and without the tool, in a real-world environment. Generate waterfall charts for both tests (for more on waterfalls, I wrote this post a while back that explains how to read them), and identify how long the third-party objects take to load. Note these benchmarks.
  2. From the tool vendor, get the number for the average conversion rate bump experienced by other sites that use the tool.
  3. Using Aberdeen’s widely accepted performance stat that a 1-second page delay equals a 7% loss in conversions, calculate the potential net conversion gain or loss. For example, if a tool slows down page load by 2 seconds, that means a 14% conversion loss. But if that same tool promises a 20% conversion increase, then that’s a net gain of 6% (not including the cost of purchasing the tool).

If you find that a widget has the potential to slow down your site beyond what is acceptable, let the vendor know. There’s a good possibility that they’re not aware of the problem, and like Google, they’ll be happy for the feedback so they can fix the problems.

Final tips: Optimize your pages and talk to your ad agency

And while you’re optimizing your third-party content, get your developers to, wherever possible, prioritize page elements so that non-essential content loads last rather than first.

This extends to ads as well, if you can get away with it. If your ad agency insists that ads remain a priority, then ask them how they ensure that they are optimizing the ads they serve to maximize performance. Slow-loading ads are a major cause of high bounce rates.

You’re not doing yourself or your advertisers any favors by decreasing your page views.

This is a guest post. The author’s opinions are entirely his or her own and may not always reflect the views of Unbounce. Joshua Bixby is president of Strangeloop, a company that provides website acceleration solutions to companies like Visa, Petco, Travelocity and OReilly Media. Joshua also maintains the blog Web Performance Today, which explores issues and ideas about site speed, user behavior, and website optimization.

– Joshua Bixby

About The Author

Photo of Joshua Bixby

Joshua Bixby is president of Strangeloop, a company that provides website acceleration solutions to companies like Visa, Petco, Travelocity and OReilly Media. Joshua also maintains the blog Web Performance Today, which explores issues and ideas about site speed, user behavior, and website optimization.
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Comments

  1. Oli Gardner says:

    Great post Joshua.
    Going back to the start (about the +1 button) – are you saying that we should implement it with an https url rather than http? Or is it just an unfortunately poor implementation on their part that we can’t fix?

    • Joshua Bixby says:

      Oli there is not much we can do to fix the poor implementation as far as switching the protocol because of the way the first request loads the subsequent requests. I am not sure if Google is still working on the implementation of this widget because I just redid the test and I see slightly different results now from that Aaron has in his post. If I test from my IE9 or re-run the webpagetest it does not show the first request returning a 301 anymore but instead a 200 which contains JavaScript that loads the other resources from https (which is probably worse actually).

      • Oli Gardner says:

        Just as a general rule – I’m starting to get super frustrated by my blog posts taking 10 seconds or longer to load due to some Twitter or Facebook widget (that I’d like to use for social proof).

        I have to put some blame on WordPress and myself here, as I’m enjoying the luxuries and benefits of a WP powered site, while suffering the inevitable widget overload that comes with not hand coding the site from scratch.

  2. Wayne Barker says:

    Great post Joshua,
    Since Google announced that page speed was a ranking factor it should be on everyones agenda to ensure that their pages are loading quickly. Bring into this equation the points that you mention regarding conversion rates and surely only a fool will disregard the importance of load times.

  3. [...] Bixby also wrote a post on the Unbounce blog about how third-party tools can be conversion killers. Note this is not just [...]

  4. Aaron says:

    Joshua,

    Great post. But can’t the page load concerns be mitigated by loading these widgets dynamically, after doc ready or after window.onload, instead of inlining them?

    I haven’t read the conversion analyses deeply but I suspect conversion is most affected when the delay affects being able to see or use the page. When the page is visible and ready for user actions, and those “extra” widgets are loaded as afterthoughts, it’s probably not as much of an issue.

    It amazes me that responsible orgs like Google, Facebook, etc., who know better, keep pushing out these non-async widget snippets …

    • Joshua Bixby says:

      Aaron you are correct we should defer poorly implemented widgets like this. The async loading pattern on the Aaron Peters blog would be an ok middle ground but does not guarantee when the resources will load and they will still compete for browser resources before page load. The +1 team should talk to the GA team and learn how to load a third party component correctly.

  5. [...] Bixby also wrote a post on the Unbounce blog about how third-party tools can be conversion killers. Note this is not just [...]

  6. [...] conversion Even more important for e-commerce websites is the conversion rate. Due to recent reports from experts the Facebook like button takes 1.34 seconds to load. Some reports tell that improving site speed [...]

  7. Randy says:

    Speaking of 3rd-party offenders that should know better, I’ve been developing a new (self-hosted) blog using WordPress’ twentyeleven theme.

    By enabling the “Jetpack” plugins (which come installed by default), it creates a connection to Gravatar. That caused several seconds of load time right away, from a stock theme that WordPress outlines as their “best” (or at least, a benchmark on what a theme should be).

  8. [...] you would be so quick to add it after reading this Are Third-Party Tools Secret Conversion Killers? [Infographic] | Unbounce In terms of social signals, I think facebook likes are more important then google+1 as we speak. [...]

  9. [...] = { ui_header_color: "#000", ui_header_background: "#f2f2f2", } The Unbounce blog has an interesting new article about Third-Party tools and conversion . The article suggests that the Google +1 button (please click mine!) can add up to 2 seconds to a [...]

  10. Rosenstand says:

    Definitely food for thought. Might revise my own strategy…

  11. Fraser says:

    HTML5 introduces a much needed feature to help with this:

    script tags now have an ‘async’ attribute. If you add it to the tag (note it doesn’t have to be set to any value, its existence is enough) the script will load in parallel to the page.

  12. [...] Are Third-Party Tools Conversion Killers – This post looks at how even the smallest script (such as the Google +1 button) could add a delay in page-load time leading to less conversions. [...]

  13. Party Room says:

    Great article. I, like many others, assumed that such a small segment of code wouldn’t reduce load times. As one who keeps an eye on bounce rate I know the importance of fast load times. Good to know that these popular “buttons” can ultimately increase bounce rate.

  14. Speed of loading for a website is one of the main consideration I have when trying to find information. Even that 2 second delay would probably cause me to go elsewhere.

  15. Mads says:

    Since Google announced that page speed was a ranking factor it should be on everyones agenda to ensure that their pages are loading quickly. Bring into this equation the points that you mention regarding conversion rates and surely only a fool will disregard the importance of load times.

  16. Speaking of 3rd-party offenders that should know better, I’ve been developing a new (self-hosted) blog using WordPress’ twentyeleven theme.

  17. [...] Are Third-Party Tools Secret Conversion Killers – A lot of people have unwittingly inserted a chunk of code on their pages that could be dragging down their website’s performance and thus lowering their conversion rates. Learn about the myth of a single line of JavaScript. [...]

  18. Mark says:

    Great infographic. I’m curious where these numbers actually come from. Who did the study? It sounds pretty accurate, but it’s nice to know they were derived from an actual study.

  19. Tammy Everts says:

    @Mark: I’m director of research at Strangeloop, and the person who commissioned the infographics in Joshua’s post.

    To answer your question, the first graphic — which equates a one-second delay to losses in conversions, page views, and customer satisfaction — is based on a 2008 study called “The Performance of Web Applications: Customers are Won or Lost in One Second”, conducted by Aberdeen on behalf of Gomez. You can download the report here:

    http://www.gomez.com/wp-content/downloads/Aberdeen_WebApps.pdf

    The second graphic is based on a 2010 survey entitled “Consumer Response to Travel Site Performance”, conducted by PhoCusWright on behalf of Akamai:

    http://www.akamai.com/html/awe/login.html?campaign_id=AANA-9BQFFQ&curl=/dl/whitepapers/Akamai_PCW_Travel_Perf_Whitepaper.pdf

    We have many more performance-related infographics on our site, on topics ranging from mobile performance to web performance in China:

    http://www.strangeloopnetworks.com/resources/#Infographics

    If you have questions about any of these, please do let me know.

  20. “…script tags now have an ‘async’ attribute. If you add it to the tag (note it doesn’t have to be set to any value, its existence is enough) the script will load in parallel to the page.”

    Did anybody test this? If so did it eliminate the problem?

  21. [...] year Joshua Bixby wrote Are Third-Party Apps Conversion Killers? He wrote the article in response to the +1 button when it was new…explaining that it was taking 2 [...]

  22. [...] Are Third-Party Tools Secret Conversion Killers – A lot of people have unwittingly inserted a chunk of code on their pages that could be dragging down their website’s performance and thus lowering their conversion rates. Learn about the myth of a single line of JavaScript. [...]

  23. Komposit says:

    Great post. It’s really scary how simple you put it, but a true eye-opener.

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  26. I think the most interesting part of this article was the part with caring about site speed.

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  32. Revealed’s application allows users to monitor the impact of third party tools on page speed.

    Check it out at http://www.rvealed.com

  33. those are the conversion killers? What are that for and I am not really sure that but whatever it is then i am willing to learn.

  34. Kondom says:

    First of all, great article!

    However, I would say that there is a simple way to just “quickly determine” whether or not you should use a third party tool you just found. It does require some “think-simple” thought process though.

    - If you can’t make the third party app seem 100 % integrated with your own design, don’t use it.
    - If there are references to external sites or companies, that is irrelevant to your customers, don’t use it.
    - If it slows down your website, don’t use it.

    And of course, it needs to be very simple. No need to require more of the visitors. :)

    I really loved the article.

  35. Projektor says:

    Very good article!

    The two main reasons that you should be aware of the speed of one page is:

    - SEO
    - Potential customers will disappear from the page if it is too slow

  36. Citona says:

    Thanks for sharing this great knowledge. Love the infographics!

  37. I think optimizely is a good tool for testing, but I also think that companies should use more time to look into Analytics, really good stuff in there if you take your time, and use a focus on the data – and improving your own site.

  38. Thomas says:

    A third-party tool should fit in to your design – otherwise it will look stupid.

    Btw, it’s a cool infographic :)

  39. Lån penge says:

    I think that analytics is the best way to optimize – you can work with your graphic team and engineers to create the best page for conversion – so all these third party tools can also kill your site i think or time if so to say.

  40. Kondomer says:

    I just completed a customer, who pretty much had no idea how to use analyzed data for his benefit. And to be honest, I wasn’t much help either, cause I just recently discovered some new tools, but hopefully I have a better idea now.

    I had no idea that site speed means so much on conversion rates and rankings. Thanks for sharing! :-) Keep it coming!

  41. Lagerhotel says:

    Agreed! Site speed is so important! We just got a new website, and our speed went down by 33 % – drastically improving the visitor experience. Now, hopefully it will also improve conversions and rankings. Yet to see that though.

  42. Thanks for the information. Site speed is so cruical for rankings and conversions.

  43. Muuv says:

    Thanks for a good article. Really readable with the nice facts, illustrations and off course – the good context :-)

  44. Ami says:

    Thanks for sharing this great knowledge. Love the infographics!

  45. […] time. He yanked it. Joshua Bixby had the same reaction when he discovered that it took 2 seconds todownload the original Google+ button. Google has since fixed the problem, but the lesson is clear: know what kind of burden a widget or […]

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  47. Fue says:

    Thanks a lot. This is great stuff…

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