Website Performance Should Be More than Just a Number
enterprisenetworkingmag

Website Performance Should Be More than Just a Number

Jeena James, Executive Vice President and General Manager, WebPageTest, Catchpoint

Jeena James, Executive Vice President and General Manager, WebPageTest, Catchpoint

Your company has just pushed out an update to its online storefront, when one of your reports—the lead Site Reliability Engineer (SRE) from your monitoring team—asks you to look at something. Load times have slowed to a crawl. Worse, some interactions now take forever to respond. You ask your developers what’s going on, but they’re puzzled too. They show you the website’s performance metrics, as measured against Google Core Web Vitals, and the numbers look great. What’s going on here?

From a technical perspective, the answer could be any of a hundred different hiccups. But from a business standpoint, you’re suffering from a dangerous blind spot: Your various web-focused teams have grown a bit too reliant on performance metrics pulled from Google and other online tools. And as they’ve focused more heavily on optimizing performance scores, they’ve forgotten that those numbers don’t always capture the full story of what users actually experience.  And now? You’re delivering poor experiences to significant numbers of users. Your reputation has already taken a hit. And you can expect to spend a ton of time and money going back over the codebase to figure out the problem.

There’s a way to spot issues like these before they affect your users. To do it though, you’ll need to look beyond the numbers. You’ll need to build a culture of performance that pervades every part of your organization.

When Numbers Don’t Tell the Whole Story

Back in 2021, Google launched Core Web Vitals, defining three universal metrics to score the performance of websites based on load time, interactivity, and stability. More important than the metrics themselves though, Google announced it would begin factoring these scores into a website’s search rankings. It's hard to overstate the impact this had.

Every digital business that cares about search results (that is, every digital business) began using Core Web Vitals to baseline website performance, identify bottlenecks, and track progress improving the user experience. And everyone got faster as a result. We’ve heard from Google that performance immediately improved across the web.

This shift represented a huge improvement inside digital business as well. All of a sudden, everyone involved in delivering a web experience—site designers, marketing and Search Engine Optimization (SEO) groups, quality assurance (QA) teams, third-party vendors—could all speak a common language when seeking to improve performance and business outcomes. But this change also laid the groundwork for a new kind of risk: that businesses might treat metrics like Core Web Vitals, Lighthouse scores, and others as everything they need to know about performance. And that’s a mistake. Because, as valuable as metrics like these are, they’re automated measurements—which means they can be gamed, intentionally or otherwise. Developers now employ a growing number of quick fixes and workarounds to stretch site performance and improve scores on third-party tests. When used properly (and sparingly) to make meaningful, low-risk changes to production code, these fixes can be quite powerful. When misused to bump up a performance score, however, or just misunderstood, they can make it seem like a site is delivering great performance even when it’s not.

"By adopting a performance-first mindset, you can create a culture of performance that permeates your entire organization. And you’ll achieve something more valuable than nice-looking metrics: users who love your website and keep coming back"

The gap between performance metrics and real-world user experience can be significant. Just see this example that developer communities often share among themselves. Here, developers created a site that achieved a perfect Core Web Vitals score—while providing a truly abysmal user experience with slow load times and horrible interaction.

Building a Culture of Performance

What lesson should we draw from this example? It’s not that third-party metrics like Core Web Vitals don’t matter. They do. But you can’t assume they tell you everything you need to know. To avoid this kind of tunnel-vision, we need to treat performance as more than a number. It needs to be a culture—a philosophy and way of working baked into everything an organization does.

Based on conversations with business leaders who’ve successfully done it, instilling a culture of performance starts with a few key principles:

● Treat performance as everyone’s job. You can’t think of performance as something one team is responsible for. It’s too important, with far-reaching effects across SEO, brand equity, conversions, and ultimately, revenues. From the get-go, not only should front-end designers and developers be thinking about performance, so should QA, SRE, and marketing teams. So should their managers and other decision-makers. Everyone from the C-suite down should have performance as part of their mindset.

● Build performance into every stage of DevOps. Businesses have myriad tools to measure performance—real user monitoring, active testing, user acceptance testing and more. But often, they’re relegated to one discrete phase of the Development and Operations (DevOps) lifecycle. Performance testing should be pervasive—embedded into the Continuous Integration/Continuous Delivery (CI/CD) pipeline and used by everyone in the delivery chain.

● Set performance budgets and stick to them. It sounds intuitive, but it's necessary to clearly define limits on one or more performance metrics that your teams agree not to exceed. Use performance budgets to guide design, development, and deployment. Create and document processes for designing and implementing performance best practices. And conduct continuous, ongoing reviews and performance audits that go beyond basic metrics.

● Use quick fixes sparingly: Since the launch of Core Web Vitals (and Google Lighthouse testing before it), developers have come up with many quick fixes and “band-aid” patches to improve a site’s performance scores. These can be quite effective—provided you’re not using them in place of performance best practices. Also, make sure you validate quick fixes with active testing (that is, generating synthetic user behavior from multiple markets) to verify that they actually improve user experience.

● Celebrate the good. Most developers like solving puzzles, finding novel ways to do things, and feeling like they’re contributing to something special. By embracing the goal of great performance and building the ability to measure it, you bake the cool, fun aspects of building a fast website directly into your delivery chain. Effectively, you gamify performance, so that teams constantly vie for it—against other teams, competitors, even their own previous work. You create a culture devoted to not only meeting standards, but exceeding them.

● Draw on the web performance community. Building a culture of performance can seem daunting, but you don’t have to do it all yourself. There’s a huge “WebPerf” community offering advice, best practices, and countless paid and open-source toolkits, some of which integrate directly into CI/CD processes. New tools can run instant performance tests from multiple locations and provide detailed audits. Some even allow you to experiment with performance tweaks right within the tool, and see their effects before you change the codebase.

All these steps can help you avoid the pitfalls of performance surprises—and the huge potential costs of fixing them after they’ve gone live. By adopting a performance-first mindset, you can create a culture of performance that permeates your entire organization. And you’ll achieve something more valuable than nice-looking metrics: users who love your website and keep coming back.

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