Minimize HTTP Requests
80% of the end-user response time is spent on the front-end. Most of this time is tied up in downloading all the components in the page: images, stylesheets, scripts, Flash, etc. Reducing the number of components in turn reduces the number of HTTP requests required to render the page. This is the key to faster pages.
Use a Content Delivery Network
The user’s proximity to your web server has an impact on response times. Deploying your content across multiple, geographically dispersed servers will make your pages load faster from the user’s perspective. But where should you start?
As a first step to implementing geographically dispersed content, don’t attempt to redesign your web application to work in a distributed architecture. Depending on the application, changing the architecture could include daunting tasks such as synchronizing session state and replicating database transactions across server locations. Attempts to reduce the distance between users and your content could be delayed by, or never pass, this application architecture step.
Remember that 80-90% of the end-user response time is spent downloading all the components in the page: images, stylesheets, scripts, Flash, etc. This is the Performance Golden Rule. Rather than starting with the difficult task of redesigning your application architecture, it’s better to first disperse your static content. This not only achieves a bigger reduction in response times, but it’s easier thanks to content delivery networks.
A content delivery network (CDN) is a collection of web servers distributed across multiple locations to deliver content more efficiently to users. The server selected for delivering content to a specific user is typically based on a measure of network proximity. For example, the server with the fewest network hops or the server with the quickest response time is chosen.
Some large Internet companies own their own CDN, but it’s cost-effective to use a CDN service provider, such as Akamai Technologies, Mirror Image Internet, or Limelight Networks. For start-up companies and private web sites, the cost of a CDN service can be prohibitive, but as your target audience grows larger and becomes more global, a CDN is necessary to achieve fast response times. At Yahoo!, properties that moved static content off their application web servers to a CDN improved end-user response times by 20% or more. Switching to a CDN is a relatively easy code change that will dramatically improve the speed of your web site.
The time it takes to transfer an HTTP request and response across the network can be significantly reduced by decisions made by front-end engineers. It’s true that the end-user’s bandwidth speed, Internet service provider, proximity to peering exchange points, etc. are beyond the control of the development team. But there are other variables that affect response times. Compression reduces response times by reducing the size of the HTTP response.
Put Stylesheets at the Top
While researching performance at Yahoo!, we discovered that moving stylesheets to the document HEAD makes pages appear to be loading faster. This is because putting stylesheets in the HEAD allows the page to render progressively.
Front-end engineers that care about performance want a page to load progressively; that is, we want the browser to display whatever content it has as soon as possible. This is especially important for pages with a lot of content and for users on slower Internet connections. The importance of giving users visual feedback, such as progress indicators, has been well researched and documented. In our case the HTML page is the progress indicator! When the browser loads the page progressively the header, the navigation bar, the logo at the top, etc. all serve as visual feedback for the user who is waiting for the page. This improves the overall user experience.
The problem with putting stylesheets near the bottom of the document is that it prohibits progressive rendering in many browsers, including Internet Explorer. These browsers block rendering to avoid having to redraw elements of the page if their styles change. The user is stuck viewing a blank white page.
The HTML specification clearly states that stylesheets are to be included in the HEAD of the page: “Unlike A, [LINK] may only appear in the HEAD section of a document, although it may appear any number of times.” Neither of the alternatives, the blank white screen or flash of unstyled content, are worth the risk. The optimal solution is to follow the HTML specification and load your stylesheets in the document HEAD.
The problem caused by scripts is that they block parallel downloads. The HTTP/1.1 specification suggests that browsers download no more than two components in parallel per hostname. If you serve your images from multiple hostnames, you can get more than two downloads to occur in parallel. While a script is downloading, however, the browser won’t start any other downloads, even on different hostnames.
In some situations it’s not easy to move scripts to the bottom. If, for example, the script uses document.write to insert part of the page’s content, it can’t be moved lower in the page. There might also be scoping issues. In many cases, there are ways to workaround these situations.
An alternative suggestion that often comes up is to use deferred scripts. The DEFER attribute indicates that the script does not contain document.write, and is a clue to browsers that they can continue rendering. Unfortunately, Firefox doesn’t support the DEFER attribute. In Internet Explorer, the script may be deferred, but not as much as desired. If a script can be deferred, it can also be moved to the bottom of the page. That will make your web pages load faster.
Reduce DNS Lookups
The Domain Name System (DNS) maps hostnames to IP addresses, just as phonebooks map people’s names to their phone numbers. When you type www.yahoo.com into your browser, a DNS resolver contacted by the browser returns that server’s IP address. DNS has a cost. It typically takes 20-120 milliseconds for DNS to lookup the IP address for a given hostname. The browser can’t download anything from this hostname until the DNS lookup is completed.
When the client’s DNS cache is empty (for both the browser and the operating system), the number of DNS lookups is equal to the number of unique hostnames in the web page. This includes the hostnames used in the page’s URL, images, script files, stylesheets, Flash objects, etc. Reducing the number of unique hostnames reduces the number of DNS lookups.
Reducing the number of unique hostnames has the potential to reduce the amount of parallel downloading that takes place in the page. Avoiding DNS lookups cuts response times, but reducing parallel downloads may increase response times. My guideline is to split these components across at least two but no more than four hostnames. This results in a good compromise between reducing DNS lookups and allowing a high degree of parallel downloads.
The main thing to remember is that redirects slow down the user experience. Inserting a redirect between the user and the HTML document delays everything in the page since nothing in the page can be rendered and no components can start being downloaded until the HTML document has arrived.
One of the most wasteful redirects happens frequently and web developers are generally not aware of it. It occurs when a trailing slash (/) is missing from a URL that should otherwise have one. For example, going to http://astrology.yahoo.com/astrology results in a 301 response containing a redirect to http://astrology.yahoo.com/astrology/ (notice the added trailing slash). This is fixed in Apache by using Alias or mod_rewrite, or the DirectorySlash directive if you’re using Apache handlers.
Remove Duplicate Scripts
Unnecessary HTTP requests happen in Internet Explorer, but not in Firefox. In Internet Explorer, if an external script is included twice and is not cacheable, it generates two HTTP requests during page loading. Even if the script is cacheable, extra HTTP requests occur when the user reloads the page.
Flush the Buffer Early
When users request a page, it can take anywhere from 200 to 500ms for the backend server to stitch together the HTML page. During this time, the browser is idle as it waits for the data to arrive. In PHP you have the function flush(). It allows you to send your partially ready HTML response to the browser so that the browser can start fetching components while your backend is busy with the rest of the HTML page. The benefit is mainly seen on busy backends or light frontends.
Preload may look like the opposite of post-load, but it actually has a different goal. By preloading components you can take advantage of the time the browser is idle and request components (like images, styles and scripts) you’ll need in the future. This way when the user visits the next page, you could have most of the components already in the cache and your page will load much faster for the user.
Split Components Across Domains
Splitting components allows you to maximize parallel downloads. Make sure you’re using not more than 2-4 domains because of the DNS lookup penalty. For example, you can host your HTML and dynamic content on www.example.org and split static components between static1.example.org and static2.example.org
HTTP requests are expensive so making an HTTP request and getting a useless response (i.e. 404 Not Found) is totally unnecessary and will slow down the user experience without any benefit.
Reduce Cookie Size
HTTP cookies are used for a variety of reasons such as authentication and personalization. Information about cookies is exchanged in the HTTP headers between web servers and browsers. It’s important to keep the size of cookies as low as possible to minimize the impact on the user’s response time.
Don’t Scale Images in HTML
Don’t use a bigger image than you need just because you can set the width and height in HTML. If you need
then your image (mycat.jpg) should be 100x100px rather than a scaled down 500x500px image.
Keep Components under 25K
This restriction is related to the fact that iPhone won’t cache components bigger than 25K. Note that this is the uncompressed size. This is where minification is important because gzip alone may not be sufficient.
Reducing the load time of your site is very important this day in age. Google uses load times to calculate where your site sits in it’s rankings. The faster the load time the better your listing in the search engines. Also, saving half a second could save your bounce rate. Impatient readers can’t stand to wait for images to load and will just leave a site in a huff. Why take the risk of losing readers to slow load times. Take these tips into account and your page load time will increase. There are several other methods, tips, tricks, etc associated with this topic. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments, I look forward to hearing from you.
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