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Erick Schonfeld of Techcrunch yesterday reckoned that IE8 fares poorly in the browser speed stakes, and contests that it is key for Microsoft to retain market share. 

He wrote: “Speed is really everything. Without speed, all the other features fall by the wayside. We’ll have to wait for new independent speed tests to see how IE8 stacks up, but speed does not appear to be its strong point.”

Nice observation, but I’m not so sure that browser speed matters for the majority of web users. Techies and internet fiends will spot the difference, for sure, but how many tech-savvy people do you know that still use IE?

What do people normally blame for a slow internet experience? 

I doubt that the average internet user (IE’s primary market) will blame the browser for a slow internet experience. They aren’t likely to run a comparison test between IE and Firefox, or Chrome, or any other browser. They typically blame other things for tardy connectivity.

The ISP is usually first to get it. And on a shared network, fingers can be pointed in the direction of other people (“are you downloading something?”). 

But more often than not you find that bad noise is aimed in the direction of websites. And that's because websites are frequently to blame. 

A recent survey by Guidance/Synovate found that a slow user experience was the primary reason for website abandonment. Recession-weary retailers should take note, and do something about it.

What is clear is that speed still counts, and that people are less tolerant of slow download speeds than they were previously, having acclimatised themselves to the whizzbang world of broadband. 

Back in the day, there was the ‘eight second rule’. This was the amount of time the average user could bear to wait for a web page to load. In 2006 we reported on some research that suggests this rule has halved, and has become the four second rule. In 2009, I reckon another two seconds has been shaved off that, and as such I hereby propose the ‘two second rule’. That feels about right from where I'm sitting. 

Think that’s harsh? Then don’t look in the direction of usability rockstar Jakob Nielsen, who told Econsultancy that the actual rule is nearer one second! He says:

“The real rule is actually one second. There are three rules for response times and they don’t really change as they are based on fundamental human characteristics.

“The rules are; if it is faster than one tenth of a second, you don’t feel like you are waiting at all. If it is more than one tenth of a second, you can tell you are waiting, but up to one second, it still feels like smooth navigation. Between one and ten seconds is the limit for your attention.

“As you wait from one to ten seconds, your attention starts drifting off, and after ten seconds you are asking ‘where is this thing?’. The recommendation is that it doesn’t need to be one tenth of a second, but it should be faster than one second as it’s about free flowing navigation. The only reason we used the eight second rule is that we couldn’t get down to one second in the past.

“If you go the best websites, like Google, that’s what they do – they give you the page like that [clicks fingers].”

All of this fits in with research from WebsiteOptimisation, which last year released a study that discovered two things. Firstly, it found that the average size of a web page had more than tripled since 2003. And it also highlighted the fact that page load times had fallen from 2.8 seconds to 2.33 seconds, with broadband offsetting heavier pages. 

For what it’s worth Microsoft’s internal speed tests have found that IE8 kicks dirt in the face of Firefox and Chrome, although Emil Protalinski at arstechnica has dubbed the research as ‘dubious’ and ‘highly suspicious’, so proceed with caution.

The research does however indicate a few popular websites that are utterly failing, when it comes to my 'two second test', including Microsoft’s own. Adobe’s website barely scraped under nine seconds, perhaps proving that richer interfaces can lead to a poorer user experience (although it seemed much quicker for me). Ho hum.

Tips and resources

To test the speed of your own website check out WebsiteOptimisation’s speed test. It provides you with the download speed in seconds, plus a bunch of helpful recommendations. 

If you want to speed up your website then check out the following articles:

[Image by NathanFromDeVryEET via Flickr, various rights reserved]

Chris Lake

Published 20 March, 2009 by Chris Lake

Chris Lake is CEO at EmpiricalProof, and former Director of Content at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter, Google+ or connect via Linkedin.

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