The mobile web sucks – Nilay Patel is right and wrong – an expert view

5 min read
Watb Team
A person typing on a mobile phone

In a recent article on esteemed tech/lifestyle site The Verge, co-founder Nilay Patel declares that the mobile web sucks. Nilay lays blame on the mobile browser themselves, criticising poor performance, bugs and crashes. His poor experiences browsing the mobile web are reflected by all of us, and Nilay is completely correct in declaring that the mobile web sucks.

I own a brand new Samsung Galaxy S6, possibly the most powerful smartphone ever made, and even on my S6 browsing the mobile web is a laggy, slow, frustrating affair. Scrolling is a chore and rarely smooth. Sometimes you are half way down a page reading some text when the page layout suddenly readjusts because it hadn’t actually finished loading.

Why is this? What’s causing such bad performance? This is the part where I feel Nilay is wrong, because it’s not really the browsers fault. Rather, I believe the fault lies with poorly built, bloated front-ends and more specifically heavy and disruptive advertising networks.

Loading

The Verge itself is a great example. The home page weighs in at 2.3mb with 268 http requests that takes nearly six seconds to load – on a 50mb fibre line. On mobile on a 4G signal its loading is even worse. You can see a Pingdom report here: http://tools.pingdom.com/fpt/#!/d3kZPW/http://www.theverge.com/

Delving in to the requests themselves, it’s not difficult to see that a large portion of them are requests to advertising network servers. Further, when loading the site on a mobile, it’s the adverts that take longest to appear.

Performance

It’s not just loading the site that is the issue – it’s how it performs once loaded. In this respect, The Verge performs badly compared to similar sites. As an example, browsing the BBC News website is a completely different experience to The Verge. It’s slick, smooth, and an absolute joy. I experience none of the lag, none of the random page jumping, and none of the slow down that I do on The Verge.

We can actually use the developer tools in Chrome to pinpoint this. First up, BBC News.

BBC News Website Performance graph

What we can see on this image is how the website performs in browser. I won’t go into too much detail, but what we can see is that for the most part the FPS of the page is low and we can also see that the browser spent 136ms loading the page, 2.21s on scripts, 180ms on rendering and 135ms on painting.

The Verge Website Performance graph

The Verge is a different story. The sites FPS regularly drops to below 30 which can explain some of the laggy, jerky behaviour. Further, the browser spends 1.23s on loading, 11.65s on scripts, 370ms on rendering, 585ms on painting. These numbers are much higher and suggest the page is more intensive for the browser to load.

Are Ad networks the problem?

It’s this poor performance that is most likely the reason why The Verge is not a good mobile web experience, but BBC News is. And it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that the key difference is that one loads advertising and one doesn’t. Whilst there are differences in content and images asides from the advertising, I would suggest it is unlikely that these are the cause.

It would be impossible to suggest that mobile sites like The Verge shouldn’t load adverts, as it’s through advertising they’re able to stay alive. But when they do load, they are often animated GIFs, or even videos. When there are too many on a page design that is already image heavy and graphically intensive, it’s not difficult to see why browsing the site on a mobile is a less than pleasing experience. Ad networks also increase http requests including to external servers. The more htttp requests made and the more made to external servers, the slower the site will be to load.

The mobile web is a challenge

As front-end web developers, we have an enormous challenge in coding and building websites and apps that don’t just perform well on a desktop, but across all manner of other devices. I feel Nilay slightly misses this issue, he points towards apps as better at serving up content on a mobile, but then mobile apps are built specifically just for mobile. It’s an interesting point to make when The Verge themselves ditched their own mobile app in favour of a responsive website. It’s vitally important that we have a web that works across any device, but this does make building for the web a completely different and more technically challenging task than building apps that only need to work for a much, much smaller range of devices.

So why not just build apps then? There’s certainly a place for apps, that’s definitely not an issue I’d call in to question. But apps cannot totally replace the web, and nor should they. The web is specifically intended to be an open platform, and that’s what’s arguably so beautiful about it.

All that said, whilst the mobile web does suck and Nilay Patel is correct is this respect – it doesn’t have to. It’s taking us far too long as an industry to adapt, but utilising a responsive mobile first approach to building our front-ends can dramatically improve mobile website performance.

I also believe that whilst it would be crazy to suggest The Verge should ditch their advertising for better mobile performance, it’s surely an issue to look further into, to see if there is a better more efficient way of serving up advertising that doesn’t disrupt the mobile web experience so heavily.

Social Media Management Software

In order to promote your business and reach consumers that spend an entire 24 hours a week online, you need to make sure that you have a viable social media strategy in place.

By posting unique and interesting content on your social media platforms, and by actively engaging with followers, you can start to turn this into a funnel for generating leads.

In order to stay on top of your social media strategy, it’s important to have some form of social media management software to do some of the heavy lifting. Software such as this is imperative for scheduling, tracking and monitoring social media content.

At its best, social media management software can help you not only plan your content months in advance, but also remain reactive by letting you tune into ongoing news stories or trending topics.

Screenshot of Hootsuite's homepage

We recommend: Hootsuite

There are a whole bunch of social media management companies out there and all of them offer roughly the same sort of package but Hootsuite is the only one that offers an actually free service (as opposed to just a free trial period).

They do try to hide it on their website though so make sure you follow this link in order to get to the right page.

The free version of this software lets you:

  • Manage up to three social media profiles from a choice of channels including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and LinkedIn
  • Schedule up to 30 posts in advance at any point in time
  • Track follower growth, likes and comments
  • Integrate two RSS feeds in order to find and share compelling content
  • Access Hootsuite’s online help center and community forum

Of course, there’s also a number of paid-for packages that you can buy from Hootsuite that give you access to a great number of services including higher ad spend budgets, automated post scheduling and custom analytics.

But if you’re a small business looking to get started, the free version of the software should be comprehensive enough to allow you to get your social media strategy in motion.

Website Tracking Software

We’ve said before that the secret to a successful lead generation strategy is to keep analysing and refining your methods. Well, website tracking software is the best way to conduct this analysis.

By digging into the analytics of your visitors’ actions, you can start to gain a better picture of why people come to your site, what they want from it, what they dislike about it and how you can improve upon their experience next time.

There are a wide variety of services that can fall into the category of website tracking software, including heatmaps, funnels, user polls, surveys, visitor recordings and more.

Basically, any kind of software that collects data about the ways in which your visitors interact with your site can be considered website tracking software.

Screenshot of Hotjar's homepage

We recommend: Hotjar

Whereas there are a multitude of smaller software companies that focus in on just one website tracking service, Hotjar offers an array of useful tools.

Hotjar tools include:

  • Click, move, scroll, download and share heatmaps that can also be split by device type
  • Visitor recordings that allow you to replay sessions of real site visitors
  • Conversion funnels that identify on which page and at which step the most visitors are leaving your site
  • Form analysis that can help you to discover which fields take too long to fill, which are left blank and why your visitors abandon your form and page
  • A customizable widget that allows you to create pop-up feedback polls
  • Responsive surveys that can be distributed through web links and emails, or featured your site just before your visitors abandon the page in order to discover what their concerns are
  • The ability to recruit test users in order to get instant feedback on your site

Hotjar’s free service is able to collect data from 2000 page views a day and will give you access to up to 300 visitor recordings and 3 heatmaps, forms, funnels, polls and surveys. Unlimited users can be added to your account and Hotjar will also store your data for a full year.

While we’d normally recommend free services when possible, it’s probably worth paying for Hotjar’s Plus plan to begin with.

For just under £25 a month you can collect data from 10,000 page views a day and have unlimited services and reports. Plus there’s even a 15-day free trial for you to test out whether you like their software or not.

Remember

Lead generation doesn’t have to be an expensive endeavour.

What’s important is that you put real effort into all of your interactions with potential leads - whether that’s through educational and informative blog posts, social media interactions or even just a chat on the phone.

If you believe in your business’ ability to help its customers then all you have to do is let that shine through.

Ultimately, these tools are just there to help you meet potential leads on their level. The rest is up to you.

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