What matters is how quickly a consumer can begin navigating a website, not how long it takes for all the content to load.

As an e-commerce and omnichannel solutions provider, we often find ourselves guiding partners to maintain a balance between a personalized, engaging digital experience, and optimal performance.  The key to this balance often lies in page size and render time.

Now that mobile shopping is a key driver of retail sales, many brands can readily see the impact that site performance has on conversions. Increasingly aware of the trade-off between a feature-rich environment and a fast experience, executives often ask engineers for key metrics on load time. However, focusing on load time alone can be misleading. From the consumer’s perspective, the key metric is render time, also known as Time to Interact (TTI).

Render time represents the time required for a browser to create a virtual environment that enables visitors to see and interact with key features. This period is also known as perceived load time. Traditionally reported page load time, on the other hand, represents the amount of time required for the entire page of code to load. Consider your own engagement with a website. Do you wait for the full page to load, scrolling to the bottom of the page to ensure everything is complete, before interacting? Odds are that most web pages have tools and analytics loading for several seconds after the typical consumer is able to engage and interact.

Though page load time is still an important metric for site optimization, the easiest way to increase conversions is to reduce render time. In a widely re-published study, analysts at the Aberdeen Group released a report finding that an additional one-second delay in the ability to interact with a site can reduce conversions by 7 percent, with 11 percent fewer page views. For an online store doing $50,000 of business a day, that one-second delay can cost the business more than $1 million each year.

According to a recent performance study by Akamai Technologies a provider of site-acceleration technology, 49% of consumers expect a page to load in less than two seconds. Soasta, a website and application testing service, reports 57% of users will abandon a site after 3 seconds if the page hasn’t rendered, and 85% will drop off if it hasn’t rendered after 5 seconds. Yet Radware, a provider of application delivery and load balancing services, reports that only 12% of Alexa’s Top 100 E-Commerce sites rendered feature content within that time.  Surely, most sites are not suffering from an 85% bounce rate.  The paradox is explained by the fact consumers respond based on render time, not page load time. Amazon.com, Radware reports, has a full load time of more than 30 seconds, but a TTI of only 2.7 seconds.  As a result, Amazon is widely considered a top performer in user experience.

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Optimizing render time is essential to keep existing users engaged and converting. But what about long-term impact on brand experience? To gain a sense of whether one slow experience would impact future engagement, I consulted with Akamai’s chief commerce strategist, Jason Miller. According to recent studies, Miller explained that 46% of users said they would never return to a site after just one bad experience. That number is hard to ignore, and may be the most important reason why improving render time should be a priority.

Knowing the impact of render time, I asked a few other industry experts how brands can best optimize their sites for the holiday shopping season and beyond. Bob Buffone, chief technology officer at Yottaa, another provider of web performance management technology, pointed out that optimizing render time ultimately comes down to controlling the flow of information to the browser. He advised we all begin by taking a hard look at which site features are driving engagement and which features fall flat. For example, if you’re a women’s clothing brand with a “style quiz” feature that rarely generates engagement, it’s time to cut both the feature and supporting code. You don’t need a big budget to optimize your render time. You just need basic analytics and an understanding that whatever is not driving sales on your site is slowing them.  

As a final step, after you’ve identified which features are necessary and which features may be left behind, you may want to hire a third-party provider to optimize the remaining code. Akamai’s Miller suggests employing front-end optimization techniques such as synchronous, delayed, or staggered loading of elements below the fold, and adaptive image compression, which adjusts the resolution of an image based on the device visitors are using at the time. All of these techniques can dramatically improve render times that have already been optimized through content or feature optimization.

Optimizing site performance while simultaneously offering a feature-rich environment requires increased cooperation across departments—particularly marketing and engineering. Marketing and engineering teams need to work together to create an engaging brand experience without sacrificing site performance. We’re starting to see this more and more, but there still needs to be an overall shift in the industry towards making performance optimization a company-wide goal.

When it comes to page load times and customer satisfaction, remember that perception (render time over page load) is reality. “Experience” goes well beyond site features, and the faster you deliver users to the content they want the happier they will be. By investing in the optimization of your render time now, your business will yield surprising dividends well into the new year.

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OneStop Internet provides online and mobile commerce technology to retailers and brands.