Vol. 42, No. 3

Quick! How fast is your website? And how can you help it go faster?

by Marilyn Cavicchia

New member benefits. Popular events. A reinvigorated web design that pumps up the visual appeal.

All of these are exciting things for bar associations, and all of them can involve high-resolution logos, photos, and stock images—potentially bogging down the website and causing members and other online visitors to exit and to think twice about ever coming back.

Clearly, that’s not what anyone wants. And, just as creating web content is a team effort, solving this problem might take some collaboration, too—it can help if content creators and managers other than the designer or the  director of information technology know some helpful tricks and tools.

That was the key message delivered by AnnMarie Thomas, director of membership, communications and events at the Kansas City (Mo.) Metropolitan Bar Association, and Greg Wacker, the bar’s director of information technology. In their program at the 2017 National Association of Bar Executives Communications Section Workshop in St. Louis this past fall, Thomas offered her perspective as someone whose job responsibilities result in a lot of web content, with Wacker providing a more directly tech-focused point of view.

User experience matters

In terms of search engine optimization (which affects how highly Google prioritizes your website in search results), the importance of how quickly a page loads is a matter of debate, Thomas said, because there are so many other things that factor into SEO.

What’s not up for debate, Thomas said, is that “user experience is huge” for reasons that go beyond SEO, and that page speed greatly affects that experience. Studies show that the typical user will allow three seconds for a web page to load—and if it doesn’t, they’re gone.

And if someone remembers having a bad experience with your website because it loaded slowly or wouldn’t load properly on their phone, in the future, they will go elsewhere for the information they need—which, Thomas noted, is directly contrary to the bar’s need to be a useful resource. One subtle, but memorable effect of a chronically slow website, she added, is that it can drain your battery very quickly.

Website problems can eat up a lot of staff time, Thomas said, as people field complaints and scramble to try to fix whatever is wrong. They can also harm the bar’s credibility in terms of being accessible, Thomas added; for example, members in rural areas may have especially bad experiences because they live and work in areas with low signals.

Increased web speed can even mean a better bottom line, Wacker said. For example, one big source of nondues revenue for the KCMBA is security passes that expedite lawyers’ access to courthouses. In previous years, he said, the renewal process would cause the website to crash. But in the past year, he added, the bar has made many adjustments to the website as a whole to increase its overall speed, which also helped prepare it for the court pass renewal process. As a result, Wacker said, there were no reported crashes, dramatically fewer complaints about the process in general—and record high sales.

DIY photo fixing

Because many web speed problems can be caused by images that are meant for print and may be too high in resolution for online platforms, Thomas emphasized a system of figuring out which images might be causing problems and might be acceptable at a lower resolution.

"Even photos taken with your phone are often too large," she noted. 

PageSpeed Insights via Google Analytics will alert you to problem areas on your website, she said, and will suggest optimized versions of images that may be slowing things down. Another tool that Thomas and Wacker both like for fixing online photos so they load faster is called IrfanView, which is only for PCs. Both of these tools, Thomas said, can allow another bar staff member to take some time pressure off the designer. Typically, a designer would try to optimize photos within Photoshop, but this is very time consuming, she said, and also involves “guesswork.”

In most cases, Thomas said, the difference between the original image and one that has been optimized by either tool will be imperceptible enough that the bar’s designer will approve them for use online. Be aware, she said, of the wide variety of ways that images are used, and that this will help dictate whether an optimized version is visually acceptable. The bar’s logo, for example, will likely look just fine in the compressed, optimized form. But, depending on the design, “optimizing would be a disaster” for many “hero” images that showcase a person or people very prominently and at a large size. The goal with optimizing images, she said, is to find a “happy medium” where enough of them are changed to improve the overall website speed while still allowing certain ones to be used at the higher resolution.

Additional thoughts on images

Thomas shared another quick tip regarding photos: If you enable “progressive loading,” in which the photos are blurry for a brief moment and then become clear, they will ultimately load faster.

Also helpful, Wacker said, is to enable caching of static images. This means that the visitor’s browser will retain any unchanging images for their next visit rather than having to download everything again with each visit.

Wacker shared an insight regarding both photos and PDFs that might be surprising to a lot of people who are not in IT: All the PDFs and images on the KCMBA’s website are hosted remotely. For example, all of the bar's CLE materials are hosted as PDFs by Amazon Web Services, which charges a usage-based fee. For the KCMBA, Wacker added, the charge is never more than $1 per month. Thomas noted that people have no idea that they’re actually going to Amazon to view KCMBA materials. This service has improved web speed and has been a good experience for the bar and for its visitors, she said.

Another option, Wacker said, is to use a content delivery network, which is a system of servers that deliver web content to visitors based on their geographic location. One such CDN is operated by Akamai, he said; he also likes one from Sucuri that costs $20 a month and also includes a firewall.

Finally, Wacker said, some people put their photos on Twitter first and then upload them to their website. Twitter has a very large network, he explained, so uploading photos from there will result in faster loading speed.

Testing, testing

Rather than just trusting your own experience with your website—or waiting to hear if members complain about it—Thomas and Wacker recommended running a test to assess your loading speed. It’s best to run such a test at a time when the server isn’t extremely busy, Thomas added, as this will skew the results.

Wacker and Thomas mentioned a couple of testing tools in particular. Webpagetest.org checks one page at a time, not the whole site, Thomas said, and it can take a while depending on how many others are trying to use it at the same time. PageSpeed Insights scans your entire site, Wacker noted, and gives you an overview of where you might have some bottlenecks.

And don’t forget to test how fast your site loads on mobile devices, Wacker added; he recommended a tool from Google for that.

Finally, Wacker noted, make sure to test your website’s security certificate—and don’t think that it must be OK because it’s a bar association website. Wacker recommended a test from Qualys SSL Labs, which checks your certificate and gives you a letter grade.

“You need a B or better,” he noted. “Lots of bar associations get C’s, D’s, and F’s.”