Advertising networks and widgets are being cited as the key factors in the performance problems experienced by major news sites during the crush of Internet traffic Thursday as news broke about the death of pop star Michael Jackson.
Keynote Systems, which provided early data on the sluggishness of news sites Thursday, released an analysis late Friday that highlighted the role of third-party content. "Our measurement data shows that for sites reported as having performance slowdowns yesterday, internal content delivered quite fast, however content that came from other sources contributed most to the site slowdowns," said Shawn White, director of external operations at Keynote Systems.
Many news web sites use advertising networks rather than serving ads from their own servers. This practice allows them to outsource some of their ad sales, but ties their site performance to the speed of the ad network's servers.
Keynote's analysis highlights the challenges of including third-party content in high-traffic sites, even as social networks help the web grow ever-more interconnected. It also exposes a tough problem for ad-supported sites in an online economy built around pageviews - the moments of heaviest Internet traffic offer potential gains, but can also be the most difficult to monetize.
Organization with significant news traffic can optimize for spikes, but ad servers and the content they provide are often outside the control of the IT organizations of the news site, according to Keynote's White.
Delays Frustrate Users
"This is an important distinction, because in some cases, depending upon how a site is constructed or how the Web browser is used, a page may display perfectly fine with a blank area where a third party image should have been shown," he said. "In other cases, the entire Web page will wait until that last image is downloaded from the third party advertisement service, frustrating the reader."
ABC.com's news content "was consistently served in a matter of seconds whereas some of the third party content took much longer," according to Keynote, which said news sites should require third party content providers such as ad networks to certify the capacity of their networks, perform regular load tests from around the globe, and have strong Service Level Agreements (SLAs) in place.
Speed and the 'Widget Economy'
The performance of third-party content is also key in the "widget economy" developing around social networks. Last summer white-label social network provider Ning cited performance issues in banning a popular widget developer from its platform. Facebook has also had to turn off third-party apps that slowed the site's performance.
Here are several useful resources for addressing third-party content performance:
- Steve Souders of Google, author of High Performance web sites, recently blogged about the performance problems associated with iframes, which are often used to deliver ads.
- The recent Velocity 2009 conference included several presentations on site acceleration strategies and ways to package third-party content.
- Dare Obasanjo has a post titled Best Practices for Web Sites Seeking to Prevent Service Degradation due to 3rd Party Widgets.
- Mike Davidson has previously offered strategies for preventing widgets from slowing your site.