Facebook Serving News Stories: Consider the Load Time

    by Austin Smith
    March 27, 2015
    Photo by Robert S. Donovan on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

    The following piece is a guest post. Read more about MediaShift guest posts here.

    News spread this week that Facebook is going to start serving full news stories from select publishers natively. Facebook’s rationale is that when a user clicks a Facebook story, the subsequent page load typically takes about eight seconds. The obvious outcome is that the publishers who participate will lose control of the relationship with users who read articles on Facebook. Publishers will also have to share ad revenue with Facebook. This is a big moment for publishing, certainly, but little has been said about the eight-second load time.

    "This is a big moment for publishing, certainly, but little has been said about the eight-second load time."

    If eight seconds sounds like a fine amount of time to wait, consider that Jakob Nielsen wrote back in 2010 that “a 10-second delay will often make users leave a site immediately.” Five years later, have users gotten two seconds more patient? Google offers a guide to render a mobile page in just one second.


    Some critics of Facebook’s relationship with publishers cite Facebook’s grip on audience attention and traffic as an unfair advantage. Others view competition for traffic as a factor which forces publishers into a prisoner’s dilemma. Facebook could have simply penalized slow-performing sites, much like Google does, so it is certainly seizing a major opportunity. But publishers themselves bear much of the responsibility for the page load problem.

    Photo by Simon A on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

    Photo by Simon A
    on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

    Technical debt

    The first reason news sites have slow-loading pages is technical debt. Many news organizations have high levels of developer attrition and struggle to attract high-quality programmers who are capable of organizing a website in a way that results in high performance. Average page load time is one of the best measures of any site, because it implicates every part of the system. The back end, front end, caching layers, images, and third-party scripts all have to be well-tuned to produce a fast page.


    The second reason news sites have slow-loading pages is the avalanche of third-party integrations. Ad tech vendors and content marketers roam from publisher to publisher, leaving revenue sharing agreements and Javascript includes in their wake. Some publishers multiply the negative impact of their many integrations by experimenting with front end technologies meant to boost ad impressions and pageviews — for example, infinite scroll implementations or slideshows which trigger a refresh of every third party toolkit installed. If you have ever had a publisher’s site crash your phone’s web browser, you may have been a victim of a poor implementation of a revenue optimization practice.


    Photo by Charis Tsevis and used here with Creative Commons license.

    Photo by Charis Tsevis and used here with Creative Commons license.

    There are often simple solutions to poor load times, even for legacy platforms. Caching layers like Cloudflare can speed up almost any initial load. On the front end, avoiding blocking Javascript calls, optimizing images, and compressing everything you can will improve performance on all platforms. Mobile load times, which clearly is Facebook’s primary concern, benefit from only loading the necessary assets for the mobile page, and not loading any assets meant for higher resolutions. This is what “mobile first” should mean to front end developers — the default page layout is in the narrowest possible resolution, and media queries include assets meant for higher resolutions, which almost always benefit from faster download speeds.

    Of course, it’s possible to serve a page very quickly and still destroy the user experience by treating pageviews as opportunities for arbitrage instead of engagement. If Facebook offers a more economically efficient pathway to monetize one reader reading one article and then leaving, some publishers will take it. So if arbitrage were already going to be our fate, let’s at least skip the cascade of nasty ad units and the endless grids of news from around the web. Compared to this outcome, running content natively on Facebook seems almost palatable.

    Clearly, news brands could ultimately wind up on the same side of the table as record labels and book publishers. If publishers want to own their own channel — or at least improve their bargaining position — they must, as a basic fact of their existence, serve quality content as fast as possible to every device. That’s the minimum standard of service on the web, and the fate of those who fail to meet it will be far worse than syndication by Facebook.

    Austin Smith is Managing Partner and Co-Founder of Alley Interactive, a digital agency that designs and builds large-scale content sites for top digital publishers and leaders in news media. Follow Austin @netaustin.

    Note: The title of this piece was changed post-publishing to better describe the issue.

    Tagged: facebook facebook and news google load times publishers

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