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Waiting for that???

Updated: 3/13/97

My life as a geologist should have prepared me for this. Some web sites download to my browser at truly glacial speeds. My response is to leave the room and go do something else until the content comes up. Washing dishes is more invigorating that watching some graphic download. I have a slow, but continuous Internet connection. I can walk away, do something else, and come back when it is done. Works for me.

The thing that I find strange is that the biggest offenders of the long wait are mostly high profile, high volume sites. Lots of graphics, lots of advertising. Little of it compelling. Do these folks really want to turn people off on the Internet by making them wait? It seems to me that the folks who are trying to make money here have the most to lose by inundating users with ponderous images and graphics.

The sites that I visit most often are text based. They use graphics, but rarely for the sake of using graphics. Their sites download quickly, they are a joy to read. I visit them often. I see their advertisements a lot. Here is a question for web advertisers, "Who am I more likely to remember, the advertiser at the top of a page that I visit 2-3 times a day because it provides timely information and downloads quickly, or one at the top of a page that I visit once or twice a month because it takes several minutes to download?" Another way of looking at it, I can name the advertisers at the MacInTouch site, I can't name the advertisers at MacWEEK. I check both of these sites regularly.

The following is a comparison of download times for various sites. Some are sites that I visit routinely and others are sites that prove the point. All download times were measured with a stopwatch, from the time when I issued the command to receive the page to the time that the page download was complete. The Internet connection was made over a Ricochet wireless modem, and all pages were downloaded into Netscape Navigator 3.0. Caching was turned off in Navigator. I downloaded each page three times. Before starting each trial, I restarted Navigator to insure that any internal memory caches were cleared. All measurements were made between 7:00 and 10:00 PM on Thursday, March 13, 1997.

While the primary metric was total download time, I also made an approximate measure of "Time to Content". This is the time until there is something to read on the site, though graphics may continue to download. Once content is available, I can make decisions and click on links. I view the Time to Content as time wasted waiting for something useful to appear in the browser. The following table shows the average download time and approximate time to content (in seconds) for each of the sites tested.

PageURLAvg. Download TimeTime to Content
MacInTouch 26.51 15
MacWeek 116.06 60
Scripting News 21.84 10
ES Designs 16.33 5
MSNBC 106.47 85
Apple 194.92 95
Microsoft 100.78 20


The first three sites, I visit regularly. I threw in my ES Designs site to see how it compared, and to make a shameless plug (lots of information, fast downloads! utility???). The last three, are sites that I don't visit, but was interested in seeing how they rated.

Of the sites that I visit regularly, MacInTouch and Scripting News provide more bang for the buck than MacWeek. I can be reading information off of these sites, in a quarter of the time. As a result, these sites are more attractive to me and I am more likely to visit them (advertisers should take note of this).

The three infrequently visited sites all have relatively long download times. In addition MSNBC and Apple have very long "Time to Content" measures. Do these folks really expect me to wait over a minute just to see content??? (notice to advertisers, I am not going to spend that time reading your banner or clicking on it. You are not the reason that I came to the site, and I am not going to waste more time going to your site by clicking on your banner).

Microsoft, while I hate to admit it, seems to understand this. While it takes a long 100 seconds to download the entire Microsoft home page, I can be reading content in 20 seconds. This is comparable to the sites that I visit frequently. What this tells me is that just because a site takes along time to download doesn't mean that the time to content must be excruciatingly long.

Also, if Apple truly wants to hold its position as a player in the Internet market, it must improve the response time of its web sites. Having such slow download times and slow time to content gives the impression that Apple products make slow web servers (evidence to the contrary is that both the MacInTouch and Scripting News sites are served from Macs.) The slow download time and time to content experienced at the Apple site is a matter of poor web site design and not a poor server platform.

Finally, if you are designing web sites, you should pay attention to download time and more importantly, time to content. From my perspective, time to content measures exceeding 30 seconds are unacceptable. This metric should be made at the slowest typical connection (I would guess that this is currently running at 14.4 kbps). Sites that require ISDN speeds (64 kbps), to achieve a 30 second time to content are probably more of a put off than a pull to most Internet users.


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by Tom Clifton, © 1997 ES Designs