Speed Up Your Site: Web Site Optimization

Speed Up Your Site: Web Site Optimization

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In: Reviews > Book Reviews

By Jennifer Alvin

Published on August 15, 2003

image of Speed Up Your Site: Web Site Optimization book cover Staying competitive, and more importantly, keeping the client competitive,is an ongoing challenge. Many people and businesses have jumped on the high-bandwidth bandwagon, but a majority of users are still topping out at 56.6Kbps. While it is always important to be acquainted with the demographics of your audience, a more important objective is to optimize your site so that no user is left behind.

To aid with the struggle, Andrew King offers a variety of ways to trim the fat in common design elements, as well as tips for increasing server performance. No other book I’ve seen covers so many types of optimization in one place with such a thorough investigation of why the tricks work. The extensive technical explanations alone are worth the list price, and each is backed up with a step-by-step approach to making your site a speedy champion.

It takes an exponentially higher amount of effort to attract users back to your site, after they have dismissed it for usability issues, than it takes to keep your users hooked in the first place. Speed, which King highlights as a key component of usability, is a striking way to keep your site attractive to users. The connection speed matters little; no one likes to wait. All users carry the equivalent of the ubiquitous remote control like a weapon, and one of the more damaging things they can do is leave a site immediately, taking with them potential revenue.

Bandwidth thriftiness works on both sides of the equation. By supplying your users with a rapidly loading site, you increase your potential for revenue while decreasing your bandwidth costs because you are serving a slimmed down version of the same content. It’s a win-win situation.

Remember, the first step to a solution is acknowledging the problem of slow and overweight sites. Don’t let clients bully you into gratuitous use of JavaScript, Flash, or bulky graphics. I’m sure we’ve all heard something along the lines of “We want a bandwidth-intensive widget because our marketing director thinks they look really cool.”

Developers can also fall prey to the “perceived cool factor” by paying more attention to the project as a portfolio godsend and less attention to the actual needs of the audience. Take charge and look at the whole picture.

Delving deep into detail-oriented justifications for making speed optimization a priority, King explores subjects such as Shackel’s Acceptability Paradigm of Utility, Usability, and Likability; response time research; perceived usability experience; bailout rates; and attention thresholds. The first two chapters bring together information and principles that many of us are already familiar with, and it’s a relief to see them clearly laid out with technical references and data to back them up.

After delivering the performance psychology reality check with a swift kick to the keyboard, King supplies a complete superhero’s tool belt of tricks to save the day:

  • Part I – The Psychology of Performance
  • Part II – Optimizing Markup: HTML and XHTML
  • Part III – DHTML Optimization: CSS and JavaScript
  • Part IV – Graphics and Multimedia Optimization
  • Part V – Search Engine Optimization
  • Part VI – Advanced Optimization Techniques

Parts II – VI are accompanied by case studies of sites such as PopularMechanics.com and Apple.com.

Optimizing Markup

The agenda of Part II is a rethink of everything you ever learned about proper citation of code and markup: commenting, indents, whitespace.

It’s all well and good when the HTML looks just as pretty in the WYSIWYG editor as it does in the browser, but does it best serve the needs of your audience? Commenting, indents, and whitespace operate solely as behind-the-scene tools for designers and programmers. With few exceptions, the browsers do not need this information in order to render a page correctly. In the fight against “HTML bloat,” where every byte counts, King makes a compelling argument for the outright elimination of these “good practice” principles in their present form.

Before you go running for your torch and pitchfork, the book offers alternatives such as abbreviation or incorporating descriptions into the id tags of elements. The message is not to do away with comments, but rather to comment more efficiently. When it all comes down to it, you need to weigh the needs of having a sleek and speedy site against adhering to deprecated commenting guidelines.

More daring markup optimization steps include omitting optional quotes and closing tags. After presenting these options, King explains the latent danger to allow developers to make an informed choice regarding the feasibility of optimization this bold.

The head is another place to make markup cuts. Gone are the days of listing an entire thesaurus of descriptive terms in the site’s meta tags to gain a high search engine rank. Part V is devoted to keyword optimization, and a chapter excerpt from Search Engine Visibility by Shari Thurow sheds additional light on the subject of search engine optimization.

Optimizing Web Graphics

With the myriad of plug-ins and stand-alone applications available today, knowing the technical details behind graphic optimization is unnecessary. In order to maintain the best tradeoff between high image quality and low file size, however, it is good practice to know as much as possible. King offers a crash course in the technical makeup of image files while providing a checklist of steps to ensure your optimization is optimal.

Here are a few basic guidelines:

  • When taking photographs, minimize smear and maximize sharpness by using a stable platform, such as a tripod, image stabilizer, or gyroscopic stabilizer.
  • Simplify your designs to remove extraneous detail, minimize colors, or work in grayscale for smaller images.
  • Creatively crop your images to reduce their size, or eliminate them all together and replace them with text and CSS.
  • Minimize HTTP requests by combining, reusing, and eliminating images where possible. Convert graphic text to styled text. Substitute styled backgrounds or table cells for graphic backgrounds.
  • Use thumbnails to point to larger images to save bandwidth.

Starting with a high quality image will give you more to work with. Don’t head directly for the optimization tool, but take the time to clean up and color correct the image. Adjust the tonal range in the Levels dialog, despeckle, and boost up the contrast and saturation. The image should be as clean and noise-free as possible before compression in order to achieve best results.


A no-nonsense approach makes the concepts covered in Speed Up Your Site easy to comprehend, even when examining JPEG compression algorithms and the divergence between arithmetic coding and Huffman coding. This approach allows the book to achieve an appealing balance of technical factoids and sensible advice. Well-placed call-out boxes attract your attention to useful points about the subject matter, such as notes on cross-browser compatibility. The book is laid out where you can read it from cover to cover or pick a chapter at random, although reading first the section on Psychology of Performance is highly recommended.

The case studies provide practical real-world application of the skills covered in each section. Each case study starts with an examination of what not to do, then proceeds to peel away the unnecessary layers until only the necessary skeletal infrastructure remains. If the main chapters don’t inspire you to take a broom and dustpan to your source code, the case studies will.

Not only does this book offer a renewed series of best practice principles for creating speedy sites, it is also an excellent source of useful information on site development. By covering so many elements commonly used by contemporary developers, King has created an indispensable reference volume that should be assigned reading in the classroom and studio. Bigger is not necessarily better, and the bottom line is to design smarter and stay ahead of the curve.

Still not convinced? One quick visit to the book’s companion site will help you with you decision. The companion site has sample chapters, interviews, full-color figures, source code, and links to related resources to help get you started.

Speed Up Your Site has found a permanent place on my bookshelf—I recommend you make room for it on yours.

Speed Up Your Site: Web Site Optimization
Andrew B. King
New Riders, 2003, 528pp.
Companion Site websiteoptimization.com/speed/
US $$39.99
CDN $55.76

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Jennifer Alvin enjoys tormenting folks with more than they need to know at Illusionaire’s Musings, although they keep reading it anyway. She is the less-than-mild-mannered web developer behind Illusionaire Design. Jenn’s other big project is Portland Bloggers.