Tips to Speeding Up Your Web Site

Minimize HTTP Requests

80% of the end-user response time is spent on the front-end. Most of this time is tied up in downloading all the components in the page: images, stylesheets, scripts, Flash, etc. Reducing the number of components in turn reduces the number of HTTP requests required to render the page. This is the key to faster pages.

One way to reduce the number of components in the page is to simplify the page’s design. But is there a way to build pages with richer content while also achieving fast response times? Here are some techniques for reducing the number of HTTP requests, while still supporting rich page designs.

Combined files are a way to reduce the number of HTTP requests by combining all scripts into a single script, and similarly combining all CSS into a single stylesheet. Combining files is more challenging when the scripts and stylesheets vary from page to page, but making this part of your release process improves response times.

CSS Sprites are the preferred method for reducing the number of image requests. Combine your background images into a single image and use the CSS background-image and background-position properties to display the desired image segment.

Image maps combine multiple images into a single image. The overall size is about the same, but reducing the number of HTTP requests speeds up the page. Image maps only work if the images are contiguous in the page, such as a navigation bar. Defining the coordinates of image maps can be tedious and error prone. Using image maps for navigation is not accessible too, so it’s not recommended.

Reducing the number of HTTP requests in your page is the place to start. This is the most important guideline for improving performance for first time visitors. As described in Tenni Theurer’s blog post Browser Cache Usage – Exposed!, 40-60% of daily visitors to your site come in with an empty cache. Making your page fast for these first time visitors is key to a better user experience.

Put Stylesheets at the Top

While researching performance at Yahoo!, we discovered that moving stylesheets to the document HEAD makes pages appear to be loading faster. This is because putting stylesheets in the HEAD allows the page to render progressively.

The problem with putting stylesheets near the bottom of the document is that it prohibits progressive rendering in many browsers, including Internet Explorer. These browsers block rendering to avoid having to redraw elements of the page if their styles change. The user is stuck viewing a blank white page.

The HTML specification clearly states that stylesheets are to be included in the HEAD of the page: “Unlike A, [LINK] may only appear in the HEAD section of a document, although it may appear any number of times.” Neither of the alternatives, the blank white screen or flash of unstyled content, are worth the risk. The optimal solution is to follow the HTML specification and load your stylesheets in the document HEAD.

Put Scripts at the Bottom

The problem caused by scripts is that they block parallel downloads. The HTTP/1.1 specification suggests that browsers download no more than two components in parallel per hostname. If you serve your images from multiple hostnames, you can get more than two downloads to occur in parallel. While a script is downloading, however, the browser won’t start any other downloads, even on different hostnames.

In some situations it’s not easy to move scripts to the bottom. If, for example, the script usesdocument.write to insert part of the page’s content, it can’t be moved lower in the page. There might also be scoping issues. In many cases, there are ways to workaround these situations.

Avoid CSS Expressions

CSS expressions are a powerful (and dangerous) way to set CSS properties dynamically. They were supported in Internet Explorer starting with version 5, but were deprecated starting with IE8. As an example, the background color could be set to alternate every hour using CSS expressions:

      background-color: expression( (new Date()).getHours()%2 ? "#B8D4FF" : "#F08A00" );

As shown here, the expression method accepts a JavaScript expression. The CSS property is set to the result of evaluating the JavaScript expression. The expression method is ignored by other browsers, so it is useful for setting properties in Internet Explorer needed to create a consistent experience across browsers.

The problem with expressions is that they are evaluated more frequently than most people expect. Not only are they evaluated when the page is rendered and resized, but also when the page is scrolled and even when the user moves the mouse over the page. Adding a counter to the CSS expression allows us to keep track of when and how often a CSS expression is evaluated. Moving the mouse around the page can easily generate more than 10,000 evaluations.

Make JavaScript and CSS External

Many of these performance rules deal with how external components are managed. However, before these considerations arise you should ask a more basic question: Should JavaScript and CSS be contained in external files, or inlined in the page itself?

Using external files in the real world generally produces faster pages because the JavaScript and CSS files are cached by the browser. JavaScript and CSS that are inlined in HTML documents get downloaded every time the HTML document is requested. This reduces the number of HTTP requests that are needed, but increases the size of the HTML document. On the other hand, if the JavaScript and CSS are in external files cached by the browser, the size of the HTML document is reduced without increasing the number of HTTP requests.

The key factor, then, is the frequency with which external JavaScript and CSS components are cached relative to the number of HTML documents requested. This factor, although difficult to quantify, can be gauged using various metrics. If users on your site have multiple page views per session and many of your pages re-use the same scripts and stylesheets, there is a greater potential benefit from cached external files.

Minify JavaScript and CSS

Minification is the practice of removing unnecessary characters from code to reduce its size thereby improving load times. When code is minified all comments are removed, as well as unneeded white space characters (space, newline, and tab). In the case of JavaScript, this improves response time performance because the size of the downloaded file is reduced. Two popular tools for minifying JavaScript code are JSMin and YUI Compressor. The YUI compressor can also minify CSS.

Avoid Redirects

Redirects are accomplished using the 301 and 302 status codes. Here’s an example of the HTTP headers in a 301 response:

      HTTP/1.1 301 Moved Permanently
      Content-Type: text/html

The browser automatically takes the user to the URL specified in the Location field. All the information necessary for a redirect is in the headers. The body of the response is typically empty. Despite their names, neither a 301 nor a 302 response is cached in practice unless additional headers, such asExpires or Cache-Control, indicate it should be. The meta refresh tag and JavaScript are other ways to direct users to a different URL, but if you must do a redirect, the preferred technique is to use the standard 3xx HTTP status codes, primarily to ensure the back button works correctly.

The main thing to remember is that redirects slow down the user experience. Inserting a redirect between the user and the HTML document delays everything in the page since nothing in the page can be rendered and no components can start being downloaded until the HTML document has arrived.

Flush the Buffer Early

When users request a page, it can take anywhere from 200 to 500ms for the backend server to stitch together the HTML page. During this time, the browser is idle as it waits for the data to arrive. In PHP you have the function flush(). It allows you to send your partially ready HTML response to the browser so that the browser can start fetching components while your backend is busy with the rest of the HTML page. The benefit is mainly seen on busy backends or light frontends.

A good place to consider flushing is right after the HEAD because the HTML for the head is usually easier to produce and it allows you to include any CSS and JavaScript files for the browser to start fetching in parallel while the backend is still processing.


      ... <!-- css, js -->
    <?php flush(); ?>
      ... <!-- content -->

Use GET for AJAX Requests

The Yahoo! Mail team found that when using XMLHttpRequest, POST is implemented in the browsers as a two-step process: sending the headers first, then sending data. So it’s best to use GET, which only takes one TCP packet to send (unless you have a lot of cookies). The maximum URL length in IE is 2K, so if you send more than 2K data you might not be able to use GET.

An interesting side affect is that POST without actually posting any data behaves like GET. Based on the HTTP specs, GET is meant for retrieving information, so it makes sense (semantically) to use GET when you’re only requesting data, as opposed to sending data to be stored server-side.

Reduce the Number of DOM Elements

A complex page means more bytes to download and it also means slower DOM access in JavaScript. It makes a difference if you loop through 500 or 5000 DOM elements on the page when you want to add an event handler for example.

A high number of DOM elements can be a symptom that there’s something that should be improved with the markup of the page without necessarily removing content. Are you using nested tables for layout purposes? Are you throwing in more <div>s only to fix layout issues? Maybe there’s a better and more semantically correct way to do your markup.

A great help with layouts are the YUI CSS utilities: grids.css can help you with the overall layout, fonts.css and reset.css can help you strip away the browser’s defaults formatting. This is a chance to start fresh and think about your markup, for example use <div>s only when it makes sense semantically, and not because it renders a new line.

The number of DOM elements is easy to test, just type in Firebug’s console:

And how many DOM elements are too many? Check other similar pages that have good markup. For example the Yahoo! Home Page is a pretty busy page and still under 700 elements (HTML tags).

Minimize the Number of iframes

Iframes allow an HTML document to be inserted in the parent document. It’s important to understand how iframes work so they can be used effectively.

<iframe> pros:

  • Helps with slow third-party content like badges and ads
  • Security sandbox
  • Download scripts in parallel

<iframe> cons:

  • Costly even if blank
  • Blocks page onload
  • Non-semantic

No 404s

HTTP requests are expensive so making an HTTP request and getting a useless response (i.e. 404 Not Found) is totally unnecessary and will slow down the user experience without any benefit.

Some sites have helpful 404s “Did you mean X?”, which is great for the user experience but also wastes server resources (like database, etc). Particularly bad is when the link to an external JavaScript is wrong and the result is a 404. First, this download will block parallel downloads. Next the browser may try to parse the 404 response body as if it were JavaScript code, trying to find something usable in it.

One of the previous best practices states that CSS should be at the top in order to allow for progressive rendering.

In IE @import behaves the same as using <link> at the bottom of the page, so it’s best not to use it.

Don’t Scale Images in HTML

Don’t use a bigger image than you need just because you can set the width and height in HTML. If you need

<img width="100" height="100" src="mycat.jpg" alt="My Cat" />

then your image (mycat.jpg) should be 100x100px rather than a scaled down 500x500px image.

Keep Components under 25K

This restriction is related to the fact that iPhone won’t cache components bigger than 25K. Note that this is the uncompressed size. This is where minification is important because gzip alone may not be sufficient.

For more information check “Performance Research, Part 5: iPhone Cacheability – Making it Stick” by Wayne Shea and Tenni Theurer.

Avoid Empty Image src

Image with empty string src attribute occurs more than one will expect. It appears in two form:

  1. straight HTML<img src=””>
  2. JavaScriptvar img = new Image();img.src = “”;

Both forms cause the same effect: browser makes another request to your server.

  • Internet Explorer makes a request to the directory in which the page is located.
  • Safari and Chrome make a request to the actual page itself.
  • Firefox 3 and earlier versions behave the same as Safari and Chrome, but version 3.5 addressed this issue [bug 444931] and no longer sends a request.
  • Opera does not do anything when an empty image src is encountered.

Optimize CSS Sprites

  • Arranging the images in the sprite horizontally as opposed to vertically usually results in a smaller file size.
  • Combining similar colors in a sprite helps you keep the color count low, ideally under 256 colors so to fit in a PNG8.
  • “Be mobile-friendly” and don’t leave big gaps between the images in a sprite. This doesn’t affect the file size as much but requires less memory for the user agent to decompress the image into a pixel map. 100×100 image is 10 thousand pixels, where 1000×1000 is 1 million pixels

Optimize Images

After a designer is done with creating the images for your web page, there are still some things you can try before you FTP those images to your web server.

  • You can check the GIFs and see if they are using a palette size corresponding to the number of colors in the image. Using imagemagick it’s easy to check using
    identify -verbose image.gif
    When you see an image useing 4 colors and a 256 color “slots” in the palette, there is room for improvement.
  • Try converting GIFs to PNGs and see if there is a saving. More often than not, there is. Developers often hesitate to use PNGs due to the limited support in browsers, but this is now a thing of the past. The only real problem is alpha-transparency in true color PNGs, but then again, GIFs are not true color and don’t support variable transparency either. So anything a GIF can do, a palette PNG (PNG8) can do too (except for animations). This simple imagemagick command results in totally safe-to-use PNGs:
    convert image.gif image.png
    “All we are saying is: Give PiNG a Chance!”
  • Run pngcrush (or any other PNG optimizer tool) on all your PNGs. Example:
    pngcrush image.png -rem alla -reduce -brute result.png
  • Run jpegtran on all your JPEGs. This tool does lossless JPEG operations such as rotation and can also be used to optimize and remove comments and other useless information (such as EXIF information) from your images.
    jpegtran -copy none -optimize -perfect src.jpg dest.jpg

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s