Built for Speed: A Conversation With OAO About Mobile Web Optimization

Page speed is never too far from the main stage of the ongoing show that is ad ops, and it’s enjoying another spotlight moment right now. On one side, publishers have Google and Facebook calling for compliance with their platform publishing guidelines--and with massive mobile traffic coming to them through those platforms, it’s hard to argue against compliance. On the other side, header bidders and programmatic waterfalls, set up by publishers to maximize revenue, are slowing down pages in their own way.

OAO recently issued an ebook on mobile page performance for publishers, which presented a fine opportunity to grab some insights from their team. AdMonsters sat down with OAO President Craig Leshen, Director Fairy Pardiwalla, and VP, Ad Operations Jennifer Hill to talk about page performance, the customer experience, and other hot and trending developments in the ad ops realm.

BRIAN LaRUE:  Let’s jump right in. Why is page performance such a hot topic right now? Why is it so important for publishers?

CRAIG LESHEN: Page performance, or page load speed, is essential to publishers so they can ensure they’re creating a better customer experience and delivering their optimal amount of ad impressions. If a user is frustrated by how long it takes a page, site, or app to load, they might go somewhere else instead, or even worse, might not go back to your online property anytime soon. For a top-tier site, brand name might get the users to return regardless; but if you’re not, people might stay away if the experience is frustrating. For smaller publishers, or publishers who rely on their content being promoted virally or via social channels, slow page performance can spell disaster. It’s very easy to hit the back button. It’s easy to open a new app. It’s easy to go back to your Facebook news feed. If the page loads slowly, your chances of losing the reader increases; speed is always going to be important.

The good news is, your ad ops and dev teams can help mitigate this problem by monitoring and managing page--and ad--load speeds. If your page loads quickly, you can log more impressions, which can lead to higher viewability scores, lower bounce rates, happier users and increased revenue.

BRIAN: Okay, makes perfect sense. What are the initial steps a publisher can take to gauge page performance?

CRAIG: In order to optimize page load speeds, the first step is to measure performance. There are a variety of tools to help with this, though there is not one specific tool that works best for all online properties. Page Speed Insights, WebPageTest.org and Think with Google help address the page load challenge. OpenX has a new chrome browser extension that compares the load speed of a given page with industry benchmarks. It’s the job of your ad ops and dev teams to make sure the information generated by these tools contributes to your understanding of how things are performing and identifying areas for improvement.

BRIAN: There are subtle and possibly stark differences between these tools.

FAIRY PARDIWALLA: There are. At OAO, we use a number of tools and then compile the results, rather than just testing with one. This allows us to review and evaluate a variety of data points, while also streamlining the process and creating a benchmark that can be used to evaluate performance over time. Our goal is to figure out where problems exist and fix them.

That said, if you had to choose a single tool, it would depend on the specific problem you needed to address. TestMySite is really quick and easy. It provides a free report that’s easily downloadable, so it’s kind of a one-stop test. WebPageTest.org gives much more detailed feedback — you can see how long each call from the page is taking. It’s particularly useful if you’re utilizing header bidding or if you have a stack of networks serving in a waterfall, resulting in a large number of calls. It’s a pretty powerful tool for identifying the culprit when ads from specific networks or SSPs are taking longer to load than expected.  

BRIAN: Are there common mistakes publishers make with their mobile websites that they could address pre-emptively, before running through more technical analyses?

FAIRY: It’s not so much common mistakes as it is just understanding best practices and then constantly performing maintenance updates, or optimizations, to ensure optimal load times. Publishers understand how important this is. We’ve seen a huge increase in the number of AMP [Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages] integrations we’re doing for publishers. It’s only a year old, but it’s becoming extremely popular now. The same goes for Facebook Instant Articles-- publishers are trying to do anything they can to get the content--and the ads--to load quicker.

JENNIFER HILL: I would say I think there are a lot of publishers who are working to make their presence really responsive, from an ad side as well as the content side. There’s a mismatch sometimes between content and ads when it comes to optimization. Most of the publishers that have come to us with those questions have been concerned about the separation between content and ads. We try to analyze both together in order to make it seamless, so it’s not ads against content but both together, delivered at speeds that work.

BRIAN: I wanted to get into Google AMP and Facebook Instant Articles. I’m curious how the guidance you’re giving to publishers lends itself to compliance with Facebook Instant Articles and Google AMP standards.

FAIRY: AMP handles load speeds through a set of very specific requirements. It uses a specific version of HTML, minimizes Javascript and caches many page elements to improve load time. A lot of the pain points that Page Speed Insights catches can be addressed by adhering to the AMP requirements.

JENNIFER: AMP is so scaled down and so specific, there’s a very narrow path for publishers to follow. It takes away some of the flexibility you have with a full Javascript library, but AMP also takes away a lot of the weight and latency. It is really efficient, and after you get through the templates and set up a few pages, it’s actually very simple and data-driven in terms of implementation.

BRIAN: It seems like a lot of publishers are feeling this pressure to be compliant with AMP and Instant Articles.

JENNIFER: I wouldn’t call it pressure. It forces the creative people to get even more creative when it comes to development. You have to develop to load optimally and when you do it right you get and keep more of your traffic. You’re basically saying, “I have to do it a certain way, I don’t want to sacrifice on design – what can I do to make it better and stronger?”

CRAIG: Exactly. Over the years, I’ve worked with all kinds of creatives. When we were designing AOL sites in the mid ‘90s there were some really interesting design tactics used to make the content look fantastic; a major necessity as people typically accessed online content using dial-up modems--i.e., slow speeds. We’re in a similar situation today when it comes to Facebook Instant Articles and Google AMP. You have to get more creative with the way that you’re building your content to keep it as light as possible.

FAIRY: Now publishers and creatives have to be that much more focused on the constraints put in place by AMP and Facebook Instant Articles. They need to tease out the performance without sacrificing quality or look and feel.  They need to squeeze everything they can from a page so they can keep people on it to deliver valuable ad impressions.

BRIAN: So, all that said, after publishers have run these tests and diagnosed these performance issues, what does OAO bring to the table for them in this optimization process?

FAIRY: These tools are often not as simple as plugging in your URL, seeing the problems and fixing them. There’s more analysis that goes into it, especially when you look at individual calls on the page. The first thing we do is to use all of the tools we mentioned earlier to give the publisher a clearer picture of what could be done better to speed up page load. Then, once we compile all of those results and send them to the publisher, we can work with their developers to make sure the fixes we’re recommending are implemented correctly.

BRIAN: How do you gauge success after OAO completes their mobile web optimization projects?

FAIRY: One way is that we measure page load speed at the start of a project and again when all the fixes are in place. Ad revenue is affected by a number of factors, but it’s worth measuring it too at the start and end of the engagement to see if we’re able to tie page load back to an increase in revenue.  For the more traditional, or direct sales publishers, we’ll hear things like, “we used to have 20 million ad views served in a month, and now because we’ve optimized I have 25 million,” and/or,  “we sell our ads on a CPM basis with a high sell-through percentage, and now we made that much more because I had 5 million additional impressions to sell.” That is something that you can track to a T.

CRAIG: We also look at viewability, and that’s a pretty big topic for a lot of publishers interested in improving their page load speeds. They’re under pressure to make sure their viewability scores are as high as their advertisers expect, or require.

FAIRY: Correct, and this goes a long way toward improving viewability scores.

BRIAN: This all sounds terrific. How would you like to sum it all up for our readers?

CRAIG: Bringing it all together, it’s important for publishers to pay close attention to the fact that the faster your pages and ads load, the better the user experience will be and the more impressions you’ll have to sell. If your pages or ads load slowly, and you’re relying on direct deals, your sales team will have fewer impressions to work with, making it tough to hit sales goals. If you’re relying on programmatic ad dollars, the more impressions you’re able to serve, the more revenue you’ll generate. It’s important to work with your ad ops and dev teams to clear this hurdle, constantly monitor metrics such as load speed and viewability, and make updates or maintenance as necessary.

Further reading: OAO's Guide to Understanding Mobile Web Optimization, the ebook referenced throughout this article.

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Brian LaRue has been AdMonsters' Staff Writer since the summer of 2015. He arrived at AdMonsters with several years' worth of knowledge of media and advertising tech, having written and edited on behalf of publications and tech vendors alike. Brian has been publishing steadily since high school and cut his teeth professionally at regional alt-weeklies in New England. Being involved in print in the 21st century certainly helped inspire his vocal advocacy of digital media. These days, he lives in Brooklyn, NY, where he pursues several threads of an art-damaged semi-secret life.

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