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Optimising website performance in the People’s Republic

Removing UX roadblocks from behind the Great Firewall of China

In today’s high speed world, waiting for a website to load can cause many of us to break down in tears as the days of slow internet connection are a bad memory no-one wants to revisit. On average, most of us expect websites to load in less than two seconds — a delay of any kind will often cause the majority to abandon ship altogether.

Let’s be honest, time is money and in this fast-paced world, hold-ups online are annoying, inconvenient and downright infuriating at times. Online business owners are particularly aware of this problem as they know if something isn’t loading quickly enough on their website, the bottom line is: They’ll lose business.

If you do business *there*, then your site needs to be fast *from there* too.

So when we learned that one of our Hong Kong-based client’ websites was experiencing delays of up to 15 seconds for web page loads — but only for viewers in mainland China, we knew it was an important issue to solve.

We’d been in Hong Kong working with our client to understand the big picture of their move to a new Content Management System (CMS). During lunch, while sitting around a table with a giant Lazy Susan laden with dim sum and other delights, they mentioned their current website speed wasn’t as fast for their Chinese viewers but they didn’t know why.

Everyone knows that China presents an enormous economic opportunity. So if you’re looking for customers there and your website is slow, that’s a showstopper.

What China blocks is China’s business. Just be sure it doesn’t impact yours.

Often the problem lies in the tyranny of distance or telecommunication networks, but sometimes the problem with viewers accessing a website hosted outside of China from within China, lies in the fact that website viewing has been regulated in the country since the 90s. Officially known as the “Golden Shield Project”, the great firewall of China is used to block content that’s considered malicious or unwanted.

We set out to first understand the differences in site performance within China — from Shanghai to Beijing to Guangzhou. We collected the data using industry tools Keynote Agent and Pingdom and analysed it to test both broadband and mobile connections. We then imitated site performance in varied major and smaller cities on the different networks.

From there, we broke down each webpage and loaded them individually which meant we could review the source code of each specific page. This allowed us to determine the origin and impact of the unknown roadblocks and from here, we took things one step further by looking into viable efficiency gains by building out and re-testing mock-up pages.

The biggest blocker we found was that our client had hidden YouTube code on their pages, despite the fact most of those pages didn’t have videos. And Youtube is blocked in China! Whether that decision has been made to provide competitive advantage to local social media sites or due to concerns over the content is a matter for the PRC, but for our client the root cause of the slowness had been identified.

From our audit of the test templates and components, we identified the necessary improvements to their codebase. Included within these was to remove the references to assets on (not links to) sites such as Youtube, Google and Twitter or alternatively hide such code when the web page was being viewed from within China.

After presenting the initial findings and recommendations to our client’s team, we developed a series of example pages to demonstrate the site at optimal performance. These were used as templates to adapt the website for the local Chinese market. The blockage was removed, the two second rule met and most importantly, traffic began to grow.

We also helped this client launch their new CMS but that’s another story for another day!

Titbits and takeaways

There are many optimisation techniques (technical and non-technical) that can improve website’s performance and load times, including low hanging fruit such as optimising images, and optimising media in the CMS.

Organisations looking to build a brand and engage with users within mainland China should consider questions like: what does a successful UX in China look like for you?; what will make your organisation successful in the China market?; and what does your content strategy look like?

Are you already operating in mainland China and considering a review of your digital assets? Check for signs like: is the page loading quickly enough, or to your expectations?; how does this rate against the typical performance like in this location?

What code is your website referencing?; and, where is the website hosted? (If you are using a Content Delivery Network (CDN), what is the performance of that CDN in China?)

Plan your design with speed in mind. Before you start a project refresh, rebuild or new product think about the needs of users with slower connections. It’s far easier to expand on that vision, scaling up the experience when there is more bandwidth, than the reverse.

Dim sum is particularly delicious at the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant, Tim Ho Wan (添好運) — highly, highly recommended.

Transform the way the world sees you.