How Big is Too Big?

In our hurry to meet deadlines and satisfy all the different committees and audiences attached to our homepage, it can be easy to lose touch with some of the small things. In missing the small things, we end up with a big thing. A big page. How much stuff does a homepage have to require you to download before it’s too big? Are you hurting your user experience by making them wait? We looked at 100 .edu websites to see just how things stack up to see how we’re doing in the area of site optimization. I’ll give you a hint: there’s good news, and bad news.


The data presented in this article was all collected using Firebug in Firefox 3.6.8 with caching disabled. Pages with autocycling centerpieces were allowed to load all items once for measurement. Any externally linked assets were included in measurements (i.e. loading jQuery from the Google CDN). Values for “other” data were calculated based on the total site size - (images + CSS + JS). In instances where this resulted in “other” values <0, the value was set to 0 (this occurred twice, and these values were set to .1 only for the purpose of display in the logarithmic chart below). Values over 1MB were rounded off to the nearest 10th, this primarily impacts only sites that had more than 1MB of images, which results in a margin of error +/- 99KB in the image and other values. For the sake of comparisons, load times will be weighed in proportion to each other to remove some of the effect of the fast connection I tested on. The baseline 0% load time was set to the average of all sites: 4.05 seconds on my [fast] connection. 100 websites were selected based on a mix of results from a Google search for "" and recent listings on eduStyle. All sites were tested from their primary home page.

What Baseline?

First, let’s throw around a little context, yeah? The challenge here is that there isn’t necessarily a “right” size for a page to be. In fact, how it is optimized or how it loads can dramatically impact your capabilities. You can stand to have a huge page if you are progressively loading objects, or loading them in the background in a way that doesn’t interrupt the user experience. Pear Analytics wrote about how long a user will wait on a page back in ’09. Despite the age, the data is still solid (and likely overestimates a hair now, given that we’re trending downward - Jakob Nielsen mentions in ’93 people could be expected to hold their attention for 10 seconds). Basically, count on 4 seconds (oddly enough, right at our overall average given my connection). From their article: “Akamai said inthat you could lose up to 33% of your visitors if your page took more than 4 seconds to load on a broadband connection.

Here’s how some big sites compare:

  • Amazon: 126 requests - 691.6KB - 5.68s
  • CNN: 115 requests - 968.1KB - 10.12s
  • Facebook: 142 requests - 608.1KB - 12.02s
  • Fox: 82 requests - 245.9KB - .8s
  • Google: 10 requests - 181KB - 1.01s

Obviously, they’re a bit all over. Both CNN and Facebook had longer load times, but in part due to how the pages load up media and make secondary calls. Facebook, for instance, takes time loading elements progressively across the page. None of the sites were over a megabyte total though. Google was expectedly small, and Amazon was even quite reasonable given the number of graphics their homepage displays.

Breaking Us Down

Let’s face it, there’s a lot of crap we put on our pages. I’ve broken it down into images, CSS, JavaScript, and everything else. Everything else includes stuff like the basic HTML overhead, any Flash embeds, etc. Of the 100 sites we looked at, the average total size was 1.25MB. Even CNN, the biggest of the sites mentioned above, comes in under that by more than a full quarter-megabyte.

You need to upgrade your Flash Player

As we stand, images are [expectedly] the heaviest part of our pages. The problem generally gets worse based on centerpieces - preloading more than a few slides (note: we aren’t discerning in the data between sites that loaded everything at once vs on demand). Also, sites that use large images run into issues as the bigger the image, the more noticeable the quality issues are if you try to turn it down. CSS was by far the least taxing of our assets. Javascript fluctuated quite a bit, with the sites dealing in the heaviest JS being those built on Ektron. Apparently Ektron has some kind of JS framework it loads on the sites that’s around 200KB.

In the end, 40% of the sites were a full megabyte or larger. I’m speaking qualitatively here, but even with fast load times, I really feel like that’s a heck of a lot of data to load for a university homepage. But, 53 of the samples were smaller than CNN which is a bit more encouraging.

In the following two charts, we break down all 100 sites based on asset types. In the first, we look at it school by school, in the second, it’s just looking at the range of each asset type. Be aware that both graphs are logarithmic due to the range, but you can turn off the values you don’t want to see in both. Looking across the middle of the pack, things show some relative stability, but at the far ends, things go a bit wacky, which is to be expected on a bell-curve-like situation such as this.

You need to upgrade your Flash Player
You need to upgrade your Flash Player

Naturally, all this data impacts your load times, which is what we are ultimately getting at. The average load time occurs at a point that has 67 schools at/under the average, and 33 over it. This is partly because of the long tail of the faster sites. About a second is as fast as they come, and from there to the 4 second mark (again, all these times are on my machine on a fast connection) is where a lot of folks fall. But, the bad sites get really bad, which pulls the average away from the middle of the pack. In fact, the median time of 290% normal didn’t occur until the farthest end of the data (15.8s by my timing).

You need to upgrade your Flash Player

My big worry is the role my high bandwidth connection played. Do the same test from home (or gods forbid a mobile device) and you will absolutely see that 0% vertex start drifting substantially to the left. That’s bad, because that will put a large percentage of sites well beyond that golden 4 second mark. What’s really frightening is just how bad the load times get, in part due to sites with enormous Flash overhead, or forcing users to download movie files even if it’s not playing.

Finally, the last big point to pull out is the number of HTTP requests a page has to make in order to build the site for the users. This isn’t directly related to overall size mind you, but can impact things like server load, as well as wait times if requests are backed up or delayed. It should go without saying that the more load you put on your server, the slower it will respond. The average number of requests was 55, the median was 109.

You need to upgrade your Flash Player

Optimization Targets

So, what can we do to improve load times? There are a number of options that we could all take advantage of to some degree. A lot of this is a matter of good planning and good habits. I think a lot of the time many of us are forced to work for speed, rather than quality, so while these may be obvious, I think it still needs to be something we pay attention to.

Image Optimization

If you can save graphics as non-transparent, 8-bit PNGs, do it. This is about on par with using GIFs (which are pretty equally fine for small images with limited colors), but the compressed size is a bit better for smaller sized graphics and icons/buttons. 24-bit PNGs can be great for high quality images, but will cause the size to balloon (be sure to catch this ). For JPGs, don’t save using the maximum quality settings if you don’t need to. In some instances, you can save up to ten times the amount of space if you just turn down the quality settings.

Also make sure - especially with photography - the image is being saved at the native size it will be shown. Don’t just upload a 12 megapixel photo from a camera onto your homepage without shrinking it down first. And speaking of small, in the case of things like icons and background gradients that are applied with CSS, consider using . Sprites won’t save you a lot of space, but can cut down the number of HTTP requests the page has to go out and make, speeding up overall page loading.

Photoshop users should definitely read this . It will offer up a number of suggestions to make sure you are putting your images out the best way possible for web use. And finally, there are a number of other as well that can meet different needs (I swear, that’s the last Six Revisions link I have).

Minify and Consolidate

In the case of CSS and Javascript, you can frequently combine multiple files into one big one. Again, not so much a size issue, but one to cut down on requests. But, consolidated files are also great candidates for minification - taking out all of the white space and line breaks. There are two great tools ready to do that for you: and . On top of that, make sure you are using at least the minified versions of things like jQuery, which can save a lot of overhead (and don’t load them on the home page if they aren’t needed).

Flash: Kill it With Fire

Sure, jQuery has overhead. But it’s also pretty ubiquitous, so if you load it from something like the Google CDN, you’re likely to save your users some download time. Flash is simply in its sunset years now. It’s a , maintenance problem, and . And more than that, complex video players, menu tools, and centerpiece rotators can add a ton of weight to the page, and it’s all stuff that can, mostly, be done with jQuery now.

Look for Random Crap

In many cases, the stuff slowing down your pages can be completely random, unexpected things. This is especially true if you use a lot of third party widgets or code that pulls from outside your site. Last year, Google announced that page load times can now affect your pagerank. So it’s important you identify the sources of that slowdown since a slow page can not only drive away users, but could keep them from finding you in the first place (in extreme cases, since relevancy still plays the big part in pagerank).

The Google Webmaster Central Blog offers a few so that you can address them. In fact, they have an , which has even more information and tools.


So, the good news is that I generally feel we are a bit better off than I expected when I first started this project. The bad news is that the signs of data bloat are already poking their heads around our sites. As we strive to make more dynamic, complex sites, we’re doing it at the risk of optimization. I’m as guilty as anyone for working in haste to get something done, but not going back to clean it up and make it faster. Shame on me.

In the end, it’s a quality of web life issue. Sure, a lot of folks have faster connections now, and that’s great. Just because we have faster cars today doesn’t mean we load them down with a couple extra tons of steel though. But we have made huge strides in car features and safety at the same time. In that same way, we can still do a lot to make our sites better and more feature rich, and do it in a way that doesn’t prevent the page from loading quickly and in a way that makes sense.

Finally, I don’t present all this to you with the direction of making your site as small as possible. An anorexic web site has just as many problems. In fact, some of the smallest sites in the data were some of the… least modern, shall we say. They were small because they lacked a lot of common, newer elements or more visually engaging imagery. Instead, I would say we aim for a sweet spot somewhere between about 500KB and 800KB. Hit that mark, and you should feel pretty good about what you have going on for your users.

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- who has written 75 posts on .eduGuru

Director of Web Marketingjoined Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg, KS (NOT Pennsylvania, they spell it wrong anyway) inand is currently the Director of Web Marketing.  He is also CTO for the . Web development's role in interpersonal communication is a principle focus of his efforts to improve and enhance higher ed web commodities.  He is an active supporter of the dotCMS community, accessibility advocate, freelance consultant, frequent speaker at web events, and general purpose geek who wears many hats.  .

One Response to “How Big is Too Big?”

  1. Says:

    I agree about the haste issue. We can be kicked in the rear by deadlines. We launched our redesign in the Fall at just over 600k after a very short 6 month redesign process. We spent the next couple of week monitoring the launch and squashing any bugs, but once things settled down we took the time to optimize. Now our home page is a nice 373k and we even managed to make our graphics look crisper.

    jQuery needs to be used logically. I’ve seen a lot of these “big image” slideshow areas that are now so common load up all of the images on page load. It’s just as easy to load them on demand with jQuery.