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REPORT: 2015 State of the Union: Performance of the Top Travel Industry Sites

December 16, 2015 — by Matt Young1

Mobile devices travel the world with us. Whether we’re flying, taking the train or doing the old-fashioned road trip, our smartphones are almost always within reach – if not in hand – and we take them to theme parks, hotels and Grandma’s house.

They’re also changing the ways we make our travel arrangements in a big way. A quarter of all online travel bookings will occur on mobile devices by 2019, according to industry estimates which is pretty substantial when you consider that by the following year, 70 percent of the world’s population is projected to be sporting smartphones.

There’s just one problem: users of today’s top mobile travel sites are hitting too many detours in their user experience, cause by unoptimized page elements and poor performance practices, which is why we’re releasing our 2015 State of the Union: Mobile Performance of the Top Travel Industry Sites.

In the hyper-competitive world of the travel and hospitality industry, there’s no margin for error when it comes to keeping customers satisfied – at every stage of the journey.

Background

Each year, we study the real-world performance of top sites using physical devices on mobile networks, in order to get a spin-free look at what’s actually going on when mobile users go online. Previously, we drilled down on Alexa’s top 100 ecommerce sites in our recent State of the Union for Mobile Web Performance, finding page bloat, increasing complexity in page composition and other culprits behind unacceptable mobile load times.

This time around, we wanted to see if the same holds true for the top mobile travel and hospitality sites, or if falling under a different industry category would net different results.

Sadly, as with the mobile ecommerce experience, the top 100 travel sites overall didn’t reach the destination of smooth performance and speed users expect.

Utilizing a ranked list of the top 100 mobile travel sites provided by information technology company SimilarWeb, we tested each on four popular GSM smartphones on AT&T’s 4G/LTE network consisting of the following devices:

  • Apple iPhone 5
  • Apple iPhone 6
  • Samsung Galaxy S5
  • Samsung Galaxy S6

While these tests aren’t meant to be comprehensive performance reviews of these specific devices, the results illustrate the variations in performance that can occur on different devices and a strong suggestion that site owners need to test the performance of their sites across a range of devices and connection types.

Finding 1: Mobile Travel Sites Fail to Meet User Expectations

Regardless of the type of site, device, or connection, the median site in each set of tests failed to meet user expectations for load times of 4 seconds or less.

Among the top 100 mobile travel websites, the median m-dot page took 5.8 seconds to load across all devices. Seventy-six percent of the mobile pages loaded outside the ideal time of 4 seconds or less, with 20 percent exceeding 10 seconds to load.

Median load times varied across the smartphones:

As the results show, performance is somewhat dependent on the user’s device type, and merely having the latest device is no guarantor of uniform loading speed gains (network variability might account for this). Site owners should test across a range of devices to get a clear snapshot of their site’s performance.

Finding 2: Page Size and Composition Are Serious Performance Issues for Mobile

While we found in our mobile ecommerce study that the median mobile page contains only 34 resources (such as images, CSS, and JavaScript files), the mobile travel sites in this study had a median of 62 requests. Eighteen percent of the top 100 mobile travel pages contained 100 or more resource requests. Each of these requests incurs latency, which adds up to slower load times.

The number of page resources is not the only factor that affects load times. Other factors include:

  • Redirects – When users type in the full-site URL, they’re redirected from the full site to the m-dot site, taking time. Remember, even a few hundred milliseconds are significant within the context of everything else required for a page to render.
  • Adaptive delivery – This refers to the practice of web servers generating content that is customized to suit each connection’s browser and platform. For mobile, these customizations can range from image optimization (e.g. resizing images to fit smaller screens) to complete html transcoding (e.g. rendering the page in a completely different markup language).
  • Download speeds – Download speeds experience significant variance, ranging from a mere 1 Mbps over 3G to as much as 300 Mbps over LTE when utilizing spatial multiplexing.
  • Page complexity – A web page can be small, yet still contain a significant degree of complexity in the form of third-party scripts, custom fonts, and CSS and JavaScript. This is normally measured in the number of DOM elements/reflows, and most importantly, the number of DOM manipulations during rendering. Changing the DOM via JavaScript as part of the rendering process is slow and processor intensive.

The takeaway is that site owners need to be aware that simply stripping down their sites into pages with fewer resources is not a performance cure-all.

Finding 3: As Device Fragmentation Continues to Accelerate, Website Fragmentation Also Continues

While the mobile landscape may seem merely a duopoly of iOS versus Android, the fragmentation picture becomes much more complex when one considers the sheer volume of devices and form factors currently in use. According to a recent study, there are 24,093 distinct Android devices, with Samsung claiming a 37 percent share. This number is expected to climb as low-cost Android devices continue to grow in popularity in emerging markets.

Along with this comes fragmentation by OS. Consider the spread of OS versions across the more uniform iOS and Android:


Source: OpenSignal, Android Fragmentation Visualized, August 2015

It’s a reasonable approach for site owners to serve optimized versions of their pages across high-level device categories. But while the sites we tested were from a list of the top mobile travel sites, consider this:

  • A 2014 study by The Search Agency showed 67 percent of travel sites automatically serve an m-dot version of the home page to smartphones.
  • The same study showed 25 percent of those sites served the desktop site to the mobile devices.

While serving mobile- or-desktop-optimized pages to users addresses some issues, the practice can cause other problems, notably when users try to share a desktop site with another mobile user and things don’t display correctly or have broken links, or just in considering the difficulty in managing multiple sites, each with its own content requirements.

Takeaway

Yes, developing for mobile is challenging, and is akin to trying to hit a moving target, considering the pace of generational device refreshes and wireless data network innovations. However, following best practices for web performance optimization for mobile devices can help ensure that prospective travelers stick around and follow through on the bookings they’ve been dreaming of – wherever they happen to book them from.

Get the Report: 2015 State of the Union: Mobile Performance of the Top Travel Industry Sites

Matt Young

As a technology evangelist and writer for Radware, Matt Young delivers research and articles to the application delivery and web performance community. Before joining Radware, Matt was a top blogger for BlackBerry and he also served as the Web Editor for Avaya and as a freelance technology writer in the Greater Bay Area. Matt has a Journalism degree from San Jose State University.

One comment

  • Roger Lewis

    January 12, 2016 at 8:32 pm

    This is an excellent article!!! Great metrics and information. Only one minor typo, too.

    Reply

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