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Performance

NBCOlympics.com Comes Away with Bronze

 

Imagine you?re a huge fan of everything Brazil — especially soccer.  Even though you now live in Miami, your passion remains.  To you, Pele, Ronaldinho and Kaka are more like deities than athletes.

It?s day 8 of the 2012 Olympics and your Brazil Men?s Soccer team is facing off against New Zealand.  You know you can log onto NBCOlympics.com to catch some video of the match.  You type in the URL and hit enter.  And then you wait.

And wait,

And wait.

The Big (Waiting) Game

Terribly slow page load times have thankfully not been the rule on Olympics sites like NBCOlympics.com this year, but they have certainly not been absent.  In dozens of multivariate tests run on Yottaa Monitor, we found that there have been frequent and serious spikes in the load time of NBCOlympics.com, often occurring at times when big events were happening.

For a company like NBC with deep pockets and four years to prepare, we expected better.
A soccer fan in Florida trying to log on to the site on day 8 would have had to wait 98 seconds for the home page to load ? a totally unacceptable load time no matter the situation. (See below).   Repeated spikes of this nature are the reason why we docked the NBC site several points (on an admittedly high-difficulty move) and have given them a ?bronze? for their efforts.

Olympics Miami Spike

The Olympics are Global – So Are Performance Issues

The case of the Floridian soccer fan is just one of many cases.  What we?ve found is
not that the site performs badly all the time, but that its issues, when they do happen, are rather serious.

On each day of the Olympics so far, we?ve found at least one spike with load times vaulting over 30 seconds ? and some days many more than one (see below).  The issues crop up with almost equal frequency in locations around the world, meaning that it?s not isolated to a certain server?s failure to handle the load.  It is rooted in issues on the website itself.

NBCOlympics.com Time

Sometimes the spikes are isolated geographically, and sometimes they are more widespread, as seen below on the left-hand side of the graph, where three of our test locations posted big jumps in page load time concurrently.

Olympics Blog

Hate To Say I?

Yottaa predicted these website problems weeks ago with simple and affordable testing of the site?s structure.  The content, number of requests, and synchronous loading of assets all pointed to future problems at times of heavy traffic.

The performance issues mean that fans looking to NBC as the primary source of news and video about the Olympics may be effectively shut out of the site at the times they desire it most.  Can you imaging waiting 1 minute for a site to load? Can you even imagine waiting 10 seconds?  Data about
behavior of Internet users says most likely not.

And it?s not just the fans that are losing out ? it?s the advertisers too.  If the spikes in load time correlate with spikes in bounce rate and decreases in time-on-site (as they typically do) then the online advertisements that litter NBColympics.com are losing impressions.  For advertisers that were counting on hundreds of thousands of impressions to get a return on their investment, multiple spikes each day does not spell good news.

Could Anyone Avoid Spikes?

The answer to whether this could have been avoided is simple: yes.  More thorough load testing from locations around the world would have uncovered problems, as well as a more rigorous examination of the assets on the site.

For example, in one test case we found that a single asset ? an image from Facebook.com ? dragged down the entire NBC site.  The asset itself took a
minute and a half to load, and worse, it was loading synchronously, meaning that other assets on the NBC site couldn?t continue to load at the same time.

Facebook Img Olympics

Making sure that 3
rd party assets load asynchronously is a basic tenet of web performance optimization.  Why wasn?t this one dealt with properly?  Slip-ups like this might be momentary, but when traffic to the site is heavy, even brief missteps in performance can have an outsized effect on website metrics and user experience.   In this case the fix would have been easy.

The Cloud is the Future ? But Not the Only Answer

Some attention has been given to the apparent success of websites like NBCOlympics.com and London2012.com in leveraging the cloud to stay up during the Olympics.  Much of the praise is deserved.  However, the spikes in load time that we found in our study are enough to raise some cautionary flags about the network preparation for NBCOlympics.com.

Here at Yottaa the mixture of terrestrial and cloud-based data centers in our hybrid network works well for us.  But the network is not even half the battle.  A big mistake website owners make is to think that the cloud can scale to meet demand when there are issues on the front end of his or her website.

Companies like Yottaa deal with all sides of the website performance issue.  We apply front-end optimization techniques; leverage a scalable hybrid network that includes a CDN; and include security measures.  From this standpoint of back-to-front performance we look at mistakes like the page load spikes in NBCOlympics.com and see a missed opportunities.  Yes: the cloud is a great way to provide a website to many disparate viewers ? but it will not prevent issues related to lots heavy assets, third party assets, and un-optimized pages.  Work must be done to optimize the front end.

Learn From the Olympians – Go for the Gold!

The moral of the story isn?t that NBC is totally inept ? it?s that they needed to better prioritize performance.  It?s a lesson that is worth learning for any website owner.  A great site can produce great results, but simple steps to improving web performance can take a great site and make it even better.  Sure, intermittent spikes in page load time are better than a site that?s always slow ? but wouldn?t 0 spikes be better?  Olympic athletes never settle for ?ok? ? and when it comes to web performance, neither should you.  ALWAYS GO FOR THE GOLD!

 

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