Like many users of mobile devices, Arvind Jain is annoyed by how long it takes Web pages to load over cellular connections.
The Google Inc. engineering director is continually monitoring Internet-access rates -- from hotels, offices and airport lounges around the world -- looking for ways to speed things up. Jain’s mission: get websites to load over mobile-phone networks twice as quickly as they do now. Today’s times are typically 9.2 seconds in the U.S.
The goal is part of a companywide initiative for Google, the world’s biggest search-engine provider, which aims to use faster mobile Internet access to unlock billions of dollars in additional e-commerce and online advertising. When people are waiting for pages to load, they aren’t shopping or viewing ads. That’s hampering everyone from giant Internet companies to local businesses trying to reach customers.
“There’s a clear correlation between speed and the success of your online business,” Jain said.
What makes a mobile Web connection slow? In some cases, it’s the carriers’ network -- say, if users can’t get 3G or 4G service on their phones. Often, though, it’s because the Web page wasn’t designed to load quickly on a wireless device. The site may have high-resolution pictures or data-intensive effects. Beyond that, Internet protocols and software aren’t always optimized for mobile connections, which can lose some of the data they transmit.
An especially long delay can cause consumers to give up on purchases altogether, and the risk is more acute on mobile phones than with desktop computers. Twice as many mobile-phone users abandon a website for reasons such as sluggishness than their desktop counterparts, according to Forrester Research Inc. That results in lost revenue for online sellers, as well as companies like Google, the U.S. leader in mobile advertising.
To fix the problem, Google is tweaking its mobile browser and working with other companies on changing the way basic Internet technologies work. It’s also rolling out tools that help website owners see the connection between their sites’ performance and sales. That can prod businesses to spend the money needed to speed up their services.
Faster mobile Web loads could increase mobile-commerce sales in the U.S. by 10 percent, or about $600 million a year, said Sucharita Mulpuru, an analyst at Forrester. They also could help online commerce in general: Almost half of mobile users are unlikely to return to a website at all if they had trouble accessing it from their phone, a 2011 study by Equation Research found.
“There’s a big business impact to these kind of struggles,” said Geoff Galat, vice president of worldwide marketing at Tealeaf Technology Inc., a provider of website-improvement software.
Faster mobile Web speeds also translate into additional mobile-ad revenue. A 30 percent improvement in mobile Internet’s speed could lead to a 15 percent rise in ad sales, said Trevor Healy, chief executive officer of mobile-ad provider Amobee Inc. U.S. mobile-advertising spending will reach $2.61 billion this year, up from $1.45 billion in 2011, according to EMarketer Inc.
While carriers adopting 4G networks have helped speed up the mobile Internet, those upgrades won’t have the biggest impact on performance, said Craig Mathias, founder of consulting firm Farpoint Group in Ashland, Massachusetts. Improvements to servers, browsers and other Internet software are even more important, he said.
Catching up to Desktops
Google has plenty of company in trying to accelerate mobile connections. Akamai Technologies Inc., Microsoft Corp., Mozilla and a slew of startups are all focused on optimizing Web performance.
The effort could be help mobile speeds catch up with desktop rates by 2014, said Lelah Manz, chief strategist for e-commerce at Akamai. For now, wired users are far ahead. They haven’t had to deal with nine-second downloads since at least 2001, according to Akamai.
“Mobile has to catch up,” Manz said. “Your shoppers are more distracted on a mobile device, and the performance is more important. This realization has just started to hit in the last six to nine months.”
To get there, Google has been tweaking its Chrome Web browser for Android, the most popular smartphone operating system. The software will rely more heavily on artificial intelligence in predicting what Web address someone wants to visit -- and then start loading the page while the user is still typing. That feature is currently available in a beta-test form, Jain said.
Google also is pushing for revisions to Internet protocols, the decades-old rules that govern the way the Web functions. The changes would better handle the quirks of modern mobile networks, such as their propensity to occasionally lose data en route. A revision called TCP PRR, for example, will deploy a new algorithm that accounts for data losses and network congestion.
Another adjustment, called TCP Fast Open, will eliminate the need to synchronize the phone and the server before transmitting the data. Once the revision is adopted, synchronization will happen at the same time as the transfer of data from a website.
Google recently updated its Google Analytics feature to let Web publishers overlay the speed of their site with business measurements, such as revenue per day. That helps them see the correlation and figure out return on investment.
Akamai, meanwhile, is working with Ericsson AB, the world’s largest maker of wireless networks, to develop special technology that carriers can use to provide priority Web access to users of retail websites, Manz said. The technology will become available in the U.S. in 2013, she said.
In March, Akamai released the Aqua Mobile Accelerator, a technology that sends multiple packets over the mobile network at the same time, cutting down on the number of repeat requests.
Startups are plunging into mobile Web optimization as well. For the past two months, CloudFlare Inc. has been testing a feature called Polish, which automatically goes through images on websites and ensures they are compressed correctly. Mobile-app maker Onavo Mobile Ltd., makes sure images only load when users scroll down to the part of the Web page where the pictures would be visible.
For retailers, such technical advances can’t come soon enough. Said Jonathan Johnson, president of retailer Overstock.com Inc., a Web discounter based in Salt Lake City: “The longer purchasers have to wait, the more frustrated they get, and the more likely they are to leave the site.”