Death by a thousand tags

This post first appeared on the DigitasLBi blog, What's Next in September 2015.

Ever had that experience where you follow a link from Twitter or Facebook on your mobile, and you stare at a blank screen waiting for it to appear? It’s a frustrating experience, especially when the page finally loads and it’s clearly been well designed. Why would an organisation spend so much money and energy building a site that looks good but which takes ages to load?
There are many well known reasons why performance suffers – high image sizes for retina devices, the use of weighty javascript libraries, and underperforming platforms are pretty well known – but there’s an emerging issue that’s harder to control, certainly within the context of a web build project. One that, for the user, could make the difference between acceptable load times and I’m-not-waiting-for-that. One which makes browsing the web on a mobile device far more painful than it needs to be.
I’m talking about web tracking tags. As you wander around the web, sites collect what they know about you so they can serve up more relevant adverts. Then of course there are analytics tags, which ping the server every time you visit a page. And in recent years, the leading content management platforms have evolved into experience management platforms, driving the seductive promise of personalised customer experiences, dropping even more tags to enable the mapping of people to content or functionality.
These personalised experiences are sometimes a pretty good deal for the user. Done well, you end up with a service a bit like a waiter in a top restaurant, where the website can anticipate the needs of the customer and offer a tailored experience.
But the problems start when a page has too many tags, slowing the site down and greatly offsetting the benefits for the users. One random page clocked in at 14mb worth of tags – hardly noticeable on powerful devices using broadband, but painful on a mobile with a weak cell signal.
It’s surprising just how many tags are being used these days. Try installing the Ghostery Chrome extension and you’ll see that your favourite sites use a whole host of tags. Here are some examples.
From the Guardian:
From the BBC:
From the New York Times:
NY Times
And I think we have a winner from the Sydney Morning Herald:
Sydney Herald
Google has zero tags. Loads quickly, doesn’t it?
It’s no secret that mobile users have zero patience for slow sites. And why should they? Customer experience champions such as Apple are updating their browsers making it easy to block tags such as these – no big surprise. The experience related tags could become collateral damage in the face of these blockers.
So what can be done in the meantime? A few things come to mind.
1. UX people, stand up! Educate yourselves, and ensure someone on the team takes responsibility for managing this issue. Fact is that you need to drive success for both the business and the user experience, and occasionally there will be trade offs. You’re well positioned to hold a view on what these look like – you’re responsible for the overall user experience. Do what you can to counterbalance any abuse of these opportunities.
2. Developers, set yourself a performance budget – a page size (including tags) above which the page load times become unacceptable. The amount devoted to tags should be limited to a mobile, low bandwidth world as the lowest common denominator. Influence the design process to impact the design-related aspects of page weight. Ensure the page loads promptly as a priority. Understand how tag management systems work, and make sure they compress and optimise the way tags load.
Also, consider that one tag might have a larger initial load but make fewer async calls while another may be small initially but then pull down a big subsequent load from the server.
3. Testers, understand the impact on the user experience, and test on low power mobiles before and after launch over low bandwidth.
4. Managers, develop a tag management framework, whereby existing tags constantly have to fight for their place alongside new ones. Your marketing team needs to be kept under control, otherwise they could try to exploit the opportunities without understanding the impact. Kill off dormant tags to keep your site lean and mean. Determine whether tracking tags are the culprit – it may in fact be tags that attempt to load additional content…tracking tags tend to load only a 1x1 clear gif. If you’re developing a culture of continuous improvement – and if not, why not? – then build this consideration into your cycles.
5. Leaders, start developing your fallback plan. If blocking these tags becomes a thing, then you won’t necessarily be able to track users as they surf the web anyway. What’s your plan B?
Tags aren’t going anywhere for now. Advertising makes too much easy money, and it’s a harsh customer who would begrudge a company’s efforts to understand web traffic or deliver a better experience. And it’s ironic that the very act of improving an experience using tags actually has the potential to negatively impact the experience itself.
But the fact remains. Developing a great customer experience is everyone’s concern. We fought so hard for it in the 2000s, and to me it feels as though tag management – and other issues – are coming in uninvited through the back door, circumventing the user experience design process. The average page size has doubled since 2012. It’s time to fight back!