Understand How Download Time Is Measured
Think of the telephone call analogy: If response time is the number of rings, then download time is the actual conversation. Suppose the call recipient has to put the caller on hold in response to every request for information; that's what happens when a Web page downloads slowly. On your site, visitors request information by clicking on an icon or link. The information itself is a digital file (text, graphics, etc.). The length of time it takes for your visitor to view the requested file is primarily a product of two things: the user's Internet technology (browser, connection type and speed, etc.) and the size of the file being downloaded. While you have no control over the first factor, you have absolute control over the second. Exercising this control wisely can significantly improve download times for your site and therefore enhance user experience.
Understand What Your Web Host Can Tell You
Understandably, Web hosting services are mainly concerned with making sure their servers - upon which you are "leasing" space for your site - are performing correctly. The data your host provides to you about performance typically reflect site accessibility (i.e., was there any downtime?) and response time. Because download time is less a server issue and more a function of user technology and site content, your host is not obligated to provide detailed download time statistics.
Learn about Tools You Can Use to Do It Yourself
One of the best things you can do to monitor your site's download times is to view the site at regular intervals from several different computers. Make sure you use at least one machine that closely replicates the technology your target customer would use. If your audience is not extremely technical, chances are that many will be using older versions of Netscape or Explorer at connection speeds of 56 kilobits per second (Kbps) down to 28 Kbps or even less. After entering your URL, look for your browser's indication that the Web server has responded (for example, Explorer 5.0 displays the message: "Web site found. Waiting for reply..." in the status toolbar). That is the beginning of your download time "clock." It ends when the page appears in its entirety.
Keep a log of the download times you encounter for each machine. Pay special attention to problem pages, such as those with numerous or complex graphics, or those containing streaming media (audio or video). Enter your times on a spreadsheet, or better still, make an informal chart or graph. Over time, you will notice trends in the download times.
Find Out How Third-Party Services Can Help
If your site features a large variety of file types (lots of animated graphics or rich media in addition to standard text files), or if you have advertising on your site that resides on a third-party server (as many banner ads do), you might not be able to pinpoint download snags if you are armed only with your performance reports or your homemade download logs. A site-monitoring service is your best bet for detailed performance reports.
Knowing exactly what is causing a page - or your whole site - to download slowly can save precious diagnostic time, and money. In addition, many third-party monitoring services offer a great competitive advantage by showing you how your download times compare with those of an aggregate group of sites within your industry. See how one such service displays download time information in graph format (see below). Notice that different colors represent different file types, and that industry group averages (right bars) are included.
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