Over the course of the 2016 presidential election, we are synthetically monitoring the performance of the major candidates’ website home pages. Each month and for specific occasions like debates, we are producing an index from those measurements to see how performance changes over time and for some of these specific events like last week’s second GOP debate hosted by CNN.
We look at the data over the course of the week leading up to the day before the event, and then again immediately before and after the debate to see if there are any significant changes from the longer-term trend. These differences could be the result of changes the candidate may have made specifically for the event (as Bush and Christie appear to have done for both debates so far), or perhaps as a result of changes in load that may occur during these high-profile events, possibly driving more traffic to the sites due to the attention the event receives from the media and the public (22 million viewers).
We measure both desktop performance from our cloud-based agents and mobile performance via 3G and 4G network speed profile emulation, since many viewers will frequently use their laptops or mobile devices at the same time as they are watching the event live on TV or streamed to one device or another.
For the second GOP debate, Donald Trump’s website performance continued to lead the pack both on desktop and mobile, and performance mirrored other trends that we observed during the first debate. For example, for the week prior to the debate, Trump’s desktop web site averaged an end-user response (EUR) time of 2.9 seconds, and a fully loaded response time of 4.6 seconds, whereas John Kasich, the next closest website, had EUR of 5.9 seconds and a fully loaded time of 6.1 seconds. Meanwhile, towards the bottom of the pack, Carly Fiorina’s website had an EUR of 14.5 seconds and a fully loaded time of 16.1 seconds, and in last place was the Jeb! Bush website with an EUR of 17.9 and a fully loaded time of 18.2 seconds.
Of course, these results are not surprising when we consider the other factors of a website’s design, such as the fact that Trump’s website is comparatively lightweight, coming in at only 0.89 MB of data downloaded for 36 elements, compared to 6.02 MB and 118 elements for Fiorina, and Bush’s website weighing in at a whooping 8.3 MB and 126 elements.
This data is further nuanced when you also look at the first-render times, in which case Bush actually was fastest at 1.9 seconds. So at least some content is starting to render quickly (faster than Trump at 2.8 and Carly at 3.4), even though it takes a very long time for the complete page to load.
These parameters reflect very conscientious design decisions and tradeoffs that are being made by the respective campaigns and their web design and content teams, given the many conflicting and contradictory goals and objectives for the candidate’s sites. For example, the websites are not just vehicles for educating prospective voters about a candidate’s positions and policies, but also about creating an emotional bond to the voter and also, and in some cases most importantly, about raising funds and campaign contributions, as witnessed by Scott Walker’s recent withdrawal from the campaign due to lack of cash to pay his extensive staff.
So the campaign websites have to balance the need to provide a content- and media-rich experience (that will be large in data and could take a long time to load), against the need for snappy performance to quickly engage the voter and encourage them to contribute. This dichotomy applies equally to political sites, as it does to retail or content sites (as I recently discussed in another blog on the catch-22 between content and performance https://www.appdynamics.com/blog/product/catch-22-revenue-content-performance/).
For example, according to Pew Research (http://www.pewinternet.org/2012/10/25/presidential-campaign-donations-in-the-digital-age/), 50 percent of 2012 campaign contributions were done online, and that number is only likely to increase as as the population has become increasingly comfortable with online transactions in the intervening years, and are spending more time both online and especially on their mobile devices (see Mary Meeker’s KPCB 2015 Internet Trends report). Furthermore, companies like Twitter have just released a one-click contribution widget, to send contributions to candidates (think one-click checkout for politics). The websites (and experience) are not just about engagement; they’re also about raising a significant amount of cash. So, it’s no wonder that candidates pay a lot of attention to their online assets today.
In order to address this conundrum, some candidates are actively changing their web sites at key times such as the recent debate to take advantage of the increased exposure at those times to vastly simplify and speed up their websites.
This strategy was pursued aggressively by Bush, Christie, and Jindal, as the data from immediately after the debate for the previous three hours shows. Bush decreased his EUR time by over 10 seconds, from 17.9 to 7.3 seconds, while slimming down his homepage by over 4X from 8.3 MB to 2.0 MB. Christie cut five seconds, while reducing his homepage by nearly almost 3X from 5.7 MB to 2.4 MB. And Jindal sped up by two seconds, also reducing his home page to a third of its pre-debate size, from 3.45 MB to 1.1 MB.
Some candidates, however, didn’t quite get the message, and their website performance actually went in the opposite direction prior to and during the debates. In particular, Marco Rubio’s performance degraded by three seconds, as his EUR time went from 6.7 to 9.7 seconds, when he nearly doubled the data on the homepage from 2.45 MB to 4.4 MB. But Huckabee was the biggest performance offender, adding ten seconds to his EUR, going from 8.1 to 18.4 seconds, and nearly tripling the size of his homepage from 2.6 MB to 6.25 MB.
The graph below shows the Huckabee increase a little more than a day before the debate and the Christie decrease right before the debate started.
Similarly, in this graph below we can see the Bush decrease and the Rubio increase as a result of changes they made to their websites just two hours before the start of the debate.
In conclusion, whatever the goals of your website are, you need to understand how performance is inextricably linked to your design and content strategy, and you need tools to help you have insight into and measurement of how performance drives your KPIs.
At AppDynamics, we can help.