September 23, 2011

Porn sites download faster than The Post’s Web site. Really.

I could say that I know that firsthand, but that would be embarrassing. And besides, I don’t have to.

I’ll let Jack, a longtime reader of The Post online, speak to this via his recent e-mail to me:

“Perhaps it will impress on you how sluggishly your pages load to learn that pornography sites download much faster than washing­tonpost.com does! Trust me on this. And those sites’ pages are much more ‘content dense’ and have significantly more ‘dynamic’ content and ads than washingtonpost.com, with very little simple text (obviously!). . . .

“By contrast, your site subjects me to a tedious, lumbering stream of browser ‘Waiting for [various] plug-in’ messages and download-progress bars. Meanwhile, my screen remains frozen, so I can’t even scroll through the content that has already downloaded. This seldom happens on the porn sites I frequent.”

Jack isn’t alone in his frustration with the loading times of pages from washingtonpost.com. In the past couple of months these kinds of letters have increased and now are the most numerous topic in my folder of complaints about the Web site.

Readers are so upset, they are timing The Post’s downloads.

“I actually went so far as to do a comparison using a stop watch,” said longtime reader Rollin Shelton of Portland, Ore. “On average, because of the amount of clutter on The Post’s Web pages, the pace at which the different ads load, it takes a Post page approximately five times as long to load as a page on the New York Times or Reuters sites. Huffington Post is more in your ballpark, but Huffington averages twice as fast as a Web page on The Post. The British news sites, the Guardian and the Independent, leave The Post completely in the dust with their Web pages loading at a pace that outstrips The Post by 7 to 1.”

The ouch-inducing bottom line for Rollin is this: “My default posture now, when wanting to check news sites, is to pretty much avoid The Post all together.”

I have dozens of similar letters from readers. Most were willing to give The Post some time to sort out kinks after the new Web design was launched in March. But six months later, they are no longer patient.

The Post is aware of this problem, which has become serious enough that, in recent days, a “SWAT” team was formed to examine page performance.

Ashish Agrawal, The Post’s senior development manager for technology, and Chris Wagner, director of editorial Web development, are on the task force.

“We know that our page performance is lower than some other sites,” says Agrawal, “We get it, we are aware.”

Wagner said they hope to have some solutions within a few weeks.

But there are trade-offs that the task force will have to consider, balancing revenue against resources and Web site usability.

Post Web pages are, in the tech vernacular, very complex and very heavy, Agrawal explains. There’s a lot going on in any Post Web page, including headlines, photos, videos, lots of advertising, and lots of “plug-ins” that allow you to view certain kinds of content, plus links to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and others. All of that has to load.

Then there’s stuff you can’t see going on in the background of every Web page — tracking and marketing data — that is following what you are viewing and sending that information to marketing and content partners, who use it to instantly post ads and links to other stories that you might be interested in. That’s a lot of transmission of data going on while the page is loading. In fact, it’s huge.

In finding solutions, The Post doesn’t want to sacrifice ad revenue. Nor does it want to give up much of the valuable marketing information that comes from the tracking of your reading habits.

Any solutions also take a lot of manpower, said Agrawal and Wagner. The Post technology team has many other priorities — it’s also redoing the PostPolitics pages and the political polling site for the 2012 campaign, as well as improving the iPad application and getting the Droid application ready.

But from my chair, The Post must make this issue a higher priority, and devote time and resources to improve its page downloading times, or risk undermining its growing online audience.

Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@ washpost.com.