Google Chrome’s load speed indicator

The Google Chrome team intends to experiment with indicators to inform users whether the page they are visiting is slow or fast. This was announced by the blog post “Moving towards a faster web” which was shared in a tweet from Addy Osmany. This sparked a lot of thoughts, good and bad.

Throughout the article, I will use “(load speed) indicator” to refer to the set of features mentioned in the blog post. Or maybe “badge.”

The Good Parts

The closest thing I could find to motivation was this from the blog:

We [...] want to help users understand when a site may load slowly, while rewarding sites delivering fast experiences.

I think showing some kind of load speed indicator before a user navigates to a site could be helpful. Especially people who suffer from bad connectivity (e.g. rural area) might use the loader to choose between search results, for example.

Interestingly, the ideas outlined in the blog post seem to be mainly about informing the user during the page load, which doesn’t seem too helpful helps users understand that when a site takes a while to load, it’s the site’s fault.

The goal, assuming from the blog post, is to motivate people to optimise their websites and web applications. An indicator will probably do so, similar to how performance benchmark tools challenge, and thus motivate developers to get the highest score. Ultimately, this will lead to a faster web.

The Bad Parts

For the past few years, browsers have been quite aggressive in marking non-HTTPS sites as insecure. What started as a little padlock when webpages are secure, became a prominent warning when they aren’t. This created a lot of awareness amongst users and pressured site authors to enable secure connections. It was a bold move for the good of the web.

Similar to how browsers collectively changed the user’s perception of security, they can also shape how users perceive performance. Considering more than half of all internet users use Google Chrome, and almost half the world uses the internet, Chrome theoretically has access to almost two billion users. It’s easy to mistake sites with a “slow” indicator as bad, unreliable or not trustworthy. At this scale, this could very well lead to massive reputation damage only because a site is considered slow by Google.

How can we determine whether a site is fast and when it isn’t, anyway? Which of the many metrics should we use? Should the threshold for server-side rendered and client-side rendered sites be the same? Should sites be penalised for loading secondary content asynchronously? How do we set a threshold? Will the threshold be different for different devices, as mobile users tend to be more patient than desktop users? Should the threshold be adjusted as expectations change? This raises so many questions. Some sites are quick to render placeholders but need a second or two to load content. Is that fast? Websites and web applications are so diverse, it’s difficult to imagine they can be classified into two buckets without looking at them individually.

If the Chrome team somehow pulls this off, I’m afraid it will favour a specific set of technologies or strategies to load a page. Google can force developers to choose that flavour to get that green badge everybody wants. Coincidentally, Google made AMP, which allows publishers to make super-fast mobile websites! Many thought leaders expressed concerns regarding AMP, stating it is bad for the web, so using a performance indicator to force developers into using AMP would be very bad. See AMPersand, Google’s AMP HTML, The meaning of AMP, Google Is Tightening Its Grip on Your Website, and The Two Faces of AMP.

Let’s talk about impact. As the criteria for the green badge has yet to be defined, let’s assume some effort of a professional is required to obtain it. Businesses that can’t afford to optimise their site, will be hurt. Those that hope to get a website might be unable to afford good hosting and software. It might not be as a Great Filter for businesses, but it could lower revenues just enough to make some unsustainable. It could literally end businesses and make it hard for new businesses to cross that first filter.

Lastly, it’s very easy to use it against Google’s competitors. Chrome could simply mark competitor sites as “slow.” Even the use of software of competitors (e.g. embedded Bing Maps, Adobe Analytics, etc) on a website could be used to lower the score. We can take this thought train further: they could use sentiment analysis to see this article speaks badly of Google and mark this very site as “slow.” You think that will stop me, huh?! All jokes aside, Google receives a lot of criticism and many claims it is anti-competitive. I hate to imply that they will use this indicator to rule out the competition, but it’s so easy to misuse.

In Conclusion

Google Chrome will inevitably influence how people perceive time and their feelings towards websites that are classified “slow.” Their userbase is so large, any change might alter the web as we know it. That doesn’t have to be bad, but it could be.

There are many risks, regardless of the Chrome team’s intentions. It’s genuinely hard to determine a threshold and easy to make mistakes here. It can end businesses and there is a conflict of interest. One might even consider it unethical.

Objectively, Google has a hold on the web. We saw everybody obsessing with SEO years ago, or rather Google Optimisation. We see many sites use AMP for SEO purposes because AMP sites are just at the top in search results. We saw everybody getting HTTPS support after Google announced Chrome would mark non-HTTPS sites as insecure. This load speed indicator is just the next step towards Google’s Web.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this. Tweet me!

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