Book Review Speed Up Your Site
Posted on 12 Nov 2003
by Andrew Stevens (4serendipity)
Rated 4.22 (Ratings: 6)
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Title: Speed Up Your Site: Web Site Optimization
Publisher: New Riders, $39.99
Book web site: http://www.websiteoptimization.com/speed/
While developing sites, it is all too easy to hastily comment and uncomment out code while tweaking a layout, to create overly verbose style sheets, or to use excessively meaty graphics, and neglect to clean up these bits of bloat after the fact. Andy King reminds us "pages are not digital dumping grounds," and has produced, with Speed up Your Site: Web Site Optimization, a focused book that should be on any web developer's bookshelf. This book guides us away from creating pages that are "digital dumping grounds" to the creation of lean, fast pages that will improve the experience of your sites' visitors.
Part I - The Psychology of Performance tells us why we should care about optimization. An optimized site, Andy tells us, will have many benefits beyond simply allowing its visitors to navigate around it more quickly. For one, he points to studies that have found many users perceive quick and efficient sites as being more secure and of a higher quality than slow sites. He also examines the concept of "Flow," which can be experienced online when users are engaged and enjoying their experience on a site. Marketers have long known that engaged users are more likely to make purchases, and users who are experiencing Flow are certainly engaged. One of the key components helping to enable the experience of flow on web sites is, of course, speed.
Part IV - Graphics and Multimedia Optimization provides a nice overview of web graphics formats (GIF, JPEG, and PNG), how to choose which format is best for a particular image, and how to choose between image quality and file size, along with tips such as combining images whenever possible to minimize the number of HTTP request required for each page. Photographic and image capturing techniques that help produce more easily optimized images such as taking pictures in as well lit an area as possible and making an effort to ensure that images are captured from a stable platform (by using a tripod, for example) are covered as well. King provides a similar treatment for multimedia, including both tips on how to best optimize files while maintaining the best possible quality and production techniques that help produce quality, optimization-friendly files from the outset. The final topic of this the section outlines PDF optimization techniques.
Part V - Search Engine Optimization is a brief overview of how to optimize your site for search engines. Covered are keyword selection techniques, how to optimize pages' markup for optimal search engine placement, and general site optimization techniques such as link building. Throughout the chapter, King outlines step-by-step the process he used to optimize the book's companion site, WebSiteOptimization.com, for search engine placement.
Part VI - Advanced Optimization Techniques explores server-side techniques for optimizing your site. The fist chapter of this section concerns itself with the optimization techniques that can be employed using SSI and URL rewriting. Among the topics covered are using mod_rewrite to abbreviate URLs and the use of the XBitHack to parse only those files that need it. The second chapter of this section provides a nice overview of compression, web compression technologies, and their practical use for web sites.
While some of the techniques mentioned, such as reducing file names by a character or two, might seem almost too trivial to implement, especially if you're thinking about retroactively applying them to an existing site, the book's case studies demonstrate that these small optimizations can frequently lead to a noticeable overall improvement in a site's performance. The breadth of the techniques covered almost ensures that even very experienced web developers will come away from reading this book with a couple of new optimization techniques and a greater general understanding of how to best optimize sites.
While the most of the techniques mentioned in the book are no-brainers, some of the more extreme optimization techniques, such as conditionally including closing </td> tags for browsers that require them, involve time to verify that they are functioning correctly and introduce a level of server overhead that may not be justifiable given the comparatively modest reduction in file size that they offer. The problem here is that an inexperienced developer hell bent on trying to achieve maximum optimization might accidentally overdo things and damage a site's performance in unforeseen ways by creating a site that will overload its server or have pages that might break in certain browsers.
These objections, however, are minor, since this is a book on optimization after all, and King offers a broad selection of optimization methods from the simple and safe to those that are more complex, extreme, and not universally applicable. In King's defense, he does mention the caveats of the more debatable optimization techniques.
King also states in the introduction that the book is intended for intermediate and experienced developers, who should be able to determine whether or not a particular technique is suitable for any given site. I would, however, recommend this book to any developer, even those who are just now learning HTML, with the idea that King will dissuade them from acquiring poor habits.