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Website Performance Tuning - Part 1

Website Performance Tuning - Part 1

Speed on the web is as important as ever, with figures showing that better performing websites get more business, and that performance may also have an effect on SEO rankings.

Recently, we've been asked by several clients to measure how their site performs, and what could be done to speed it up.

For the first client (a multi-national blue-chip insurance company), they primarily wanted to know how many users their system could support - how many users could use the site in an hour, say?

The first thing we needed here was a program to simulate being a real user. PhantomJS is an excellent tool here, because behind the scenes it's basically the same browser as Google Chrome, but there's no visible front-end - we can "drive" it automatically and measure the results.

So, we produced a PhantomJS script that hit the website, logged in, and performed the operations our client wanted testing. (Measuring all the times as it went.)

We then produced a large queue of those scripts to run, and fired up a whole bunch of Rackspace Cloud servers, and told them to share the queue of jobs - this is to simulate concurrent users, which is very difficult to emulate with a single computer.

We ramped up the simultaneous servers gradually, and found the spot at which we'd hit a limit - meaning that the system couldn't deal with more simultaneous users than we were throwing at it.

Armed with these numbers, we could then dive a little deeper into the figures at certain points of the process, and find some likely candidates for the stages that were specifically slowing things down.

The tools we have available for this kind of work these days are frankly excellent - without PhantomJS (or something similar), our tests would have been significantly less "real", as it wouldn't have used real-life browsers to do the testing. And without Rackspace Cloud, I dread to think of the work involved in actually firing up that many physical servers to perform the tests!

Next time, I'll talk more about what happens next - how web pages can be made faster.

In the meantime, please don't hesitate to get in touch with us if you'd like us to performance-test your website!

Neil Smith

Created on Tuesday September 17 2013 01:45 PM

Tags: website performance

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Reading goes Robotic at MS Ireland!

Reading goes Robotic at MS Ireland!

Yesterday our good friends at MS Ireland launched their 2013 MS READaTHON campaign. It's Ireland's largest and longest-running sponsored read for young people, and this year once again it's supported by a fun Focus microsite!

Featuring moving robots, the site has stacks of information for kids, teens, teachers and librarians about how to sign up for this year's campaign. MSI were keen to ensure the site had a balance between informing young people about MS, and providing fun and engaging ways to get involved.

'Sign up now' features new-styled and easier-to-use forms, and a head-tuning robot to promote it... clever javascript from our Dev team gave two of the robots a life of their own... we love them. (And we can't seem to stop watching the 'Sign up Now' robot - he's captivating somehow!)

The site also features a video embedded in the site, ensuring schools who block videos-streaming sites such as YouTube still get to view the video and find out what it's like to have a family member with MS.

The Comms team at MSI have lots of control over the site, and are able to update much of the content themselves. They also have prizes to be won, games to play and other ways to get involved.

Head over to the site now - we'd love to hear what you think!

Annette Ryske

Created on Tuesday September 10 2013 11:54 AM

Tags: charity dublin ireland campaigns msireland javascript

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Creating change in social health and care

'Big Wecil' has been the affectionate name throughout the summer for one of our larger and more complex projects - which gets it's first serious airing tomorrow (Wednesday 11th September) at Disability Somerset - the south west's leading independent living exhibition.

We're not going to give too much away at this stage, but it's a hugely exciting and innovative way for adults who require social care to plan their care and manage their personal budgets - all in line with the ongoing requirements from government for more personal choice and decision making.

'Big Wecil' has been designed from scratch to work across all platforms and devices, such as iPads and iPhones, includes lots of features to enhance accessibility, and throughout the project there's been a real focus on system usability. The software looks set to provide a truly collaborative environment for professionals such as GPs, social workers and health visitors.

With the BBC and other news outlets at tomorrow's exhibition, we're looking forward to revealing a little more about the project - meanwhile as we might be on telly, we need to go and check our hair.....

Simon Newing

Created on Tuesday September 10 2013 11:36 AM

Tags: web-development accessibility onlinetool

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Rails 4: It's Upgrade Season!

Rails 4: It's Upgrade Season!

We've going through a bit of an upgrade period here at Focus towers. The web framework we use for all our websites is Ruby on Rails, and version 4.0 has just been released.

Major "point" upgrades, when systems go from v3.x to v4.0 are always an exciting, and yet challenging time. Normally major upgrades have exciting new features that we want to use, but the downside is they often require other code or libraries to be upgraded to work correctly.

Ruby on Rails v4.0 requires Ruby 1.9, dropping support for the older Ruby 1.8 series, which means servers running 1.8 need to be upgraded in order to use Rails 4. However, Rails 4 also supports the also-new Ruby 2.0, which brings performance optimisations and other nice language improvements to the table.

The best approach would seem to be to install multiple versions of Ruby on some of our servers, making them able to serve sites both old and new.

This is thankfully easily achievable - IF we upgrade Phusion Passenger, which serves our Rails sites on our production server to v4.0, which is the first version to support multiple Ruby versions at the same time!

So, we find ourselves wanting to upgrade to Rails 4.0, Ruby 2.0 and Phusion Passenger 4.0 at the same time in order to achieve what we want! It's an exciting time, but also one that involves a lot of testing!

Version numbers aside, you may be wondering what the point of these upgrades is. It's generally true that a website created in Rails 4 can't (from a user viewpoint) really achieve anything that fundamentally a website in Rails 3 (or even 2, or 1) can. (There are a few specific exceptions, but I'll leave these for now!)

Rails 4 brings the developers some nice additional tools to the table, meaning we can write code in simpler, better and more consistent ways. This helps us write code quicker and reduces the possibility of making any errors.

The main customer-facing improvement, however, is probably performance - Rails 4 gives us some great tools (such as "turbo links" and "russian doll caching", believe it or not!) to make your websites run faster for your users.

Everyone is clamouring for more speed on websites these days - figures show that faster websites convert customers better (and generate more revenue), and Google is factoring load speed into it's ranking - meaning faster websites could rank better in the natural listings.

Therefore, it's great for everyone that we're getting an even better set of tools for making your websites run faster.

If you'd like to know more about any of our technologies, or would like to talk to us about website performance, please do get in touch!

Neil Smith

Created on Wednesday August 14 2013 12:17 PM

Tags: rubyonrails ruby

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Findability Bristol goes Mobile!

Findability Bristol goes Mobile!

Another go-live during our busy Summer was the dedicated Mobile site for Findability Bristol, an online directory for disabled children and their families.

Since the main site went live back in March 2012, we're been monitoring the Analytics, and seen a month-on-month increase in visits from Mobile devices. The figures spoke for themselves - a 481% increase in Mobile visitors in May this year compared to May 2012 - and it was only increasing. This, along with a need by the Family Information Services team at Bristol City Council to make information available and accessible to as many families as they can, made the case for developing a dedicated Mobile site a compelling one.

Key figures:

  • The number of visits made using a mobile device had almost tripled compared to the first 6 months of launch.
  • A 21% drop in pages-per-visit suggests people have grown to expect websites to be mobile compatible - and are losing patience with those that aren't.
  • The average visit duration when accessing via a mobile device had dropped to less than a minute.
  • Almost a 10% increase in new visits being made using a mobile device.
  • 14.36% rise in bounce rate suggests users are getting increasingly deterred as soon as they see the site is incompatible with mobile.

So, we set about developing an easy-to-use site that kept the fundamental features of the desktop version, plus a couple of extras to make full use of the mobile environment - for example, smart phone users who have geolocation enabled, this plots your location and the nearest organisations to you from your search!

Key features:

  • The mobile home page features clear navigation to key area, plus keyword and location search of organisations and events.
  • Search results are displayed along with a Google Map - this links through to view full Google Map and associated functionality - including "show me directions from my current location".
  • The events calendar provides users with a menu offering 'view events for current week' - organised by today, tomorrow, remaining days of that week.
  • Clicking a specific event takes the user through to an individual page for that event, including a Google Map.
  • It's also easy to make contact, provide feedback, and visit the related Facebook (mobile) page.

It's only been a couple of weeks since go live, so we'll be keen to view the analytics in due course and report back on the difference having the dedicated Mobile site has made. We hope this will be more returning visitors, who spend the right amount of time on the right pages, finding what they need quickly and easily.

We'll report back later in the year!

Visit the Desktop site, or the Mobile site (using your mobile for the best experience!)

If you'd like to know more about dedicated Mobile sites, please get in touch.

Annette Ryske

Created on Tuesday August 06 2013 12:07 PM

Tags: accessibility bristol young-people online-tool iphone disability children mobilewebsite

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New eCommerce store launched for Roadcraft

Amongst our summer of new web sites is an eCommerce store for Roadcraft - manufacturers of safety products, road marking and paints for over thirty years.

The new site concentrates on Roadcraft's industrial paint product range and allows distributors and the public to purchase online. The site includes lots of best practice eCommerce features such as an isolated checkout to increase conversion rates, an auto-completing product search, integration with SagePay for processing online payments and of course, a complete administration system for managing all aspects of the store.

Web site activity is tracked using Google Analytics, so we can keep an eye on user behaviour and ensure the site continues to meet it's objectives and KPI's. 

Have a look at the new site at:

Simon Newing

Created on Friday July 19 2013 02:49 PM

Tags: e-commerce new-web-site

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A sporting way to fundraise

A sporting way to fundraise

One of the new web sites we've launched recently during our very busy summer is a very worthy one!

Run for the Future - a fundraising 5km fun run - has been staged by the Rotary Club of Bristol each September since 2006, helping to raise funds for the Bristol Urological Institute and their work and research into prostate cancer and post-operative care.

This years race takes place on Durdham Downs, Bristol on the 8th September 2013 - and we've given the Run for the Future web site a facelift and spruce in time to raise awareness and provide information about the event.

We're pleased to support such a great cause, and wish everyone involved all the very best.

* If you'd like to take part and help raise even more money to save men's lives you can register here  or call 0117 323 6328. 

** You can also make an online donation here.

Annette Ryske

Created on Friday July 19 2013 01:26 PM

Tags: charity new-web-site bristol

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Going places, doing things

Going places, doing things

Since 2008 we've been helping Bristol City Council promote positive activities through the web sites Go Places Do Things and Go Places To Play. In March 2013, both sites became part of Bristol Youth Links - a major project investing millions of pounds in to services for young people, and at that point the council commissioned Focus to take a much more 'hands on' approach to the day-to-day management and administration of 'Go Do' and 'Go Play'. 

This allowed our team to get far more involved with a specific group of end users - in this case, event providers throughout the region looking to publicise and promote their activities. As well as our ongoing design work - including seasonal updates and strengthening social media presences with regular Twitter and Facebook activity, the team at Focus now offer a first-point helpdesk for providers which offers guidance and training on web site administration systems, as well as helping to publish news articles and service announcements. 

We've also produced a series of regular reports and audits that have helped the Bristol Youth Links team identify gaps in service provision - vital for ensuring there are sufficient play groups, youth clubs and support organisations within the city.

"We are all really impressed with the level of support Focus are giving Bristol Youth Links. Their service is proactive, efficient and effective and it's great to have Focus on board".
Nikki Davey, Project Officer - Bristol Youth Links
Bristol City Council

Jordana Jeffrey

Created on Friday July 19 2013 12:54 PM

Tags: bristol bristolcitycouncil goplacestoplay

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Excited for UX Bristol

Excited for UX Bristol

With UX Bristol being two weeks away I wanted to talk through what I am excited about going to listen to and hopefully how it will help me back at Focus.

After attending UX Bristol 2012 I am looking forward to going again this year. Highlights for me last year would definitely be working with a team to think about mobile first design in Fiz Yazdi & Jesmond Allen's talk on having a pragmatic approach to responsive design. Joe Leech's talk on the dark arts of UX was a definite talking point for me and enjoyed discussing with friends how they implement some of these arts already without knowing it!

So what on the schedule am I most looking forward to this year? I wish there was enough time to see every talk but decisions have to be made. I think the first talk that I will make sure to visit will be with Sophie Dennis, in every day life we are often limited by time and budget yet want to deliver end products that have well thought through user experience. At other talks I have found it hard to identify how some of the visions and new ideas will relate to real world projects. I hope this talk will allow me to bring back a few new ideas on good communication with the team and stakeholders when it comes to the user experience of their websites.

Patrick Jordan's talk on positive psychology and UX, at Focus we are often designing and building web sites that empower people to find information and services that are relevant to their needs. These needs are often very different and learning how to use user experience to enhance users' levels of wellbeing. Identifying strengths and weaknesses of existing life enhancing services will hopefully enable me to think about possibilities of new functional requirements for future projects we do at Focus.

Lastly but definitely not least I am looking forward to hearing everyone's opinions and hearing great discussions about UX. Last year brought together a great mix of people from different job roles and experience levels to talk and learn from each other, I am hoping that this year will be the same. If you are going to UX Bristol hopefully I will see you there and enjoy the conference, I will talk about my experiences there in a couple of weeks.

Steve Fenn

Created on Monday July 08 2013 01:18 PM


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Web Analytics 101 - Bounce Rate

Web Analytics 101 - Bounce Rate

At Focus we are believers in keeping things simple - so over the course of a few blog articles I'm going to try and apply that approach to an area of digital marketing that can by it's nature get a bit complex - that being web site analytics.

The information you can gain from software such as Google Analytics (other analytics platforms are available!) can overwhelm - so we're going to pick a few more of the important KPIs and have a bit more of a delve and look at them - including their meaning and usefulness. (For the purposes of these articles I'm going to be referring to Google Analytics - or GA - as it's the most widely used analytics software and we happen to use it at Focus).

We start off with Bounce Rate - generally defined as the percentage of visitors who came to a page on your web site, viewed a single page, and then left - either to go to another site or by closing the browser. Bounce Rate (BR) is an important KPI that people get very excited about - especially when it's high, as this indicates lots of people are hitting your site and leaving straight away.

But is that a bad thing? It might not be - we'll explain more later.

Firstly, back to Google Analytics - which provides an overall bounce rate as part of it's 'Content' overview. But remember this will be for the whole web site, and for that reason, the overall BR isn't the most useful of stats. Instead it's best to focus on bounce rates for individual sections and pages - which is available in the list of pages seen at:
Content -> Site Content -> Pages.

To improve the accuracy of this list we also need to remove statistical anomolies that can skew the numbers (general good practice if you remember back to GCSE Maths). To do this, apply an Advanced Filter in Google Analytics to exclude these outliers - we tend to only include pages where the bounce rate is more than 10% and less than 95%.

Graphic showing Advanced Filters in Google Analytics

(See above 'advanced' surrounded in red - clicking this will allow you to apply a filter, of the type shown in green.)

Google Analytics also allows you to view bounce rates for different visitor types - by adding a Secondary Dimension. For example: if we add a Secondary Dimension of 'Visitor Type' we obtain seperate bounce rates for New and Returning visitors - this can give an insight into how engaging your web site is to different audiences.

There are other Secondary Dimensions - such as Keyword, Campaign and Landing Page - that are derived from your Google AdWord marketing activities. When applied correctly we now obtain bounce rates for individual pay per click (PPC) campaigns running from your AdWords account - this data is gold dust when looking at how successful paid-for campaigns have been (and where changes needs to be made).

So once you've got your bounce rate, how do you know if it's any good? When should the alarm bells start ringing? Whilst there are some general rules (see later), you need to bear in mind that bounce rates will vary between sites and use cases. At Focus we've built quite a few online directories for local authorities - and organisations listed in these directories tend to have high search engine rankings for specific key terms (such as their names). In this case, a user might want some contact information for an organisation - and having done a keyword search in an engine such as Google, they see the details they need in our Directory and leave the site having the information they require. In this instance - a high bounce rate, but the site has fulfilled the needs of the user.

eCommerce sites are a different story - generally we want users to convert, that is, land on a product page, move deeper into the site, use the basket and checkout. So high bounce rates on eCommerce sites are of poor value to the business and these pages need to be reviewed as priority.

Remember what was said before - look at the bounce rates of individual sections of your site rather than the site as a whole. If you are a charity, an overall bounce rate of 65% for the whole site will probably cause panic. What's more important though is to look at bounce rates for sections such as the donation facility - if 65% of users are leaving that section after one page, there's clearly some usability issues that need looking at. Taking each section at a time - with the most important sections addressed first - will help provide structure and reassurance, rather than trying to tackle the whole picture head-on.

Back to those rules then, and these are to be taken as general guides only:

  • bounce rates of 60% or over: take a snapshot, review your content as soon as you can and start planning some changes.
  • bounce rates of 25% to 60%: are generally the average, these should make up the majority of your report.
  • bounce rates below 25%: great, but don't ignore them. Make sure these pages are working really hard as clearly they are engaging the user, so ensure you include promotional news, or offers, or target them to really drive that 'call to action' and web site conversion.

Where you feel that your bounce rate is a bit scary, you'll want to consider making some changes:

  • review your content, is it out of date or innaccurate, does it engage the user? See our article on writing good content for the web, which is aimed at charities but has guidelines for all.
  • look at web site usability, is it obvious enough to the user where to go next? Does the site layout and navigation inhibit users from getting further into your site, and completing the desired 'call to action'? This is particularly crucial for landing pages used as part of PPC campaigns - literally money can be being poured away through poor design.
  • check how quickly your pages load, nothing whacks up the bounce rate like a slow loading web site.

It's also worth noting that Google Analytics allows you to check the bounce rate from mobile devices. If you've got a high bounce rate from iPhones, Androids etc the key reason could be users are hitting your 'non mobile' web site. With more and more people using their phones and tablets to view the web, having a site that's 'mobile-usable' is more important than ever.

So for starters, that's a whole lot of bouncing. We hope you've found the information above interesting and useful (well, about as interesting as stats can be....)

If you've got any questions then do get in touch, and we'll be publishing more web analytics blogs in the near future, so keep an eye out for more hints, tips and advice.

Simon Newing

Created on Thursday June 27 2013 08:25 AM

Tags: google ux usability analytics101

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