Need for speed: How HuffPost cut page-load time by 8 seconds in its app

A little over two months ago, HuffPost changed the way it loads articles within its app, which led to significant speed improvements.

By switching from pulling articles from the mobile web to natively uploading them within the app, load times in iOS went from nine seconds to under one second, and load times in Android declined from five seconds to under one second. HuffPost said the faster load times led to an 8 percent increase in article views per visit, but it declined to provide raw numbers. Although the change improves user experience, loading articles within the app requires HuffPost to devote more resources whenever it makes changes to how it presents articles in its app.

“The fact that web-view hybrids make development processes slightly simpler for us doesn’t matter to users,” said Julia Beizer, HuffPost’s head of product. “From our point of view, it has been worth the investment in [loading articles natively in the app] to give our users the rich, fast experiences they’re expecting.”

HuffPost sped up its load times at a critical juncture for publishers. With mobile eating media, speed has become increasingly important. That’s led publishers to adopt fast-loading article features like Facebook Instant Articles and Google AMP, even though users are harder to monetize on these platforms than they are on publishers’ own properties. Although HuffPost remains bullish on platforms, a fast-loading app benefits the publisher by giving it speed while keeping users engaged on its owned-and-operated property.

Prior to loading articles within its app, HuffPost used to use a hybrid app where the app had its own navigation and settings screens, but when users clicked on articles, the pages were uploaded from the mobile web. Although pulling articles from the mobile web created slow load times for users, it was easier for HuffPost to make changes to how its articles were presented in its app.

With the old setup, HuffPost only had to make changes once, and they could do so without having to go through gatekeepers. Now that articles are loading within the app, changes must be made on both iOS and Android, and submitted to the app stores for approval. The Apple App Store can take up to two weeks to approve and implement changes.

Another challenge was creating code that would allow various embeds to load natively within the app, Beizer said.

For example, let’s say a HuffPost writer embeds a tweet, Instagram photo and YouTube video into an article. For that article to load within the app while still showing all of the content, HuffPost must create its own code for Twitter, Instagram and YouTube embeds.

What makes this difficult is that there are dozens of websites and platforms that writers source from when embedding content into their articles, and developers have to adapt by creating new code whenever they spot an embed from a new source. And while social platforms give publishers access to their APIs to facilitate embeds, publishers themselves generally wall off their own APIs because they want more control over the reporting and tracking of their video players.

So if HuffPost were to embed a video from another publisher, like ABC, for example, it likely wouldn’t have access to ABC’s API to create an ABC embed code for the HuffPost app. When this happens, HuffPost’s app defaults to loading articles the old way, by pulling them from the mobile web, which results in slower load times. This occurs for about 10 percent of HuffPost articles, Beizer said.

To make the swap to natively uploading articles, six software engineers worked for about three months. For now, HuffPost articles have the same design on the mobile web and within the app. But the company is experimenting with how to tailor designs for the app, Beizer said.

HuffPost focused on the speed improvements first because “we thought the most important experience we could change was improving load times,” she said.

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