Before August, digital sports publisher GiveMeSport had struggled with a page-load speed problem. Its 5-year-old site had become cluttered with ads and heavy code causing its user experience to suffer and individual page loads to take up to 20 seconds, according to the publisher.

To tackle this, the publisher scrapped its former site and started afresh with leaner progressive web-app features like push notifications and the ability to work offline. Meanwhile, on the ad side, GMS flew in the face of typical viewability-target pressures and culled its ad count from an average 11 per page to four.

Those changes have reduced its page-load speed to within one and five seconds, depending on Wifi or 4G / 5G connections — which is a 15% increase in its Google page-load score, according to the publisher. GMS has 3.2 million monthly unique visitors, according to Comscore.

Publishers are under continuous pressure to monetize their sites, often to the detriment of the user experience and page-load speed. Those reliant on programmatic advertising for revenue in particular have previously opened the floodgates to ad tech vendors dropping tags in order to monetize impressions.

Given site speed is one of Google’s key signals for ranking pages, improving its site speed has helped boost GMS direct traffic by 63% year over year, according to the publisher. Users are 123% more likely to bounce if a page takes up to 10 seconds to load, according to Google — a statistic that had put the fear into GMS’s team for some months. If a page’s load time drops to between one and five seconds, users are only 32% likely to bounce, according to Google.

“Improving your click-through rate from Google by just 1% will be much more impactful than trying to crowbar traffic to your site from social networks who specifically don’t want you to leave their app,” said Dan Ayers, consulting partner at digital sports consultancy Seven League. “It will also deliver higher-quality traffic, so more time on site and more pages per session.”

The changes have also meant the publisher hasn’t had to rely on viewability hacks in order to hit its viewability targets, but which damaged user experience, according to Dean Drury, product director at GMS. “If an ad loaded and took 10 seconds to load, and the content only five seconds, there was a risk that a user would read the content and leave before you could count that as a view,” he said. The publisher would, therefore, have to slow down the loading of the content, in the hope the user would stick around long enough for the ad to load too.

“Since we launched the lightweight version and removed the ads, we’ve seen users get far more engaged and spend more time viewing the content and the ads. It was a bold decision [removing ads,] but it has paid off,” added Drury.

The site is built as a progressive web app, so it mimics similar features and interface to a mobile device, such as push notifications and a lean web infrastructure. That’s helped cut infrastructure costs by 75%, according to the publisher. The GMS team sent questions about how it should improve the site to 700 of its Facebook followers over a two-week period, conversations which informed the final product direction.

GMS had already undergone a content facelift in January when it refocused its editorial output away from the clickbait-style content it was previously known for, toward more premium, in-depth articles and video content. In April, it launched women’s vertical, whose video output is 90% video. But the ad experience and overall site experience hadn’t quite caught up to it, until now.

GMS relies predominantly on programmatic-guaranteed deals for video, with display revenue split across the open marketplace and private deals. OPM accounts for roughly 70% of inventory sold, with the remainder split across PG, private marketplace and direct deals. Display ad yields have increased 17% year over year since the new site launched a month ago, though the publisher wouldn’t reveal specifics for fear of buyers then trying to game them.

But improving the overall user experience has resulted in two six-figure branded-content deals, which the publisher wouldn’t have managed to close with its previous version, according to Ryan Skeggs, chief commercial officer of GMS. “It’s given our sales team more confidence when demonstrating the product in pitches. Those deals simply wouldn’t have come in before this launch. This is just a month in, we expect these changes to lead to far more deals like this in future,” he said.

Sports publishing is more competitive than ever. New entrants coming from over the pond, such as The Athletic, have made big marketing splashes over the last few months and poached key sports journalists from other U.K. nationals as a signal of intent. The Athletic has a subscriptions model, so it won’t necessarily be a direct rival to GMS, but any new premium entrant ups the ante on retaining readers not necessarily loyal to legacy brands anymore. If a site user experience is bad or repeatedly takes too long to load, they’re not likely to return in a hurry.

“Any move like this which speeds up page-load time and moves a site out of the trash-tier UX category is to be welcomed,” said Ayers. “The Athletic is partly basing its subscription model on people being happy to pay to get away from unreadable or unloadable articles,” he added.

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