High Performance Web Sites: Rule 1 – Make Fewer HTTP Requests

In The Importance of Front-End Performance, I reveal that 80% of the end-user response time is spent on the front-end. Most of this time is tied up in downloading all the components in the page: images, stylesheets, scripts, Flash, etc. Reducing the number of components in turn reduces the number of HTTP requests required to render the page. This is the key to faster pages.

One way to reduce the number of components in the page is to simplify the page's design. But is there a way to build pages with richer content while also achieving fast response times? Here are some techniques for reducing the number of HTTP requests, while still supporting rich page designs.

Image maps combine multiple images into a single image. The overall size is about the same, but reducing the number of HTTP requests speeds up the page. Image maps only work if the images are contiguous in the page, such as a navigation bar. Defining the coordinates of image maps can be tedious and error prone.

CSS Sprites are the preferred method for reducing the number of image requests. Combine all the images in your page into a single image and use the CSS background-image and background-position properties to display the desired image segment.

Inline images use the data: URL scheme to embed the image data in the actual page. This can increase the size of your HTML document. Combining inline images into your (cached) stylesheets is a way to reduce HTTP requests and avoid increasing the size of your pages.

Combined files are a way to reduce the number of HTTP requests by combining all scripts into a single script, and similarly combining all stylesheets into a single stylesheet. It's a simple idea that hasn't seen wide adoption. The ten top U.S. web sites average 7 scripts and 2 stylesheets per page. Combining files is more challenging when the scripts and stylesheets vary from page to page, but making this part of your release process improves response times.

Reducing the number of HTTP requests in your page is the place to start. This is the most important guideline for improving performance for first time visitors. As described in Tenni Theurer's blog Browser Cache Usage - Exposed!, 40-60% of daily visitors to your site come in with an empty cache. Making your page fast for these first time visitors is key to a better user experience.

Steve Souders

[Steve Souders is Yahoo!'s Chief Performance Yahoo!. This is one in a series of Best Practices for Speeding Up Your Web Site. This article is based on Steve's book High Performance Web Sites, published by O'Reilly.]