Will Google Chrome’s slow site badges really make the web better?

On Monday, November 11, Google’s Chrome browser development team announced that it might in the future “identify sites that typically load fast or slow for users.”

Should Google Chrome warn potential visitors that a site is slow? Is labeling slow sites fair?

The team plans to test out various visual indicators to warn potential visitors of slow websites. That could include displaying a splash screen while a slower site loads, or graphics or icons identifying links that lead to a slow site.

This labeling will take place in gradual steps, with “increasingly stringent criteria” as each is rolled out. Chrome’s development team says they’re being “very mindful” about their “approach to setting the bar” for good user experience.

Google Chrome developers' proposed slow site warning scheme
Source: Chromium Blog

They hope, they say, to land on something “practically achievable by all developers.”

And that is the problem.

Content Management Systems opened up the web

Today, well over half of all websites are powered by a Content Management System or platform such as WordPress

Before the rise of WordPress and similar consumer-grade CMSes, pretty much only developers – or people with the budgets to hire them – could create websites.

WordPress democratized the internet. People of average means and knowledge could suddenly share their voices. Start online businesses. Grow brick and mortar businesses.

Graph showing the rise in CMS use from 2011 to 2016.
Source: W3Techs

Before there was WordPress or any other CMS, I was a broke single mom of two, working and attending college. Somewhere in between all that, I invested countless hours to learn the language of the web (then HTML; later, CSS and JavaScript).

I struggled. I was a writer, not a CS major. Fortunately, I was good at figuring things out.

I learned HTML in bits and pieces, as I had time. If there had been a more direct route to getting on the web, I might’ve dug my family out of poverty sooner.

I can’t change the fact that I had to learn to be a developer before I could build even a simple website. But I’m glad people like Sarah Titus and Kara Fidd didn’t have that barrier. Hers is by far not the only online success story that did not start with coding.

My perspective

For over a decade, I built websites for corporate clients with budgets in the multiple tens of thousands of dollars. These sites sat on powerful servers, tended to by IT departments and backend developers.

Racks and servers in a huge server farm.
Photo by Manuel Geissinger from Pexels

I’m not really a “proper” developer these days. I still know what one looks like, though. And I appreciate more than most the developer contributions that let average folk skip the steps I had to take.

Developers, however, should not be the web’s gatekeepers.

Actually, no one should. But that’s a whole separate topic.

Google is too dev-centric

Chrome developers’ badging plans are, I believe, a step further in the direction of Google dictating what the web should look like. It may not stop with speed.

“Our long-term goal is to define badging for high-quality experiences, which may include signals beyond just speed.”

Moving toward a faster web” – Chromium Blog

Even if we accept that Google only wants to make the web better, developers’ “better” isn’t necessarily better for the web.

More troubling than the badging itself is that the team doesn’t seem to grasp the fact that millions of small and micro businesses are run by non-developer site owners. People who don’t have developers at their disposal.

The Chrome team’s focus on something “achievable by all developers” completely discounts half the web.

JavaScript displayed on a computer screen.
Photo by Markus Spiske temporausch.com from Pexels

It’s probably true that if all website owners were developers (or hired them), speed issues wouldn’t be so prevalent.

Also true: The web would be an uglier and far less enjoyable place.

Google site speed tools are confusing for average site owners

Google seems to feel they’ve done their part by providing tools to help sort out site speed issues: PageSpeed Insights. Lighthouse, Chrome Developer Tools, WebPageTest, and others.

But who are those tools for?

Marketer or developer trying to build a business case for improving user experience of your website. You speak dollars and cents and are looking for monetary figures that can help you quantify the opportunity cost and expected lift.”

Developer trying to understand current performance of your site, as experienced by real-world Chrome users, and looking for audit recommendations against top industry trends and guidelines.”

Developer trying to understand and audit a website against modern web performance best practices.”

Developer looking for technical guidance on how to debug/deep dive into the performance of your site.”

Google Developers website.
How to Think About Speed Tools” – Google Developers

In short, not for the everyday entrepreneur or blogger.

If Google’s aim is truly to help people understand why their sites are slow and fix them, they need to do things differently.

They could start by creating simpler tools that aren’t dev-focused. Or, just don’t punish a website out of existence before its owner can nail the speed aspects of running it.

Bad websites are already judged

I see slow site issues with, I believe, more nuance than most.

As a former developer, I understand the repercussions of making technology easy. When a site owner can get a feature by clicking once or twice – instead of personally writing hundreds of lines of code – why not add it?

But at the same time, I witness their learning process. I see them struggle with losing visitors because of poor performance. Visitors who might otherwise have meant revenue, but who are merciless with the back button when a site’s too slow.

Frustrated woman hitting back button on slow mobile website.

In my experience, that’s all the motivation most site owners need. When they see their numbers drop, they seek help, figure out where they went wrong, and get their sites in order.

Without a damn label.

Yes, I’ll tell anyone running a website that they ought to appreciate the code behind it (even if they didn’t write it), and be aware that code can negatively affect performance.

But I also think the plan to badge slow sites is wrong-headed and heavy handed.

WordPress and other CMSes democratized the web. Now, it feels like we’re on the verge of undoing some of that progress by publicly shaming into submission a huge swath of creators and businesses – many of whom lack the technical knowledge or developer budget to comply.

We haven’t yet oversimplified the web

When WordPress really started booming, I worried I’d no longer be able to earn a living working on websites. As it turns out, I found more work.

That’s because code is just one of many elements involved in creating a successful website.

So even though our clients are often able to get on the web all by themselves, they eventually have dozens of other related things to figure out.

Woman blogger working on laptop.

Audience engagement. Usability. Design. SEO. Advertising. Marketing. Networking. Products or services. E-mail lists. And often, technical issues. It can be overwhelming.

But, thanks to WordPress and a few other WYSIWYG platforms, they have the biggest thing of all. A website starter kit, if you will. And it is powerful.

They’ll get it all sorted, including site speed. While they’re working on it, the public should be free to decide whether the content is worth the wait. Not some algorithm.

Google seems to be listening, at least

It’s early. They just floated the idea out there. Pretty much all we know about it is what’s in the blog post.

Still, I’m concerned.

Instead of waiting for Google to do whatever it plans to do, I reached out to Addy Osmani. He’s the engineering manager leading Chrome’s efforts to “set the bar” (their words) for site speed.

I shared my specific concerns that a) traditional small businesses won’t adapt well, and b) although “kitchen table” micro businesses may figure it out more quickly, badging would hurt many before they got their issues sorted.

Not that I needed validation, but it’s not just me fussing about the badging. Several prominent tech websites (including Engadget, The Verge and Cult of Mac) wrote about it using verbiage like “badge of shame” and “site shaming.”

Osmani replied “Impact to small businesses and fears of gate-keeping have come in loud and clear.”

He shared the chart below (the dev team is apparently tracking all the feedback).

Google Chrome speed badging sentiment summary chart
Source: Addy Osmani

Unfortunately, it appears that Chrome devs are hell-bent on doing something to indicate speed (or lack of). Exactly what could be shaped by what they hear.

That’s why I encourage you to reach out to the Chrome development team if you’re at all concerned about how this will affect the web in general or you specifically.

Twitter is the best place to get in touch; you’ll find Addy Osmani at @AddyOsmani. The team may in the future set up a more formalized public comment thread. If I hear about it, I’ll update this post.

In the meantime, “Don’t wait to optimize your site”

That’s directly from Google.

If you thought slow site speed hurt now, there’s a good chance it’ll hurt worse if Chrome developers move forward with their badging plans.

We’ve written a ton about how to speed up a slow WordPress site. The best place to start is with our mega-list of 105+ simple things that help site speed (don’t worry about its size – it’s super organized, and you don’t have to do them all at once…every little bit helps).

Or if you don’t have the time or inclination to do this on your own, we can help with our WordPress Optimization Service.

What do you think?

Is labeling sites to indicate speed a good idea? If it started today, how do you think it would it affect your site? Will you change anything because of the planned badging?

Leave a comment below and let us hear your thoughts.