Seconds matter

The real-world risks of a slow mobile website

Originally published 2017

These days, more and more potential clients want to find an attorney fast. And with today’s technology, they can.

They might have just been hit from behind in their cars. They might just have received a call at work from a son or daughter in trouble. They might not be anywhere near a traditional computer. For privacy reasons, they might not want to conduct a personal web search on their work computer. Or they may simply prefer the tool they keep close at hand and top of mind — their smartphone.

By and large, law firms have been responding to the new digital rules of marketing their services. They know they need a website that has been optimized for mobile devices. More and more of them understand that a fast-rendering site — one that appears quickly on the visitor’s smartphone screen — is crucial to their digital marketing programs. For law firms’ digital marketing efforts, speed is of the essence.

But what is website speed? The answer is not as obvious as it might seem. That is because numerous factors influence it. And that is why it is helpful to understand those factors — and how they affect the speed at which your mobile website renders. Take advantage of the tools and benchmarks at your disposal that can help you and your mobile-site vendor measure and evaluate the elements that speed website delivery, or slow it down. With this information, you and your vendor can develop strategies for boosting performance.

The bottom line:

Your firm’s website must render quickly on mobile devices if it is going to deliver results. And the results you want are, of course, more visitors looking closely at your site, and more visitors contacting your firm.

The price of a slow site

Speaking of fast, Americans are adopting mobile devices at an extraordinary pace. According to a January 2017 report from the Pew Research Center, 77 percent of Americans now own a smartphone. That is more than double the percentage of U.S. citizens who owned such a device in 2011.¹ And it is just about equal to the percentage of Americans who own a desktop or laptop computer.² It should not come as too big of a surprise, then, that Americans spend 71 percent of their online time on mobile devices, a category that includes smartphones and tablets.³

More to the point for your practice, as much as 50 percent of your website traffic could be coming from mobile devices, as is the case with FindLaw customers.

For most small law firms, a detail as technical as download speed is easy to ignore, often for lack of technological know-how and an inability to take meaningful actions themselves. But attorneys who do not invest in both time and resources to optimize their website’s download speed will wind up paying two prices: the human price and the digital price.

The human price

The human price of a slow mobile website is easy to understand. Mobile users today expect to get information quickly. That is especially true of hurried legal consumers, who don’t want to waste time, even seconds, finding legal help:

  • One in five acts within a day of their legal need and nearly two in five within a week.⁴
  • 61 percent of legal consumers only consider one attorney, so you have a small window to make a positive first impression.⁴
  • Half of legal consumers visit just three or fewer websites prior to contacting an attorney.⁴

And if mobile consumers do not get answers from a site as quickly as they wish, they are typically quick to move on. According to Google, 61 percent of users are unlikely to return to a slow-loading mobile site — and 40 percent visit a competitor’s site instead.⁵ As download speed slows, visitors are more likely to disappear, or “bounce.”

The numbers are dire

Adding just seconds to the load time of a mobile website dramatically increases the probability of a bounce.⁶

3 seconds 5 seconds 6 seconds 10 seconds
Chance of bounce Chance of bounce Chance of bounce Chance of bounce
+32% +90% +105% +123%

As you can see, it does not take much to lose a visitor. Even a couple of seconds can make a huge difference. Mobile consumers are not patient browsers. They are used to a speedy response from a website. Indeed, they are so used to speed that they have come to demand it.

Let’s translate those numbers to a real-world setting. Start with the total number of potential clients in a given geographical and practice area. Subtract those who don’t use the web to find legal help, who decide not to contact an attorney, and who don’t have a viable case. You can call the pool of legal consumers that remains your “best case” marketing scenario.

Now, let us assume your mobile website loads several seconds slower. Based on the Google findings cited above, there’s a dangerously significant chance that a visitor could leave before actually looking at your site. Those visitors who stick around might still become clients, but that will be in spite of your mobile website, not because of it. And with referrals and word of mouth remaining a major contributor to legal business, a slow website might actually deter those referrals from calling you.

Note something else: Mobile conversion rates — that is, the percentage of site visitors who “convert” into paying customers — are lower than desktop conversion rates. In fact, current data suggests that mobile visitors convert at about one-fourth to one-third the rate of those who access a site via their desktops or laptops.⁷

This could be due to a multitude of reasons, including page speed, quality of content and user experience. It may be because smartphone and tablet users are more likely to use their devices for browsing and “shopping around” rather than making a prompt decision. Whether legal consumers use their mobile devices in the same way — and convert at the same rate — is not yet clear.

Still, the general pattern is obvious. Mobile websites are attracting more visitors than desktop sites, but the conversion behaviors are not changing at the same rate. In the face of this challenge, your firm’s mobile site needs to deliver the kind of experience that potential clients seek. That means a clear, concise description of your legal specialties; easily accessible contact fields; and a marketing message that drives toward an effective call to action. And this all needs to appear on the screen in as few seconds as possible.

Mobile websites are attracting more visitors than desktop sites, but conversion behaviors are not changing at the same rate.

A mobile website that does not deliver this experience can hurt how your firm is perceived by potential clients. And that is not the only way a slow site can harm the effectiveness of your digital marketing.

The digital price

Not only do legal consumers using mobile devices expect speed from a law firm’s website — search engines expect it, too. And the evidence suggests that slower load times could mean less visibility.

Google has already indicated that loading speed will continue to grow in relevance to its search algorithms. Historically, the giant of search has given multiple indications as to what it considers important. For several years, Google has shown a growing preference for mobile sites — and ones that download quickly.⁸

In 2014, Google added mobile usability to their Webmaster Tools (now, Google Search Console) and began including “mobile-friendly” labels on relevant search results. The message? Google is making note of those sites that play well with mobile. Soon thereafter, Google marked the release of a widely publicized “mobile-friendly” update to its search rankings. While that change was far less disruptive than some predicted, the shift sparked a flurry of discussions and mobile-friendliness checks across the web.

In 2016, Google began adding behind-the-scenes updates to its page speed ranking factors to focus specifically on mobile page speed. And in late 2016, the search engine began testing its mobile-first index.⁹

All this suggests that Google is considering page speed as a crucial factor in how it ranks sites in search results. Indeed, FindLaw predicts that page speed will continue to influence search engine rank and visibility.

In other words, your firm’s site should perform to the standards of your competitors and the expectations of your audience — that is, potential clients. If your site does not deliver well on all devices—especially those most commonly used by legal consumers — you might well be putting your firm’s growth at risk.

So how do you ascertain your mobile website meets the needs of your market? Quantifying your mobile page speed requires more than anecdotal evidence. Thankfully, you do not need to be an information technology specialist as well as a practicing attorney to assess your situation. Simply gaining a basic familiarity with the factors that drive mobile website speed will allow you to build the kind of digital experience that can successfully attract potential clients.

Measuring your mobile speed

Again, myriad factors influence how fast or slow your site loads on a consumer’s phone, tablet, or desktop. These include the overall activity on the network and the hardware capabilities of the connected device. There also are many more factors that fall, to one degree or another, under the control of your web developer. These include how your website is built, where it is hosted, and what types of content are being delivered to your audience.

You can think of it something like this: You’re a grocer. A customer driving to your supermarket encounters numerous factors that affect the speed of their experience. There are variables over which you have no control: traffic, time of day, whether the customer is driving or taking public transit, and so on. And there are factors you can control. Those include available parking, aisle width, and the number of check-out lanes. Translating this analogy to your mobile website’s performance, you can see that your job, and that of your vendor, is to focus on the consumer’s experience you control — once he or she arrives at your site.

Several digital tools can help you evaluate the performance of your mobile site’s various attributes related to download speed. These tools typically look at one or more of the following factors:

  • Server time response: This is a measure of the time it takes your host server to respond to a mobile consumer. It is also referred to as time to first byte, or TTFB.¹⁰
  • Page element load time: Very simply, this is how long it takes for each element on a website page — not only visible images but also invisible code, such as JavaScript — to deliver to the visitor’s mobile screen.
  • Code base: This describes how a website is coded. The number of lines, coding style and even structure can affect how quickly a web browser processes the source code and displays the site content.

In contrast to the more specific measures of server response and page element speeds, code base evaluation yields only a theoretical indicator of how fast a site could load.

There are many speed-measurement tools available — GTmetrix, Yslow, Webpagetest. org and Pingdom, to name just a few. Most of these tools offer visitors at least one free test of their sites. Each of these evaluation tools’ results includes a report not only on the speed but the factors that are slowing down delivery of the site. (These tools typically make their money by offering additional features for a price.) These are also called “waterfall tools” because their reports include waterfall charts that sort out the speeds of each site element in the order it loads.

It is no wonder that Google has its own speed-measurement tool, PageSpeed. Google is, of course, the predominant search engine on the web. So, it would make perfect sense to rely on this tool and to build your mobile website to meet Google’s standards. That might lead you to base your mobile site’s design and coding on how PageSpeed evaluates and “scores” its performance.

But there is a caveat

PageSpeed is just like any other tool — helpful, but only for what it measures. In this case, the tool scores websites based on server response and code base, including use of external resources like images or CSS, to name a few.

These elements can indeed affect your site’s page load time, but they’re not all that matters. In fact, while Google’s tool offers valuable speed-related feedback to web developers, the score itself is in part based on theoretical rather than actual performance. Not accounted for in this tool are the load times for individual page elements. These often impact page speed, but their real-world delivery rates aren’t measured by this tool.

In assessing your site’s speed, however, you need to take a holistic view. Making an assessment based solely on a single test or metric, such as impressions, contacts, or visits, provides an incomplete picture.

A website can perform well on one tool but receive a noticeably different score on another. In order to get a complete picture of your website’s loading speed, the best practice is to evaluate the site by using multiple assessments, including different waterfall tools. That way, you will be better able to determine the best strategies for reducing the time it takes your site to render.

Boosting your mobile speed

The high number of speed-measurement tools out there reflects the fact that there are many elements in your site’s design that affect loading speed. Here are some fundamental strategies for boosting your mobile website’s rendering speed:

  • Compress and optimize images. Carefully chosen photographs make a website attractive; your firm’s logo helps brand your practice in the legal consumer’s mind. But on a mobile site, images can slow the site’s rendering. Your website vendor should optimize images for fast delivery. The vendor also should keep their number to a minimum.
  • Avoid landing-page redirects. You have undoubtedly noted in your own online browsing that some sites you visit will redirect you to another site with a different URL. There may be good reasons for a site’s landing page to redirect to a different address. But there are no good reasons for your mobile site to do so. You can lose seconds in loading — and thus lose potential clients.
  • Prioritize visible content. Along with the images, there are hidden coding elements embedded in your site’s design. Since all content, visible and invisible, loads in a specified order, your site should load the visible items first, wherever possible. After all, that visible content is what your visitor is searching for.
  • Minify HTML, JavaScript and cascading style sheets (CSS). Computer programmers use the term “minification” to refer to the act of minimizing or reducing the number of “characters” in a page’s source code. HTML, JavaScript, and CSS are the three core code technologies for creating website content. (CSS, for instance, specifies such elements as font characteristics and the general appearance of the site’s visual layout.) Because mobile sites are typically less complex than desktop sites — and therefore require fewer code elements — they load quickly. In fact, too many coding elements can slow down the rendering of your site.
  • Employ a Content Delivery Network (CDN). A CDN is a distributed network of servers that delivers web content based on the geographic location of the user, the origin of the web content and a content delivery server. It might seem remarkable in our digital age, but physical distance actually does matter when sending data. By shortening the distance between server and user, you can increase the speed at which your content arrives.

Again, consider all of this information an introduction to the current science on mobile website speed. It could help you and your website vendor discuss ways to optimize the speed of your site’s mobile delivery.

Meeting with your vendor

Your vendor should understand your firm, its specialties and its client base — including, of course, potential clients. When you meet to discuss your site’s performance, here are some fundamental issues worth addressing:

  • Your site’s traffic sources. How much mobile traffic are you getting now, and how has that changed in recent years? If the trend is flat or down, your site may be receiving negative word-of-mouth “reviews” or diminished search visibility.
  • Your site’s bounce rate. Getting people to your website isn’t enough. They have to stay on-site long enough to learn what makes your firm the right choice. If your bounce rate is unreasonable, it’s time to take a fresh look at your online visitor experience.
  • Your site’s conversion performance. As we noted earlier, the number of visitors your site receives does not necessarily correlate to the number of leads or cases the site delivers. That is especially true with mobile sites. What might your mobile site’s conversion rate be telling you about the site’s speed?
  • Your site’s performance across multiple metrics. The internet is full of valuable website assessment tools. If you discover that your site scores well on some tests but not others, no need to worry. Such discrepancies certainly warrant a closer look, but they might not require a wholesale revamping of your website or any major changes.

When you meet with your vendor to tune up your firm’s mobile site, you can look at the specific information and images your site delivers, and the software it uses to deliver it. Traffic, conversion and technical performance are all factors to examine when assessing the experience your website offers legal consumers. Page delivery speed is a key element of that experience, to be sure. But it is not the only one.

In summation

  • Mobile speed is crucial, both to legal consumers and to search engines. That is why it is crucial to make certain your firm’s mobile website is designed to load as quickly as possible.
  • Several factors influence how fast or slow a mobile website loads. As we have discussed, some are visible to visitors, some are not.
  • Take a holistic view. Since so many factors affect website loading speeding, it is useful to focus beyond just one or two metrics — or tests. Using a variety of evaluation tools and measurements can help you determine whether your mobile site needs an overhaul or just a simple tune-up.

Evaluating the speed of your firm’s mobile site is something worth doing as soon as you can. After all, potential clients certainly will not wait. However, as you strive to improve your website’s performance, be certain your vendor sees the whole picture. True success will come when your website strikes a balance between addressing the search visibility needs of your firm and the specific, human needs of your audience.


  1. “Record Shares of Americans Now Own Smartphones, Have Home Broadband,” Pew Research Center Fact Tank, Jan. 12, 2017
  2. “Mobile Fact Sheet,” Pew Research Center, Jan. 12, 2017
  3. “Mobile Marketing Statistics Compilation,” Smart Insights, March 1, 2017
  4. FindLaw 2016 U.S. Consumer Legal Needs Survey
  5. “Why Marketers Should Keep Sending You Emails,” McKinsey & Co., August 2014
  6. “Find Out How You Stack Up to New Industry Benchmarks for Mobile Page Speed,” Google, 2017
  7. “Ecommerce Conversion Rates,” SmartInsights.com, March 2, 2017
  8. “Google’s Shift to Mobile-First: Mobile Moments That Matter,” Search Engine Land, Nov. 29, 2016
  9. “Google Says Page Speed Ranking Factor to Use Mobile Page Speed for Mobile Sites in Upcoming Months,” Search Engine Land, June 1, 2016
  10. “How to Reduce Server Response Times,” Rigor.com, Sept. 13, 2016

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