With lessons from Google, The Washington Post has brought its page load speed down to milliseconds
Under the ownership of Jeff Bezos, The Washington Post has become a fount of editorial innovation. There's Arc, The Post's home-cooked content management system that's now being sold to other news organizations. The Post was the first major daily newspaper to adopt HTTPS, a move that is gaining adherents throughout the news industry. And it's built an engineering corps 200 staffers strong.
Further evidence of that prowess is now on display in the form of a "progressive web app," a new effort from The Washington Post to cut down on the time required for its journalism to display on mobile devices.
If the term "progressive web app" sounds unfamiliar, that's probably because it's a relatively new concept for the media industry in the United States, said David Merrell, a senior product manager at The Washington Post. Such apps, which offer a slimmed-down version of a site's content, are more popular in overseas markets where data is far more expensive and users have lower-quality phones.
In a nutshell, progressive web apps combine the technology of native apps (the kind you might download on your phone) with the look and feel of a website to create a high-performance experience for news audiences, Merrell said. It uses features normally associated with read-later apps (think Paper or Pocket) and pre-caches content in the background to speed up loading times.
The app has its origins in The Washington Post's months-long collaboration with Google to develop Accelerated Mobile Pages, the burgeoning web standard that allows news organizations to create a lightweight version of their sites for phones, tablets and other devices. During the work with Google, The Post learned several tricks to cut down on page load speed, which they built into the progressive web app.
Loading speed has been a focus at The Post for the last two years at least. In 2013, the Post's page loading speed was somewhere around eight seconds, according to Digiday. As of July 2015, that time was cut down to 1.7 seconds — an 85 percent improvement gained by shedding bulky features that took too long to load. With the progressive web app, article pages load in 80 milliseconds, Merrell said.
That's so fast, it's imperceptible to the human eye, he said.
“Eighty milliseconds is an incredible speed," Merrell said. "We weren’t expecting to get it that low."
Progressive web apps rely on privileged data from the user's device to work, so they're only possible through HTTPS, a secure web protocol beginning to catch on in the news industry, Merrell said. In addition to the Post, WIRED, BuzzFeed and The Texas Tribune have all adopted HTTPS, citing the security of their users as justification for doing so.
The progressive web app is currently in beta, but The Post is working on the demo and will likely roll it out for wider consumption. One hurdle: The app currently doesn't allow for third-party ads (they extend the page-load time) so Merrell says it's important to make them compatible with the progressive web app before mass adoption can begin.
“I don’t (believe) anyone thinks that we’re done, that we’re putting it out there and declaring, 'this is the future of The Washington Post,'" Merrell said.