Last week I tried to book a trip on my favorite airline, Virgin America. I love everything about them: their planes, the service, the staff,… the entire experience is just amazing. Plus I was lucky enough to purchase some of their special vouchers on Gilt (another company I love).

However, this time I faced frustration on their website as for some reasons I could not get the date picker to work. The entire page was visible but I could not interact with it. No love back!

Annoyed, I started digging into what was getting on the way. Fired up the Chrome dev tools and also ran tests on Catchpoint to see what was being loaded and what was failing to load.

To load http://www.VirginAmerica.com my browser had to:

  • Download 167 Objects (Images, CSS, Javascript files)
  • Connect to 51 unique hosts
  • Download 1 million bytes.

What are those 51 hosts? Two of the hosts were required to load the content that mattered to me on the page: static.virginamerica.com & www.virginamerica.com. The other 49 hosts did not deliver any content required for me as a user to buy my tickets (I tracked SSL and Non SSL hosts as seperate hostnames). They were all tracking pixels for ads/marketing and analytics tags.

Number of Hosts on Virgin America

By looking at the various requests, I discovered that a call to one of the analytics tags on the page was hanging and made the page 100% unusable. After a few unsuccessful refreshes of the page I decided to block the offending domain using OpenDNS to get the site to work again and purchased my ticket!

I am a big believer in Online Advertising and in Analytics. Heck, I worked for DoubleClick & Google for 11 Years and I know that many if not all these companies spend a great deal of money on monitoring their performance.

However, lately I have observed an interesting trend: Webpages are becoming bloated with third party tags which often cause user experience problems, all of this culminating in a battle between the IT and Marketing teams on what actions should be taken.

For many companies the Marketing team has direct access to the site content and can place third party tags live without proper testing or asking themselves: How is this tag going to impact my performance? What will the impact be on the experiences of my end users? Is the revenue generated by this tag worth the user frustration.

The IT and web development teams are constantly trying to do more with less money or fighting battles they know they will lose and they give up. I have also found out that for several companies the IT operations teams ignore problems from third party tags (even when reported by third party monitoring solutions like ours). Main reason is simple; they do not have the means to correct the problem. Yet end users are impacted – and action is not taken until someone else in IT notices performance numbers creeping up – or users complain on Twitter, Facebook, or Forums.

This is a dangerous path. There are several tools and techniques out there to make sure these 3rd party tags do not impact your end user experience:

Another important point to keep in mind is that even if you have optimized the tags so they do not impact performance, all these JavaScripts might not play nice with each other inside the browser. Hence, you might want to have some approval process – which includes extensive testing of the vendors tags in actual webpages.

The VirginAmerica page looked like a busy airport with 167 planes from 49 different airlines landing at the same time and no Air Traffic Controller.

Safe travel and please do care about your End User Experience.

Mehdi – Catchpoint

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I compared it to AA, Delta, Southwest and Jetblue – it turned out Virgin has the most 3rd party tags:

Number of Host by Airline's web site

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Photo Credit: Artist Ho-Yeol Ryu – Check out his amazing Gallery.

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