To Launch a PWA, Forbes Had to Change Its Culture First
In the online world, and in particular mobile, the old adage “time is money” rings true. Publishers with slow, unreliable mobile sites risk high bounce rates and missed revenue opportunities. That was the challenge Forbes faced last year when it compared the start render time -- how long it takes for the first content element on a page to display in a browser -- to similar sites. Its mobile site ranked second to last with a start render time of 6.5 seconds, beat out by sites like The Huffington Post, Financial Times, Business Insider, and The New York Times.
Salah Zalatimo, SVP of Product and Tech at Forbes Media, explained at the FUSE Media Summit in September that Forbes decided to solve for its mobile site speed by developing a Progressive Web App (PWA), a web experience that Google has been pushing since 2015. [Watch Salah's full presentation below.] A PWA is a mobile-friendly website that offers an app-like experience with a smooth, engaging interface. PWAs even work offline; they can be installed to a user's home screen with no downloading involved. A PWA is native-app-meets-'net, you might say—the best of both worlds in one clean, super-fast package.
Forbes was one of the very first major publishers to roll out a PWA—a fairly groundbreaking decision in and of itself. The results, said Zalatimo, have been dramatic, with significantly higher traffic, longer sessions, and greater ad impressions.
Why Forbes Built a Progressive Web App
If you look at Forbes.com on a mobile device today, you may be among the 25% of users who see the new mobile site Forbes developed. It now loads in just 2.5 seconds, and Forbes hopes to roll out that experience to the rest of its mobile users by early 2018.
A significantly quicker load time, however, is just one of the benefits of the new Forbes PWA. According to Zalatimo, Forbes decided to develop a PWA because it would provide unparalleled reliability and speed to readers, thus increasing engagement and revenue.
"Why should reliability matter to a publisher?" Zalatimo asked. "Well, I can give you a lot of different answers, but it comes down to the bottom line."
One of the major promises of a PWA is absolutely no site down time. Even if a network is unreliable, or there is no internet connection, a reader can access a PWA and the content on it. After being downloaded to a device's home screen, a PWA's content can be read wherever a user wants, and at whichever time they prefer. That means mobile readers can access Forbes more often, providing the publisher with greater opportunities to monetize those readers.
As far as the implications of speed are concerned, it’s clear that a fast website has a positive impact on publishers’ bottom line. In 2016, Google released a study that reported 53% of mobile users abandon sites that take longer than 3 seconds to load. Conversely, fast-loading pages saw higher ad viewability, longer sessions, and a lower bounce rate, all of which have a direct impact on revenue.
Finally, both speed and reliability ultimately lead to more engagement, said Zalatimo, which also translates to greater revenue. “It’s not a huge stretch to say that if they’re engaged better and longer, we have more opportunity to earn more revenue,” said Zalatimo.
How Forbes Built A Progressive Web App
Because a PWA looks and operates so differently than a traditional static mobile website, the process of implementing one can easily lead to an organizational culture clash, Zalatimo warned.
"What we were trying to create with the PWA," he said, "was a very high technical bar." It's worth bearing in mind, however, that it isn't solely an organization's tech team that will be affected by the changes a PWA has the ability to bring. Indeed, Forbes needed to implement major cultural changes throughout a broad swath of its departments, specifically because of the innovative software development model it deployed in building the PWA—a process known as continuous deployment.
As its name suggests, continuous deployment is a development process by which new features and updates, no matter how small they may be, can be released in a virtually nonstop fashion. This model is in direct opposition to the more traditional method of releasing updates, a process that can often take months or even years. So instead of making users wait six, or eight, or ten months for a completely rehashed PWA, Forbes is pushing out small but important changes and tweaks in real-time, as its developers complete their work. This was, of course, an enormous cultural and process change for Forbes, but a necessary one nonetheless.
As Zalatimo explained, "Making a mobile website that is reliable, fast, and engaging is really difficult. Doing that while you are ad supported requires almost flawless execution. So everything needs to be done with utmost discipline."
Along with pursuing a culture and a development philosophy of minimalism, Forbes chose the continuous deployment process as its vehicle for achieving those goals. But as Zalatimo pointed out, the continuous deployment approach requires both a mentality change and a habit change. "It's having people appreciate that risk is equally distributed," he said. "Everybody is accountable in an equal amount of ways for a different part of the process."
Zalatimo shared six components that support a successful continuous development strategy and how Forbes implemented these organizational and cultural changes.
- Stakeholder Alignment: If publishers are trying to build something that requires input from different parts of their organization, every team and every employee needs to be aligned, said Zalatimo. That's because in an environment where continuous deployment is the norm, "there's no time for, 'I'll get back to you next week,' or, 'I'm not sure about this,'" he added. "Kicking the can down the road has to fundamentally be unaccepted."
- Test-Driven Development: This is a process during which developers write code that checks itself. In fact, before developers even write the code, they write a test that the code has to pass, and then write code that will pass that test. "This is a profound change in the way a developer approaches solving a problem," Zalatimo said, "because when they're pushing code to production, the code is checking itself on its way."
- Cloud Infrastructure: "Why is using the cloud important?" Zalatimo asked. "Well, because we need to be nimble. We need to be fast. We might need to have 15 different test environments spun up or down at any given time. Cloud infrastructure gives you that ability."
- Individual Development Sandboxes: "This might be a little granular," Zalatimo admitted, "but the importance of it can't be understated. What this means," he said, "is that every single developer has their own server. They build their own changes, and they can share their changes to stakeholders without having to merge and go to staging and deal with merge conflicts."
- QA Automation: While it's true that having test-driven development in place mitigates much of the need for standard quality assurance, there's no way to check for human error at that stage. With QA automation, Zalatimo explained, "You figure out what can break, what often breaks, and you write code to run that script by itself. So it's a computer doing the QA."
- Fluid Release Schedule: With a fluid release schedule, developers can push to production whenever they want. That's because once a system like the one described here is in place, each developer's work can make its way through the pipeline without encountering bottlenecks or finding itself dependent on other developers.
Prior to implementing its Progressive Web App, the Forbes mobile site's Start Render time was, at 6.5 seconds, the second-slowest among its competitors. Now, at 2.5 seconds, it's the fastest. The gesture-driven site is also much more visually appealing, and yes, it's engaging, reliable, and fast.
According to Zalatimo, regarding the 75% of the mobile site's users who still get the old experience, "We are slowly working towards 100%. But it looks like it's probably going to be the beginning of 2018 before we get there, for various reasons."
Even still, the faster site has seen a 20% increase in impressions per page, and a 12% increase in the number of users that get to the site. Forbes.com has also had a 6x increase in the number of readers completing articles. "So by being faster, and more reliable, and more engaging," Zalatimo said, "we've made more money."
Dan Eldridge is a journalist and guidebook author based in Philadelphia's historic Old City district, where he and his partner own and operate Kaya Aerial Yoga, the city's only aerial yoga studio. A longtime cultural reporter, Eldridge also writes about small business and entrepreneurship, travel, and the publishing industry. Follow him on Twitter at @YoungPioneers.