Facebook’s Instant Articles Satisfy the Need for Speed (Report)

The main selling point behind the Instant Articles iPhone application feature Facebook announced in May was quicker load times. Did the social network deliver?

The main selling point behind the Instant Articles iPhone application feature Facebook announced in May was quicker load times. Did the social network deliver?

Online performance monitoring outfit Catchpoint Systems analyzed network requests for Instant Articles on Facebook and found the answer to be a resounding “yes.”

Catchpoint Systems focused on an article from National Geographic, “Quest for a Superbee,” and the company detailed its findings:

We compared the Instant Article to its counterpart from National Geographic’s website–what users are linked to when reading the article anywhere other than Facebook for iOS. While the page loads relatively quickly in the small amount of samples we took–DomContentLoaded in 500 milliseconds and onload in 2 seconds, on average–the page still must load 233 host requests with 2 megabytes of content overall.

Since there is no onload or DomContentLoaded equivalent in iOS, it is not possible to do a perfect apples-to-apples comparison. What is relevant is: Since the article is preloaded, it appears to load instantly in the eyes of the end-user.

Therefore, it’s fair to say that the article has the equivalent of 0 ms load time, and in most tests we performed, no single request exceeded 300 ms. That is very fast, much faster than the performance of a typical news page on a mobile device. When the Facebook page containing the article is loaded, the user will see the article thumbnail relatively quickly (as the risk of requesting from a slower external source is eliminated since contents load from Facebook’s servers, to which the user is already connected).

Another factor that presents obstacles to making a direct comparison between the two versions is the amount of media within the article; the native version on the National Geographic site is, interestingly, less rich in media. For example, the Instant Article features mp3 audio files, a video and more images embedded directly in the article. While the native article on National Geographic’s site includes some of the same content, it is all linked to different pages, with the exception of four thumbnails and a banner image.

Since we tested through a backbone-based WiFi network in order to use a proxy for sniffing the traffic, it is unclear if any of this traffic is reduced using network aware development, so there may be a chance that Facebook sends less content on the wire for third-generation and fourth-generation connections. However, aside from possible optimization pertaining to bandwidth consumption, the Instant Articles are a great improvement in mobile user experience.

Catchpoint Systems concluded:

Catchpoint Systems’ analysis shows that Facebook Instant Articles are indeed “instant,” or as fast as possible given the variables that mobile users encounter in the real world.

By addressing a major issue (excessive third-party tags and externally hosted objects) that slows down the load time of news sites, Facebook is creating a new standard in news consumption. Instant Articles heralds a major improvement in the mobile user experience.

Readers: Have you encountered any Facebook Instant Articles yet? What did you think of their load speeds?

InstantArticlesiOSArticle InstantArticlesiOSMap InstantArticlesiOSPhoto InstantArticlesiOSVideo

david.cohen@adweek.com David Cohen is editor of Adweek's Social Pro Daily.