Why we launched a third-party tag review service

Would you hand over control of your website to a complete stranger?

Many of us do just that when we include third-party code on a web page, often without knowing exactly what it does. In fact, it’s hard to find many websites that don’t include at least a few scripts from third-party domains (more commonly known as tags).

There are a number of very good reasons for this. Sometimes, it’s a matter of convenience. If someone else is hosting a free tool for sharing content on social media, why not take advantage of that? Most of us also use a third-party service for analytics or monitoring. And many retailers and publishers rely on remarketing or advertising services, very often from a wide range of third-party providers.

Generally, these services offer tremendous value, and they can be worth millions to the bigger sites.

But what happens when they go wrong?

For example, what if a third-party tag fails to load?

If it’s a blocking tag (which generally means a synchronously loaded script), the consequences can be disastrous for the host site. When a browser encounters the script, it stops building the web page while it waits for the file to load. If the third-party script can’t load for some reason, visitors may be left staring at a blank or partially built page for a very long time. Even under normal circumstances, blocking scripts are frequently responsible for slowing websites down, driving away potential customers.

Fortunately, most third-party providers now offer asynchronous solutions that mean we should soon be able consign this kind of issue to the recycle bin of history. However, this is not always an option, and plenty of websites are still using old, synchronous, versions of tags when updated, asynchronous, versions are available.

However, even asynchronous tags can cause problems, particularly if they add extra content and/or styles to the page. And even when tags don’t interfere with the display of the host page, things can still go awry. For example, if a tag fails to load – or if its load time is typically longer than the time visitors remain on the page – it can’t do its job. Data or revenue may be lost as a result.

Tag management solutions were developed to deal with some of these problems, but they don’t always address all of them. Sometimes, they can make matters worse.

At NCC Group Web Performance, we’ve been aware of the issues raised by third-party content for some time. They quite often come up in performance health checks and reviews. Given how widespread – and potentially serious – these issues are, we decided to take things a step further a launch a range of services designed to help organisations understand and reorganise the third-party content on their site.

We’ve been helped by Paul Cook, founder of TagMan (the first tag management solution) and one of the world’s leading authorities on third-party tags. It’s probably fair to say that no one understands the issues better, and he’s been instrumental in helping us develop our new third-party tag audit and review services.

Any review will start with an audit, to get a clear picture of any issues, after which we can follow up with a more in-depth investigation, complete with training and recommendations. Ultimately, we hope to be able to shed some light on what is often a murky and misunderstood world, and help customers get the benefits of third-party services without the drawbacks.

Did your website have problems this morning?

If your website was unresponsive or slow to deliver certain content this morning, you might be wondering why.

We noticed that more than a few sites were displaying errors earlier today, and we decided to investigate.

It turns out that components from a popular third-party ad network were either taking very long to load or failing altogether. The service is used by more than 100 of our customers, and the chart below shows how data start times jumped from about 7:20am. The issue continued for another two hours, effectively cutting off an important source of revenue for the duration.
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NCC Group’s Web Performance & Optimisation conference – a round-up

Every year, we invite customers to an event that’s dedicated to learning how to make the web faster. This year, the conference took place in London on 14 May, and we were fortunate to have around 100 delegates, plus a number of excellent speakers.
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