Saturday, September 7, 2013

Fix the browser back button

I have always found the scripts running on web pages disturbing, but specifically with tablets running over wireless it has become very noticeable that when you go back to the previous page in the browser, these scripts cause a significant delay in rendering the page. I don’t notice it that much on my desktop due to the fixed line connection and the extra computing power, but most of my information consumption is done via tablets where this annoying.

This is specifically the case for newspaper websites, for example, where you click on an article from the home page, read the article and want to go back to the home page to look for other information. A previous web page is in principle cached by your browser. However it generally will check again with the server if there is a new version of the page and it will re-run the scripts on the web page. I suggest that browser makers change this behaviour. If you just visited a web page and go back to it, just show exactly what was in the cache and allow the user to scroll through the page and click on hyperlinks. Don’t check the server. Don’t re-run the scripts.

There will be complaints coming from the marketeers who want to count the return to the page as a second visit and even more when it comes down to dynamic scripts for advertisements. Free information needs to be paid by something, so I am OK with advertisements. But why not just suspend the scripts temporarily while you have left the page and when you return, continue the execution? The browser would need to maintain a run-state of the page and you probably can only do this for a certain number of past pages. Given that an IOS app and a tab of the browser do something similar, we should be able to do this for web pages as well.

If I had anything to say about how to build newspaper websites, I would build them rather differently. Clicking on an article should show the article in a popup so you don’t leave the home page. You read the article, close it and you’re back at your starting point without the need to re-load that page. There are many good technologies to achieve this. In addition, I would use all those cookies that you already have placed in my browser cache to know a bit more of me. Using this information, you should start loading articles that I most likely will view in the background. This will make it a much smoother reading experience. I haven’t followed the latest developments in browser technology and it might be that browser makers may need to include some capabilities for this, though I belief this can be achieved already now.

Furthermore, newspaper makers should be much smarter with targeting content. They probably will tell me to take an (online) subscription, but even as an anonymous recurring visitor you should be able to do something smart. The Sydney Morning Herald should have figured out by now that in the sport section, I never click on a rugby article while often will read the football articles. If they want to earn their money through advertising, they probably like me to visit their website frequently. And for that they will need to provide me with relevant content.

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