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GDPR Changes Highlight the Impact of User Tracking

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The European Union's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) went into effect on May 25th, 2018, with the most obvious impact being a flurry of emails notifying users of changes in privacy policies. As websites determined how to comply with the wide-reaching data privacy regulation, developers quickly observed significant benefits in page load performance.

The USA Today website has been the most cited example, with the payload of the European version of their website decreasing by nearly 90%, primarily improved by the removal of many user tracking scripts. USA Today also used the GDPR as a reason to improve the overall front-end engineering of their website, leading to further performance improvements. Marcel Freinbichler, a web developer from Austria, explained the results on Twitter:

Freinbichler noted similar improvements for the Verge:

The Verge shows a tracking-consent message when visiting the site from the EU. Most people will click "I Accept" to make it go away, but if you don't and hide the message via CSS, you won't be tracked and the site is way faster: 32 vs. 5 second load time, 61 vs. 2 JavaScript files, and 2 vs. 1 MB payload.

Erlend Eide of ServeBolt explains how GDPR inspired their organization to optimize and improve performance, by improving the Time To First Byte (TTFB):

A high TTFB is usually caused by slow server performance, or it may be caused by high latency on the client-server network connection.

Eide adds that the most significant cause of performance latency on websites is JavaScript from third-party services.

All online service providers want to place a script on your website. Google, Facebook, Linkedin, Adwords, Tag Manager – and you name it. We had our own mix of services we had tested and used for some period of time, and services we just had added out of pure and simple convenience. There are usually better, and more specific ways to achieve the same goals as these scripts give you.

Overall, ServeBolt was able to reduce their average page load time from 4 seconds to 1 second.

Tammy Everts of SpeedCurve reports that the average web page based on data from HTTP Archive has increased in size from 929KB in 2011 to more than 3MB in 2017. Image file sizes are the most signifcant contributors to this increase, with scripts being the second most significant contributing factor.

The impact of user tracking scripts on performance is not a new concept, but the GDPR has brought the impact to light to a broader audience. Google Developers provides a robust guide for optimizing content efficiency including third-party JavaScript.

Whether focused on complying with GDPR or not, developers are strongly encouraged to analyze the performance impact of third-party user tracking scripts and follow instructions on efficiently loading third-party resources.

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