Third-Party Services: Good Intentions Gone Wrong?

Apr 27, 2018

Article ImageWhen the digital publishing industry was still in its infancy, publishers’ biggest challenge was converting their print issues to the digital world. Easy enough.

Today, things have gotten far more complicated for content creators. With the ability to publish news at the click of a button, competition has become fierce. Bottom lines are directly dependent on website traffic (after all, that’s what fuels ad spend), and today’s publishers strive to provide the most delightful, engaging and rewarding user experiences possible.

In order to do this, they rely on armies of third-party software services and ad networks to boost engagement, optimize the online experience and monetize traffic. Today’s average website has roughly 75 different services running on it – everything from web analytics and personalization tags, to ad networks and chatbots.

It’s clear why publishers integrate these outside vendors into their website ecosystems; each generates unique value in reaching desired user experience and business objectives. The intentions are good. What’s less clear is the hidden risks associated with deployment. With these good intentions come potentially negative impacts on site performance, as well as risks to privacy and security.

Despite the possible downfalls, the use of third-party services is going to accelerate with advancements in engagement technology and continued digital transformation – so how do you ensure your good intentions don’t go wrong?

Understand Your Inventory

It’s impossible to understand the impact of third-party services – positive or negative – without knowing exactly what is running on your domains. In today’s ultra-competitive digital landscape, publishers are quick to test a myriad of third-party tools without fully comprehending what is being introduced to the site in the process. Complicating the matter even further is the fact that many third-party services require fourth- and even fifth-party services to fulfill their purpose and provide value.

A prime example of this is the use of omnichannel personalization platforms. Individualized, contextual online journeys have become the norm. Where good intentions could potentially go wrong is when your third-party personalization platform integrates with additional software. This fourth-party software integrates to provide the third-party service what it needs to deliver a tailored experience but also may collect website user data without consent – raising a plethora of privacy issues.

Equally detrimental to organizational success is the impact these integrations have on page load times. Website admins are under the impression that a single snippet of code pasted into their own code will only make one call to one server when in fact countless unauthorized server calls to various software services are often triggered. With many of these unauthorized calls resulting in redirects, a ping-pong effect is created as each redirected call bounces from server to server, wasting valuable load time. With bounce rates increasing significantly with every additional fraction of a second in page load time, good intentions result in an early user exit.

In order to ensure third-party services are not jeopardizing site performance and security, full visibility into fourth- and fifth-party sources accompanying them is crucial.

Do the Math

Let’s crunch some numbers. If the average website has 75 outside services running at a given time, and those services update their code several times a month, websites have more than 200 code changes happening per month which must be monitored and managed.

In spite of thoroughly testing a new service for ill effects prior to implementation, a code change to the tested service is practically the same as introducing a new, untested service, and can present significant risks. Many publishers have grown wise to the impact of unmanaged code changes on the user experience and implement code freezes prior to anticipated periods of heightened traffic. But, unlike online retail traffic patterns, publisher website traffic is not as easy to predict, and continually monitoring these changes is essential to organizational success.

From slow page load times to errors in one or multiple sections of your site, and in some cases, even site shut-downs and denials of service, these changes can wreak havoc on the user experience. Furthermore, with the EU’s GDPR going into effect in less than a month and additional data privacy regulations on the horizon, ensuring code changes do not infringe on complying with privacy policies has never been more important.

Make a Good First Impression

A visitor’s first impression is your best opportunity to capture their attention and minimize bounce rates. Knowing this, publishers place their most engaging content at the top of the page, where its impact is far greater than “below the fold.”

Third-party services are also intended to make glowing first impressions – whether it be a chatbot greeting you with a warm welcome or a targeted ad that uses analytics to provide a highly personalized offer upon site entrance.

But again, these good intentions can prove disastrous if not handled with care. Since content “above the fold” has the greatest impact on site performance, understanding exactly where your third-party script is located in the code, above or below, is of great importance. If the script is located above, the delivery and impact of strategically positioned content can be greatly diminished. In order to achieve this understanding, website operators must identify the portion of the HTML that represents the division between above and below.

If your third-party code is above the fold, and it’s not imperative to be in that position, simply move it further down for optimized user experience with the page’s most engaging content. If keeping this code above the fold is a necessity, you still have the opportunity to ensure good intentions produce good results. To prioritize and make sure your most important content loads first, site operators can apply one of the two strategies: Use asynchronous JavaScript or implement content prioritization. With an asynchronous JavaScript, your website code does not need to wait for third-party servers to respond to requests so your site can load without waiting for these scripts to finish. With content prioritization, you can simply restructure your HTML so critical aspects load first, with third-party content following.

Third-party services are implemented with the best of intentions. But, if not monitored and managed correctly, the juice may not be worth the squeeze. The key to a winning third-party strategy is full visibility into their impact to ensure good intentions don’t go wrong.

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