What makes a mobile Web connection slow? In some cases, it's the carriers' network. But often it's because Web pages wasn't designed to load quickly on wireless devices.
Long delay can cause consumers to give up on purchases altogether, and the risk is more acute on mobile phones. Twice as many mobile-phone users abandon websites for reasons such as sluggishness than their desktop counterparts. The result: lost revenue for online sellers.
To fix the problem, Google is tweaking its mobile browser and working to change the way basic Internet technologies work.
Faster mobile Web loads could increase mobile-commerce sales in the U.S. by 10 percent, or about $600 million a year, said Sucharita Mulpuru, an analyst at Forrester.
"There's a big business impact to these kind of struggles," said Geoff Galat, vice president of worldwide marketing at Tealeaf Technology Inc., a provider of website software.
Faster mobile Web speeds also translate into additional mobile-ad revenue. A 30 percent improvement in speed could lead to a 15 percent rise in ad sales, said Trevor Healy, chief executive officer of mobile-ad provider Amobee Inc. U.S. mobile-advertising spending will reach $2.61 billion this year.
While carriers adopting 4G networks have helped speeds, those upgrades won't have the biggest impact, said Craig Mathias, founder of consulting firm Farpoint Group in Massachusetts. Improvements to servers, browsers and other Internet software are more important.
Google has plenty of company. Akamai Technologies, Microsoft, Mozilla and a slew of startups are all focused on the same goal.
The effort could help mobile speeds catch up with desktop rates by 2014, said Lelah Manz, chief strategist for e-commerce at Akamai. For now, wired users are far ahead.
"Mobile has to catch up," Manz said. "Your shoppers are more distracted on a mobile device, and the performance is more important."
To get there, Google has been tweaking its Chrome Web browser for Android, its popular smartphone operating system. The software will rely more heavily on artificial intelligence in predicting what Web address someone wants to visit and then start loading the page while the user is still typing.
Google also is pushing for revisions to Internet protocols the decades-old rules that govern the way the Web functions so they can better handle the quirks of modern mobile networks.
Akamai, meanwhile, is working with Ericsson AB, the world's largest maker of wireless networks, to develop special technology that carriers can use to provide priority Web access to users of retail websites, Manz said.
Startups are plunging into mobile Web optimization as well. For the past two months, CloudFlare Inc. has been testing a feature called Polish, which automatically goes through images on websites and ensures they are compressed correctly. Mobile-app maker Onavo Mobile Ltd. makes sure images load only when users scroll down to the part of the Web page where the pictures would be visible.
For retailers, such technical advances can't come soon enough. Said Jonathan Johnson, president of retailer Overstock.com Inc., a Web discounter based in Salt Lake City: "The longer purchasers have to wait, the more frustrated they get, and the more likely they are to leave the site."