What Is Prefetching and Why Use It
In today's fast-paced digital world, website loading times have become increasingly important. Visitors expect websites to load quickly, and if a site takes too long to load, they're likely to leave and find an alternative. Fortunately, web developers have access to a powerful technique called prefetching that can significantly improve website performance and reduce loading times.
In this article, we'll explore what prefetching is, how it works, and why you should use it.
What is prefetching?
There are a variety of ways web developers can help speed up a website. They can bring content closer to their visitors, optimize their content through compression, set high expiry times so that assets remain in their browser longer, and more. However, what if we were able to implement a way for content to already be almost instantaneously available to a visitor uponrequest - in comes prefetching.
Prefetching allows a browser to silently fetch the necessary resources needed to display content that a user might access in the near future. The browser is able to store these resources in its cache enabling it to deliver the requested data faster. Therefore, once a web page has finished loading and the idle time has passed, the browser begins downloading other resources. Once a user clicks on a particular link that has already been prefetched, they will see the content instantly.
Types of prefetching
There are three main types of prefetching that exist. The most popular and widely used method is link prefetching. However, DNS prefetching and prerendering are also useful options and each serves its own purpose.
Link prefetching, as discussed in the previous section, is a mechanism that allows the browser to fetch resources for content that is assumed the user will request. W3C defines it as such:
The prefetch link relation type is used to identify a resource that might be required by the next navigation, and that the user agent SHOULD fetch, such that the user agent can deliver a faster response once the resource is requested in the future.
The browser will look for
prefetch in either an HTML
<link> or the HTTP header
Link, for example:
<link rel="prefetch" href="/uploads/images/pic.png">
- HTTP header:
Link: </uploads/images/pic.png>; rel=prefetch
As can be seen in the image below,
prefetch has been adopted by most major browsers with the exclusion of Safari, iOS Safari, and Opera Mini.
One downside to link prefetching is that given the event that a user doesn't navigate to the page with the prefetched asset, their browser will have already unnecessarily fetched the asset in the background, thus increasing the size of its cache without any realized benefit.
A DNS or domain name server converts IP addresses in readable website URLs such as yourwebsite.com. Whenever a user requests an asset being hosted on a particular domain they must perform a DNS lookup and find which domain name that IP address belongs to. This process takes time and the most DNS lookups that are required, the longer your visitors will be waiting for a page to load.
DNS prefetching allows the browser to perform the DNS lookups for links on a page in the background while the user browses the current page. This minimizes latency as when the user clicks on a link with DNS
prefetch enabled, they do not have to wait for the DNS lookup to take place as it already has.
prefetch can be added to a specific URL by adding the
rel= tag to the link attribute like so:
<link rel="dns-prefetch" href="https://www.keycdn.com">
Similar to link
prefetch has also been adopted by most modern browsers.
Prerendering is similar to prefetching in that it gathers the resources needed to display a page that the user may navigate to next. Although the main difference is that instead of just downloading the required resources, prerendering actually renders the entire page in the background. The page is hidden, although if the user navigates to the page, the hidden page will replace the current tab and will display the page the user requested.
The diagram below shows a visual demonstration of what happens when prerender is used.
Prerendering is the least supported type of prefetching across the major browsers. Supported only by Edge, Chrome, Opera, Chrome for Android, Opera Mobile and Android Browser.
Why Use Prefetching?
Now that we've explored what prefetching is and the different types of prefetching techniques let's look at some of the benefits of using prefetching.
The primary benefit of prefetching is improved website performance. By loading content in the background, prefetching can significantly reduce the time it takes for pages to load. This can have a big impact on the user experience, as faster loading times can improve engagement and reduce bounce rates. According to Google, if a page takes more than three seconds to load, over half of the users will abandon the site.
Latency is the time it takes for a request to be sent from the user's browser to the server and for the server to respond. Prefetching can help to reduce latency by preloading resources before they're actually needed. This means that when the user clicks on a link or performs an action, the content is already stored in the cache, reducing the time it takes to load the page.
Improved user experience
By improving website performance and reducing latency, prefetching can significantly improve the user experience. This can result in higher engagement, increased conversions, and reduced bounce rates. Users are more likely to return to websites that load quickly and provide a smooth browsing experience.
Reduced bandwidth usage
Prefetching can also help to reduce bandwidth usage, as resources are loaded in the background rather than when the user clicks on a link or performs n action. This can be especially useful for mobile users who may have limited data plans or slower connections. By reducing the amount of data that needs to be transferred, prefetching can help to improve the overall browsing experience for users.
Website performance is an important factor in search engine rankings. Google has indicated that page speed is a ranking factor, so improving website performance can help to improve SEO. By using prefetching, web developers can improve website performance, reduce page load times, and potentially improve search engine rankings.
Best practices for using prefetching
While prefetching can provide significant benefits, it's important to use it properly to ensure that it doesn't negatively impact website performance. Here are some best practices for using prefetching effectively:
Only prefetch what's necessary
It's important to only prefetch resources that are necessary for the current page. Prefetching too many resources can increase the time it takes for the page to load and can impact website performance negatively.
Use link prefetching for external resources
For pages with lots of external resources, such as images or videos, link prefetching can be a useful technique. This allows the browser to start loading these resources in the background while the user is still browsing the page.
Use DNS Prefetching for external domains
DNS prefetching can be especially useful for websites that use content delivery networks (CDNs). By resolving domain names in advance, the browser can start loading resources from these domains as soon as possible.
Test and monitor performance
Finally, it's important to test and monitor website performance to ensure that prefetching is having a positive impact. Tools such as Google PageSpeed Insights and WebPageTest can be used to analyze website performance and identify areas for improvement.
Popular search engines such as Bing and Google are known for using
prefetch to deliver results to users when a search is made. When the user enters their search query, the search engine goes ahead and delivers the results to the user. Based on which results a user typically visits (usually the first or second) the resources for these pages are then prefetched resulting in a faster loading time if the user clicks the link.
prefetch is a useful tool for speeding up the web, there are also a few cons to using it. For example, websites such as Google who use prefetch, are using the website owner's bandwidth to load the page that a user may not actually visit. The same goes for tracking page views in Google Analytics, the user may not actually visit the prefetched site, however, a page view will still be recorded.
CDNs and prefetching
Using prefetching in conjunction with a CDN is good practice and often used to further speed up a website's load time. Although both involve a level of fetching data and storing it, they act in different capacities. A CDN fetches data from the origin server and caches it on an edge server near its visitors. On the other hand, prefetching retrieves data (either from a CDN's edge server or an origin server) and caches it in the browser.
Although both methods are different, they can work together to improve loading times. In fact, we're using prefetching on our main site as can be seen below.
Prefetching is without a doubt a useful browser mechanism to make use of. It's ability to fetch resources to deliver content faster while the user browses their current page makes it an appealing feature for both website owners and viewers alike. For more information and a detailed list of frequently asked questions, consult Mozilla's prefetching FAQ page.