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Part I Chapter 5

Media

Introduction

Today, we live in the world of the visual web, where media provides the soul for websites. Websites use both images and videos to engage audiences by telling visual stories to inform and to entertain. This chapter analyses how we use (or in some cases, misuse) images and videos on the web.

Images

"A picture is worth a thousand words," but byte-wise, they often cost an order of magnitude or two more.

Images offer a most powerful pairing: instant communication, capable of triggering an innate emotional response. However, they are also much heavier than text, and require considered implementations to avoid bogging user experiences down. Let's explore how well modern browsers' capabilities are being leveraged.

Responsive HTML markup for images

While there are myriad approaches to embedding media using JavaScript, we were interested in the ongoing uptake of varying forms of HTML markup. Several responsive images approaches including the <picture> element, and srcset and sizes attributes have had growing support since first introduced in 2014.

Srcset

The srcset attribute enables the user agent to attempt to determine the most appropriate media asset to load from a candidate list.

For example:

<img srcset="images/example_3x.jpg 3x, images/example_2x.jpg 2x"
     src="images/example.jpg" alt="..." />

Around 26.5% of all pages now include srcset

The number of images presented to the user agents to choose from has direct implications for two main performance factors:

  1. Image breakpoints (to meet a performance budget)
  2. Caching efficiencies

The fewer the number of image candidates, the greater the likelihood of the asset being cached, and if a CDN is being used, the greater the likelihood of it being available on a client's nearest edge node. However the greater the difference in media dimensions, the more likely we are to end up serving media which is less-suited to the device and context in question.

Srcset: quantity of image candidates
Bar chart showing number of candidates on desktop and mobile. Most pages have 1-3 Candidates (58.82% on desktop, and 60.01% on mobile) especially if we extend to 1-5 candidates (82.79% on desktop and 83.52% on mobile). After that the drop off is sharp with 5-10 Candidates only having 13.12% on desktop and 12.42% on mobile. 10-15 Candidates is down to 1.96% on desktop and 1.87% on mobile and 15-20 Candidates has 0.55% on desktop 0.53% on mobile
Figure 5.1. Srcset number of candidates.

In addition to the caching inefficiencies already mentioned, a greater number of dimensional variants will typically increase both the complexity of the media pipeline or service in use, and the required media storage.

When looking at this data, note that a few platforms (such as WordPress) use automated approaches which impact a large number of sites.

Srcset: descriptors

When providing the candidate list to the user agent, we have two mechanisms to annotate the candidate images: x descriptors and w descriptors.

x descriptors describe the device pixel ratio of the specific resource. For example a 2x descriptor would indicate that the specific image resource is of twice the dimensional size in each axis (containing four times as many pixels) and is suitable for devices with a window.devicePixelRatio of 2. Likewise, a 3x descriptor signifies nine times the number of pixels, which of course can have considerable payload implications.

<img srcset="images/example_3x.jpg 3x, images/example_2x.jpg 2x"
     src="images/example.jpg" alt="..." />

w descriptors describe the candidate's pixel width, along with a sizes attribute that is used to select the appropriate image.

<img srcset="images/example_small.jpg 600w, images/example_medium.jpg 1400w, images/example_large.jpg 2400w"
     sizes="100vw"
     src="images/example_fallback.jpg" alt="..." />

Both approaches enable the user agent to mathematically factor in the current device pixel ratio when assessing the most appropriate image candidate.

Bar chart showing srcset descriptor usage for pages and images for desktop and mobile. 4.90% of desktop pages and 5.15% of mobile pages use descriptor x, compared with 21.37% of desktop pages and 21.33% of mobile for descriptor w. However when looking at all images we see 12.67% of desktop images and 12.80% of mobile images use descriptor x, compared with 21.37% of desktop and 21.33% of mobile for descriptor w.
Figure 5.2. Srcset descriptor usage.

In the early days of responsive images, some browsers only supported x descriptors, but clearly w descriptors are currently by far the most favored.

While it can be common to choose image candidates which are spaced by dimension (rendering every image at a set of pre-chosen widths, e.g. 720px, 1200px, and 1800px) there are also approaches to give more linear payload steps (e.g. a series of resources which are 50kb in difference). Tools like the Responsive Image Breakpoints Generator can be useful in facilitating this.

Sizes

Without the sizes attribute, the user agent will make its calculations based on a worst-case-scenario assumption that the image occupies the full width of the viewport. With it, browsers have more information about the image's actual layout size and can make better choices.

For example:

<img sizes="(min-width: 640px) 50vw, 100vw"
     srcset="images/example_small.jpg 600w, images/example_medium.jpg 1400w, images/example_large.jpg 2400w"
     src="images/example_fallback.jpg" alt="..." />
Stacked bar chart showing 65.35% of srcset images uses sizes on desktop, with the remaining 34.65% not using it. On mobile it is 64.95% using and the remaining 35.05 not using.
Figure 5.3. Use of sizes in srcset.

For the 2020 data around 35% of sites using srcset did not also combine it with sizes. Though the browser will happily fall back to a sizes="100vw" default, leaving the attribute off is technically incorrect, and we regularly encounter instances where this oversight means that the mathematics to determine the most appropriate image candidate are flawed, often leading to unnecessarily-large images being requested.

Many people that we have discussed this with express that sizes is particularly tricky to implement in a correct, resilient fashion, due to the need to ensure cross-resource alignment between layout (as managed and determined by CSS) and responsive image markup (in HTML).

Picture

While srcset and sizes provide us with tooling to help provide browsers with images which are dimensionally more suited for a given viewport, device and layout - the <picture> element enables us to provide more sophisticated media strategies, including leveraging more effective image formats and empowering us to explore “art direction”.

Stacked bar chart showing 19.30% of pages use <picture> on desktop and 80.70% do not. On mobile it is similar with 18.54% using and 81.46% not using.
Figure 5.4. Use of <picture>.

Current uptake shows around 19% of pages being served using the <picture> element serving at least one image.

Picture: format switching

While there are some services and image CDNs which can provide auto-format switching from a single image URL using logic on the backend, we can also achieve similar behaviors using markup alone, with the <picture> element.

<picture>
    <source type="image/webp" srcset="images/example.webp" />
    <img src="images/example.jpg" alt="..." />
</picture>

Breaking this down into the number of formats offered:

Bar chart showing number of formats in picture usage. 68.01% of pages on desktop (68.03% on mobile) use 1 format. 2 formats is 23.78% and 23.78% respectively, 3 formats is 7.00% and 6.97% and 4+ formats is only used on 1.21% and 1.22% pages respectively.
Figure 5.5. <picture> number of formats.

Of pages using <picture> for format-switching, around 68% are offering a single type variation, in addition to the <img src> which acts as the default.

Bar chart showing picture format usage by image type. WebP is dominate usage used by 83.29% of picture elements on desktop (84.64% on mobile). Next is PNG at 18.18% and 17.46%, followed by JPG used by 4.84% and 4.83% respectively, and then Gif at 0.53% and 0.53% and AVIF doesn't register above 0 for either client.
Figure 5.6. Picture format usage by type.

We see that WebP is the dominant usage across <source> elements, followed by PNG, and that and JPG is only 4.83% of <picture> usage.

Note our crawler crawls as Chrome which supports WebP, but if using another browser which does not support this then you will see different results.

Here is an example of the markup syntax that could be used to offer multiple format variants:

<picture>
  <source type="image/avif" srcset="images/example.avif" />
  <source type="image/webp" srcset="images/example.webp" />
  <source type="image/jp2" srcset="images/example.jp2" />
  <source type="image/vnd.ms-photo"  srcset="images/example.jxr" />
  <img src="images/example.jpg" alt="Description" />
</picture>

The user agent will effectively select the first one that it has a positive match on, and hence the ordering here is important.

Of those pages using <picture> for format switching, 83% offer WebP as one of the format variants, which in part relates to its growing browser support.

Format support across browsers is a movable feast: WebP has now got much broader support.

When constructing a set of fallback formats, authors must consider features, in addition to compression performance. For example, if an image contains transparency, a good "lowest-common denominator" to supply in the img src would be PNG. Then, one or more <source> elements containing next-generation formats that also support transparency – like WebP, JPEG 2000 and AVIF – could be used on top of that.

Similarly, consider stacking Animated WebPs or muted, looped, autoplaying MP4s on top of Animated GIFs (though mixing videos and images will have implications for the markup approach, and media processing needs).

There are three aspects to consider when implementing format-switching:

  • The browser format support landscape
  • A site's media pipeline: the processes it uses to create the needed media in a variety of formats
  • Implementing the markup to tell browsers which formats are on offer, and when to select each

Several Dynamic Media Services and Image CDNs can greatly simplify this by automating it and endeavoring to track and keep in sync with the ever-changing browser format support landscape.

Note: though AVIF has been supported in Chrome since version 85 (released late August 2020), the data for this Almanac is predominantly from prior to this time. However running an ad hoc query on more recent data from early November 2020 shows tens of thousands of AVIF requests.

Picture: media art direction

The media art direction capabilities offered by the <picture> element enable us to provide the kind of sophisticated viewport-dependent media manipulation that we have enjoyed when designing type and layouts for some time.

Consider how poorly landscape-oriented media with very wide-and-short aspect ratios (such as banners) works when squeezed into narrow, portrait-oriented mobile layouts. Adapting the crop or content of images based on media queries, is, in our opinion, an underutilized capability.

In this example, we are changing out the aspect ratio of the served media, from square (1:1) to 4:3 and eventually 16:9 depending on the viewport width, endeavoring to make the best use of the available space for our media:

<picture>
  <source media="(max-width: 780px)"
          srcset="image/example_square.jpg 1x, image/example_square_2x.jpg 2x" />
  <source media="(max-width: 1400px)"
          srcset="image/example_4_3_aspect.jpg 1x, image/example_4_3_aspect_2x.jpg 2x" />
  <source srcset="image/example_16_9_aspect.jpg 1x, image/example_16_9_aspect_2x.jpg 2x"/>
  <img src="image/example_fallback.jpg" alt="..." />
</picture>
Picture: orientation switching

While the data shows that only a little under 1% of pages using <picture> make use of orientation, this feels like an area that warrants further exploration from website designers and developers.

Bar chart showing 0.93% of desktop pages and 0.91% of mobile pages use <picture> with orientation. 0.59% of occurences of <picture> on desktop and 0.60% on mobile use orientation.
Figure 5.7. <picture> usage of orientation.

Mobile devices have small, constricted viewports, and are easy to turn from portrait to landscape mode in the hand. There is some interesting, underutilized potential for using the orientation media query.

Example syntax:

<picture>
  <source srcset="images/example_wide.jpg"
          media="(min-width: 960px) and (orientation: landscape)">
  <source srcset="images/example_tall.jpg"
          media="(min-width: 960px) and (orientation: portrait)">
  <img src="..." alt="..." />
</picture>

Effective leveraging of image formats

Using the appropriate image format and the capabilities that format offers is critical to make effective use of media on web pages.

MIME types vs extensions

We observed a high distribution of extensions and various spellings of the same extension (e.g., jpg vs JPG vs jpeg vs JPEG). In some cases the MIME type is also specified incorrectly. For example - image/jpeg is the correct and recognized MIME type for JPEG images. However we can see that 0.02% of all the pages that use JPEG have specified the incorrect MIME type. Furthermore we can see that an extension of pnj was used 28,420 times (likely to be a typo) and its MIME time was set to image/jpeg.

Bar chart showing image usage by extension. jpg is the most used format at 40.26% of mobile, png is next with 26.90%, followed by no extension at 17.44%, gif at 6.59%, svg at 3.13%, ico at 1.83% and jpeg at 1.36%. Desktop is very similar usage.
Figure 5.8. Image usage by extension.

We have seen further inconsistencies between extensions and MIME types - for example .jpgs delivered with a MIME type of image/webp, however it is likely that some of these are natural artifacts caused by Image CDN delivery services with on-the-fly transformation and optimization capabilities.

Progressive JPEGs

How common are progressive JPEGs? WebPageTest gives each page a "score," which adds up all of the JPEG bytes that were loaded from progressively-encoded JPEGs and divides it by the total number of JPEG bytes that could have been progressively encoded. The majority (57%) of pages served less than 25% of their JPEG-bytes, progressively. This represents a large opportunity for no-downsides compression savings, that's yet to be taken despite years of progressive JPEGs being a best practice and modern encoders like MozJPEG encoding progressively by default.

Bar chart showing progressive JPEG score. Desktop and mobile usage is approximately the same. 13.72% of mobile pages have a score < 0, 57.77% have a score of 0-25, 7.53% have a score of 25-50, 5.79% have a score of 50-75, and 15.19% have a score of 75-100.
Figure 5.9. Progressive JPEG score.

Microbrowsers

Let us turn now to the topic of microbrowsers. Also known as "link unfurlers" and "link expanders," these are the user agents that request webpages and grab bits and pieces from them to assemble rich previews when links are shared in messaging or on social media. The lingua franca of microbrowsers is Facebook's Open Graph protocol, so we looked at what percentage of webpages are including images and video specifically targeted towards microbrowsers in Open Graph <meta> tags.

Bar chart showing 33.78% of desktop pages and 32.72% of mobile pages us Open Graph with images, 0.09% of desktop and 0.10% of mobile pages use Open Graph with images, and it's the exact same percentages for both.
Figure 5.10. Open Graph image and video usage.

A third of web pages include images, in Open Graph tags, for microbrowsers. But only around 0.1 percent of pages include microbrowser-specific videos; just about every page that included a video, also included an image.

A third of sampled webpages seems very healthy; the power of relational, word-of-mouth marketing combined with microbrowser-tailored rich previews is clearly worth investing in.

Given that video content is expensive to produce and much less common on the web than images, we understand the comparatively low usage. But the fact that videos are often playable and even autoplay-able from within the link previews themselves, without requiring a trip to a full-on browser, means that this is a big opportunity for boosting engagement.

Bar chart showing the following percentage usage of various image formats on mobile: 50.51% for jpg, 43.82% for png,1.60% for gif, 1.78% for jpeg, 0.66% for svg, 0.31% for pnj, 0.36% for png:150, 0.28% for ico, and 0.23% for webp. Desktop has very similar numbers.
Figure 5.11. Open Graph image type usage.
Bar chart showing 68.55% of desktop pages and 78.57% of mobile pages use mp4 video format, 19.75% of desktop pages and 10.86% of mobile pages use swf format, and 2.64% of desktop pages and 2.83% of mobile pages use webm format.
Figure 5.12. Open Graph video type usage.

The Open Graph protocol only allows for one image or video URL to be included; there is none of the context-adaptive flexibility offered by <picture> and srcset. So, authors tend to be rather conservative when picking formats to send to microbrowsers. Fully half of all microbrowser-specific images are JPEGs; 45 percent are PNGs; a hair under 2 percent are GIFs. WebPs only account for 0.2% of images for microbrowsers.

Likewise, on the video front, the vast majority of resources are sent in the lowest-common-denominator format: MP4. We are mystified as to why the second most popular format is the now-depreciated SWF, and curious whether these are playable in any microbrowser.

Usage of rel=preconnect

Media assets can be stored either locally, or on an Image CDN. The way assets are optimized, transformed and delivered to the end user highly depends on the appropriate technique used. When including images from another domain, the rel=preconnect attribute can be used on a <link> element to give browsers an opportunity to initiate DNS connections before they are needed. While this is a relatively cheap operation, there could be situations when the additional CPU time spent establishing such connections delays other work.

8.19%
Figure 5.13. Mobile pages using preconnect.

Analyzing the markup, on desktop we see 7.83% of pages using this, and on mobile it is 8.19%. The Resource Hints chapter used a slightly different methodology by analyzing the DOM and got similar, but slightly larger, numbers at 8.15% and 8.65% respectively.

Usage of data: URLs

Using data URLs (formerly known as data URIs) is a technique that allows developers to embed a base64-encoded image directly in HTML. This ensures that an image will be fully loaded by the time that the HTML has been parsed into a DOM tree, and virtually guarantees that the image will be available for the first paint. However, because they don't compress over the wire as well as binaries, block other—possibly more important resources—from loading, and complicate caching, so base-64'd images are something of an antipattern.

9.10%
Figure 5.14. Mobile pages using data URIs.

The usage of these doesn't seem to be that widespread: 9% of pages utilize data URLs for displaying images. However, it should be noted that we only investigated HTML-embedded base64 encoded image srcs and did not include CSS-embedded base-64-encoded images for background-images or the like.

SEO & Accessibility

Associating descriptive text with images not only helps accessibility for those who can't view the images and utilize screen-readers, but it is also being used by various computer vision algorithms to understand the subject matter of an image. Descriptive text should be meaningful in the context of the page and relevant to the image it is describing. More information on these topics can be found in the SEO and Accessibility chapters.

Usage of alt text

The alt attribute for images is used to provide a description of the image. It is announced by screen-readers and is also shown in visual browsers when the image doesn't load.

Bar chart showing 96.26% of desktop pages and 96.04% of mobile pages have images present. 52.5% of desktop pages and 51.0% of mobile pages are missing alt attribute, 60.4% of desktop and 60.6% of mobile pages have blank alt attributes, and 83.6% of desktop and 82.1% of mobile pages have an alt present.
Figure 5.15. Image alt usage by page.
Bar chart showing 21.3% of mobile and 21.5% of desktop images are missing alt attributes, 26.2% of mobile and desktop images have blank alt attributes, and 52.5% of mobile and 52.3% of have alt attributes.
Figure 5.16. Image alt usage by image.

Around 96% of all the pages processed had an <img> element - 21% of these images were missing an alt attribute. 52% of the images had an alt attribute, however 26% of these were left blank. Put simply: only around a quarter of images on the web have a non-blank alt attribute; presumably even less than that have alt text that's usefully descriptive.

Figure & Figcaption

HTML5 added various new semantic elements to the language. One such element is <figure>, which can optionally contain a <figcaption> element as its child. Textual descriptions contained within <figcaption>s are semantically grouped with the other content of the <figure>.

Bar chart showing 12.34% of desktop pages and 12.16% of mobile pages use Figure, but only 1.06% of desktop pages and 1.13% of mobile pages used Figcaption.
Figure 5.17. Figure and Figcaption usage by page.

We can see that roughly 12% of the pages on both desktop and mobile use the <figure> element, however only roughly 1% use <figcaption> to add a description.

Videos

If "a picture is worth a thousand words," a minute of 30fps video must be worth 1.8 million!

Video is one of the most powerful ways to engage with an audience today, however adding video to a site is no small undertaking. There are a maze of formats and codecs to navigate, and myriad implementation details to consider. But the impact of video – both the visual impact, and the performance impact – cannot be overstated.

The <video> element

The <video> element forms the core of video delivery on the web and is used either on its own or in conjunction with JavaScript players which progressively enhance it to deliver video.

Sources (or not), and total usage

There are two ways to embed a video resource using the <video> element. You can either stick a single resource URL into the src attribute on the element itself or give it any number of child <source> elements, which the browser peruses until it finds a source it thinks it can load. Our first query looks at how often we see each of these patterns across all sampled pages.

Bar chart showing 0.59% of desktop pages and 0.49% of mobile pages use Src for video, versus 1.14% of desktop pages and 0.99% of mobile pages use Source.
Figure 5.18. Video usage of Src versus Source.

Twice as many <video>s have <source> children, vs a src attribute. This indicates that authors want the ability to send different resources to different end users, depending on their context, rather than sending a single lowest-common-denominator resource to everyone (or, alternately, giving some portion of their audience a worse, or broken, experience).

Also, interestingly, we can see that across all pages only a percent or two contain <video> elements at all. It is far less common than <img>!

JavaScript players

We looked for the presence of a few common players (hls.js, video.js, Shaka Player, JW Player, Brightcove Player, and Flowplayer). Pages with these particular players are less than half as common as pages that use the native <video> element.

Bar chart showing 77.88% of desktop pages and 74.77% of mobile pages with video use Video Element, 28.06% of desktop pages and 30.57% of mobile pages with image use JavaScript Video Player, and 5.94% of desktop pages and 5.34% of mobile pages with image use both.
Figure 5.19. Video element versus JavaScript player.

The analysis is complicated a bit by the fact that many players – such as video.js – enhance in-source <video> elements. Only 5-6% of the pages that used the searched-for players also included a <video> element, but evidence of this pattern is actually more visible when we look at the values of type attributes, within <video> and <source> elements.

Type attributes

Bar chart showing the following usage of video formats on mobile: 64.08% for video/mp4, 19.68% for video/mp4, 10.08% for video/webm, 4.74% for video/ogg, 0.51% for video/vimeo, 0.37% for video/ogv, 0.12% for video/mpeg, 0.09% for video/mov. Desktop is very similar.
Figure 5.20. Video source types.

Unsurprisingly, by far the most common type value is video/mp4. But the second most common – making up 15% of all desktop types, and 20% of all types sent to the mobile crawler, is video/youtube – which is not a registered MIME type at all. Rather it is a special value that several players (including WordPress) use when embedding YouTube videos. A few notches down the list, we see a similar pattern, for Vimeo embeds.

As for the legitimate MIME types; they capture container formats; MP4 and WebM are the only two in anything we might call common use. It would be interesting to know which codecs are being used within these containers, and how much traction next-gen codecs like VP8, HVEC, and AV1 have gotten. But such analysis is, unfortunately, outside the scope of this article.

Video preload

Bar chart showing 33% of desktop and mobile pages with video have preload of none, 36% of desktop and 27% of mobile pages with video have auto, 24% and 33% respectively have metadata, and 4% and 5% respectively do not have this set.
Figure 5.21. Video preload values.

The preload attribute indicates whether a video should be downloaded, and it can have three values: none, metadata, auto (note that if left empty, the auto value is assumed). We can see that 4.81% of pages have <video> elements, and 45.37% of these have the preload attribute. The numbers on mobile are slightly different, with only 3.59% of the pages having <video> elements and 43.38% of these having the preload attribute.

Autoplay and Muted

Bar chart showing 57.22% of desktop pages with video and 53.86% of mobile have videos autoplay, 56.36% and 53.41% have muted, and 48.74% of desktop and 45.99% of mobile pages with video have both set.
Figure 5.22. Video autoplay and muted usage.

Looking at additional information about videos, we can see that 57.22% of the <video> elements on desktop have the autoplay attribute, 56.36% of pages with a <video> element on desktop utilize the muted attribute and last but not least 48.74% of pages use both autoplay and muted together, on desktop. The numbers are similar for mobile, where 53.86% have autoplay, 53.41% have muted and 45.99% include both attributes.

Conclusion

The web is an amazing place to tell a visual story. During our research we could see that the web is truly utilizing a lot of elements of media. This diversity is also shown in the number of ways media is represented on the web today. Most basic features for displaying media are being actively used, however using modern browsers we could do a lot more. Some of the advanced media features that are used today are amazing, however sometimes they are used incorrectly or in the wrong context. We would like to encourage everyone to go a level deeper: use all the features and capabilities of the modern web to bring more amazing visual experiences to users.

Authors