It goes without saying that we use Rails a lot here at 37signals. Often times, when we look at a problem, we turn to Rails or something similar, because when you have a high-performance precision screwdriver, everything starts to look like a finely engineered screw. Sometimes, what you really need is a big hammer, because what you’re looking at is a nail.
Let me tell you about our journey with these sites over the years, and how we’ve landed on a simple solution that boosted conversion rate by about 5%.
There’s nothing particularly dynamic about these sites; we might throw a “Happy Monday” in there, or we might make some tweaks based on a URL parameter, and we A/B test them extensively, but there’s no database or background services involved.
Stretching back to the pre-Basecamp days, the 37signals.com site was written with PHP. There was no Rails back then, Ruby wasn’t commonly used for web development, and DHH and others worked in PHP, so it was the logical choice. As we added sites, they continued to use PHP since it was fast and easy. This worked well for years and years—our public sites were relatively performant and rock-stable, and we didn’t really have many problems. The biggest pain was in setting up for local development, which ended up being quite the pain to get set up in OS X in a way that behaved well with Pow, Passenger, etc.
A few years ago, Sam Stephenson and Josh Peek wrote Brochure as a way to translate our marketing sites to Rack apps. This solved the local development challenges, and let us use a language we were all generally more comfortable with. It was a little slower than PHP, and meant dealing with Passenger on deployment, but it was a fair compromise at the time. We moved one site to brochure, and then ran out of steam to move the rest – work on our applications took a higher priority.
A few months ago I took a serious look at our public sites’ performance. They were making a lot of requests for individual assets and page load times were pretty poor – Basecamp itself loaded much faster than the essentially static signup page for it. Local setup problems with the PHP sites also meant that it was harder to work on the sites, and so we were less productive and less inclined to work on them.
Back to the basics for fun and profit
This makes local development easy, and what you see locally is always what will be deployed. This also makes it trivial to distribute the marketing site to multiple datacenters or distribution networks around the world—just upload the compiled files, rather than worrying about dependencies for running an interpreted site.
While we haven’t done that yet, just from some mild spriting and cleanup and moving to static HTML, we shaved about half a second off the total load time for basecamphq.com, and saw about a 5% improvement in conversion rate result from that (the link between page speed and conversion rate has been studied more rigorously as well by the likes of Google, Amazon, etc.).