Real User Monitoring (RUM) vs Synthetic Monitoring: The Complete Guide
A decade ago, having a flashy website that loads at a snail’s pace wouldn’t matter as long as it was aesthetically pleasing. You could get away with tricking Google by stuffing keywords in your content.
Fast forward to the era of AI technology, and Google will catch you—fast. The question is: “How did companies learn to get in front of these problems before they even happened?”
They used two web monitoring techniques called Synthetic and Real User Monitoring. These techniques lay the foundation for converting real user experiences into metrics that help web admins like you evaluate your performance.
For example, through these monitoring techniques, we know users exiting after only visiting a single page reflects the website’s bounce rate. The same is true when discussing session duration and page views.
The baseline of these web monitoring techniques is to ensure users enjoy a good web experience. Today’s article covers synthetic and real user monitoring, their use cases, benefits, and how you can use both when testing your website.
What Is Synthetic Monitoring?
Synthetic monitoring is a website monitoring technique used to evaluate a website's performance by using scripts to simulate user interactions.
Instead of gathering real user data, synthetic monitoring collects performance data on websites via user agents. This means every testing condition is pre-configured to automatically trigger several responses from the website—even though the conditions aren’t real.
Running these tests is more of a precautionary approach to prevent unforeseen situations affecting your website.
For instance, if simulating 5,000 active users on your website crashes your server in a synthetic environment, then there’s a problem with your website hosting service. In this case, a solution is switching from shared hosting to either a dedicated or virtual private server. But arriving at that decision comes from testing your website in a controlled environment.
Related → 10 Website Optimization & Performance Tips [for 2022]
How does Synthetic monitoring work?
Synthetic Monitoring uses a set of modifiable variables in a controlled “lab” environment through user agents to simulate real users. This includes network type (2G/3G/4G/5G), geography, traffic, browser, and device model or type.
A good example is using a synthetic monitoring tool like WebPage Test. With this, you can choose your preferred user agents to test your website’s performance in a controlled environment. This test generates reports and alerts triggered by the simulated environment.
[Sample testing environment on WebPageTest]
💡 Did you know? A user agent is any type of computer program that simulates user interaction with web content.
Other tools like Google Lighthouse, GT Metrix, PageSpeed Insights and Pingdom can also run these tests, including:
- 24/7 monitoring and auto-generated reports
- Alerts and prompts on database performance and uptime
- Monitoring third-party scripts
The synthetic monitoring technique is built on creating all possible scenarios that could impact the website’s performance, functionality, and uptime. Think of it as seeing the future of your website. If the test is done right, you can fix any problem your real users might encounter when interacting with your website.
Let’s say you tested your website in a synthetic environment and discovered your first contentful paint (FCP) is 5 seconds, rather than the recommended 1.8 seconds. This tells you it’s taking longer for the browser to render the first piece of DOM content on a page, which affects user experience.
Related → What Is First Contentful Paint [FCP]? [+How To Improve It]
Use case of synthetic monitoring
- Testing impact of new features on website performance
- Evaluating performance of third-party services
- Testing website scalability
- Testing pre-production environment
Additionally, you can use synthetic monitoring to gauge your website’s baseline performance. This way, you can set triggers and alerts to notify you once it exceeds a specific bandwidth or traffic. Again, we can use the example of simulating 5,000 active users on your website. You can set up an alert that prompts once you hit 4,700 active users, so you can prepare ahead of reaching 5,000.
What Are The Benefits of Synthetic Monitoring?
The core baseline of synthetic monitoring is built on the ability to run a simulated test at pre-defined modes. Meaning, at any point, you can test your website's capability without limits. This brings us to the three main benefits.
1. Near-accurate predictability on website performance
Synthetic monitoring gives you the tools to test the performance of your website in different conditions. With this, the solution continuously runs in the background to analyze your entire website to predict future performance.
Say, for instance, on certain days of the week, your website receives huge traffic that slows your page load time by 5 seconds. Synthetic monitoring will analyze the cause and report back to you. This way, it’s easier to identify and fix the issue before the next slow-down on your page load time.
Also, since synthetic monitoring runs automatically 24/7, you can customize the reporting system to send status alerts every 30-60 seconds, depending on your choice. This could include reporting your DOM load, page speed, first contentful paint, time to first byte, largest contentful paint, and etc. With this, it’s easy to detect if the slightest changes impact your website’s performance.
Related → How To Reduce DNS Lookups [5 Ways]
2. Easier scalability and low-cost of maintenance
Another major upside to using synthetic monitoring is its low cost of maintenance which makes it easy to use with your website as you grow. Since the solution doesn’t rely on your website’s server, you can continuously run tests in a simulated environment without taking a toll on your website’s performance.
For example, if you test your website on WebPage Test, you can build your own controlled environment via pre-configured models or conditions. All while doing this, your website is left unaffected by any change made on the app. So even if your website receives hundreds of thousands of visits per day, you can still use synthetic monitoring to track its performance.
One significant bonus of this scalability feature in synthetic monitoring: it sets the stage for pre-test production. You can roll out new features on your website and get quick feedback on its impact on user experience.
3. Widespread availability for all testing conditions
One of the earliest benefits of synthetic monitoring was its ability to be used globally under any testing condition.
Say your website has a server located somewhere in Europe. Synthetic monitoring can build an environment from a test location in Southeast Asia, North America, South America, or even Africa. At any point, you can run tests from any test server and evaluate your website’s performance from these regions.
If your website is fast for users from Europe and America but it’s slow for users from other regions, there’s a problem with the reach of your server location. Your best solution is getting a content delivery network (CDN) to help deliver your content faster.
Related → What Is Page Speed? [+Why It’s Important For SEO]
What Is Real User Monitoring (RUM)?
Real user monitoring is a real-time website monitoring technique that records user interaction. This monitoring technique provides accurate visibility into actions performed by real end-users in every environment.
RUM utilizes a performance-based monitoring technique that starts recording user interaction immediately after they land on a website—right until they exit. Then, it creates a report that analyzes all their interaction to decide if the user had a good or bad experience. Depending on the result, you get first-hand knowledge of users’ pathways on your website so you can know the areas to improve.
Google Analytics (GA) is an example of a tool that uses real user monitoring on websites. With GA, you can track all types of user interactions, including time on page, bounce rate, traffic source, session duration, browser type, geolocation, page views, and many more.
Related → What Is Google’s Fast Page Label? [+5 FAQs]
How does Real User Monitoring (RUM) work?
Let’s say you want to keep track of your website using Google Analytics. You’ll need a tracking ID from Google and place it in your website's HTML <head>. You have to repeat this process for every page you want to track. Once a user visits your website, it triggers the code and reports the user performance.
💡 Pro tip → If your website has lots of pages, this might be impossible or time-consuming. Luckily, WordPress has some plugins that can help you automate the entire process.
Related → What Is Dynamic Rendering? [+How It Impacts SEO]
What are the use cases of real user monitoring?
- Recording page load events
- Monitoring and reporting HTTP requests
- Crash reporting
- Individual visit reporting and segmentation
- Trend analyzing
What Are The Benefits of Real User Monitoring?
Getting first-hand information from real users is one of the core benchmarks determining your website's performance. This becomes possible with real-user monitoring, as it provides unmetered visibility into the user’s reaction to frontend changes in real time. Based on these insights provided by RUM, it’s now easier for you to know what parts of your website need a complete change—and those that need improvement.
Below are some benefits RUM provides.
1. Better visibility into website performance.
Not all users log complaints to customer service upon running into an issue on your website. Some will simply exit and never come back. Real user monitoring lets you experience and use your website the same way the average user does. Meaning, you’re not just simulating an environment hoping to test its performance—you’re having the same experience. If you set it up correctly, you’ll detect issues faster than your users and tackle them before they escalate.
2. Actionable feedback from real users via segmentation
Sending out surveys is one of the best ways to get feedback from users. But when your website generates roughly 30,000 monthly traffic, it’s going to be time consuming. Consider that not all your website visitors use the same device, connection speed, browser, operating system—nor are they from the same location. There are many variables to consider.
RUM offers segmentation on a large scale to help you automate without having to survey all 30,000 web visitors. So you can set your preferences to get insight into how users with a certain type of device, operating system, and location interact with your website. You can easily identify where your customers are experiencing issues with your website without asking them. Once you implement a change, you can still use real user monitoring to run an A/B test to evaluate the performance of the recent change.
3. Improved insights on website analytics
Analyzing your website metrics can be a hassle. If you run an e-commerce store, you want some key data points, like where most of your customers are located, their shopping habits, devices, etc.
With real user monitoring, you get a breakdown of these insights and an overview of your entire customer base. So every metric is tied back to the customer and its impact on your business. You can combine this data with a third-party service to improve your traffic, sign-ups, leads, revenue, conversions, and every other part of the business.
Related → Third-Party Tags: How They Affect Overall Website Performance
Real User Monitoring vs Synthetic Monitoring: Which Should You Use?
The short answer is to use both. Together, synthetic and real user monitoring have powerful capabilities to identify similar problems on a website while providing unique insights based on their evaluation.
While real user monitoring analysis stems from field data collected from real users and their website experience in real-time, synthetic monitoring simulates a lab environment to test website performance. This means the test results are not data from real users, but a prediction.
Here’s how they work together: With RUM, you can quickly diagnose short-term and immediate issues on a website. Once you fix the problem, synthetic monitoring can re-test that website under a different condition. This is to analyze the impact of the improvement made with RUM.
💡 Think of it like this → Real user monitoring helps you fix the issue on your website. Synthetic monitoring ensures the issue is fixed.
Combining data from both solutions will give you a competitive edge regarding website scalability and response to algorithm changes from Google. Both synthetic and real user monitoring are integral in analyzing end-user experiences.
Collect Real User Metrics (From Real Customers) and Measure the Performance With Edgemesh
The market's problem is that third-party services often skew or tamper with customer data before it gets to clients. This leads to marketing teams making the wrong assumptions about customers and losing sales. Another concern is manufactured data in a synthetic environment is unreliable. Most of the time, it's not applicable in real-customer situations.
There’s a fix for this. Edgdmesh’s real user monitoring solution stores and processes unabridged analytics at the finest level of granularity available on the market. Edgemesh doesn’t just collect real user metric data. We use this information in real time to detect, adapt, and optimize the loading experience of every customer.
Improved metrics and analytics
Edgemesh collects anonymous, GDPR-compliant performance metrics for every user of your site. Unlike Google Analytics, we don’t sample, and we don’t remove outliers. Instead, we capture everything and report median statistics with outlier events. All the metrics collected are available to query via one of our APIs. You can also visit the portal to see real-time statistics displayed in an easily consumable chart and configure your email to report content and frequency.
Enhanced insights into customer experience
Edgemesh uses real customer experience data to optimize your site in real time intelligently. Edgdemesh’s user metrics capture performance metrics and use this information to build automated intelligent optimization strategies for true insight. So you’re not just getting data—you get actionable insights into your customers.
While synthetic monitoring isn’t a bad technique for measuring web performance, it falls short of accurately measuring user experience. As a result, real user monitoring is the best option.