Reducing the Risk of Website Failure

Top 10 tips for ensuring your e-commerce site is ready for the holiday rush

By Sven Hammar, CEO, Apica

The holiday shopping season is a ‘can’t miss’ opportunity, especially since it is the time the best deals for consumers are offered. Wallets are loosened and everyone is prepared for the number of sales and deals announced online. For e-retailers the competition is fierce; if a customer experiences problems on the site, the competition is a mere click away. An online site with slow performance – or even crashes – is tantamount to slamming the door in a consumer’s face, something that would never happen in a ‘brick-and-mortar’ situation.

Take Target for example. The much-anticipated launch of a new line by Italian design house, Missoni, known for its zigzag knits and bright patterns, brought the retailer’s site to its knees. On launch day, the Missoni items became available at 6 a.m. on the east coast and the mega retailer’s site went down around 9 a.m. and stayed down for approximately two hours, and then worked only intermittently after that (click here for related story). Lesson learned by Target: Do not overlook testing for increased load and performance issues.

According to Dennis Drogseth of research firm Enterprise Management Associates, “User experience is, as the name implies, is in many ways more about human beings than just about technology. For instance, when a customer is in your physical store and has an unpleasant experience, the customer is very likely to be quite explicit in his or her complaints. But, what about the online customer who 'clicks away' in frustration because a page won't load or shows an error message? These are just a few of the many unknowns, the silent events that can create ill will and brand disaffection, as well as lost, transaction-driven revenue." Drogseth insists, “Any company seriously trying to sell online should be prepared to capture those 'breadcrumb indicators' of human experience across peak activity levels, as well as normal, day-to-day volumes."

Research firm ComScore reported in 2010 ecommerce B2C product sales totaled $142.5 billion, representing 8% of retail product sales in the United States. Forrester Research estimates that the U.S. online retail industry will be worth $279 billion by 2015. The lion’s share of online sales takes place during the holiday shopping season that kicks off on “Black Friday.” Is your ecommerce site ready?

Apica offers the following ‘Top Ten’ recommendations for readying your ecommerce site for the holiday shopping season. Happy shopping and happy holidays!

  1. Put vanity aside and reduce the amount of high-resolution images and video on your site in order to minimize response times. If you’re too in love with the bulky images, then be sure and invest in systems that can handle short response times despite a high-resolution content.
  2. Consider using a CDN/Accelerator service to accelerate the delivery of rich content such as images and videos to customers. These services aren’t terribly expensive and the upside is huge.
  3. Cache as much static content as possible in the browser. If the page content doesn’t change, customers won’t have to download it again from the network the next time they hit the page. This is a cost-effective way to speed up web traffic and gain performance improvements.
  4.  Evaluate the various external services on your site that you have no control over. Many companies use external content indiscriminately on their sites, free services such as Bambuser, etc. Keep in mind that external content is rarely optimized.
  5. Periodically test, monitor and optimize your site to ensure a great consumer experience. Web testing companies can test and optimize your site, simulating peak loads by using ‘synthetic traffic,’ and then suggesting improvements. These companies often offer complimentary surveillance services.
  6. Guide the customer throughout the buying process in a logical and customer-friendly manner. Have clear and visible choices above ‘the fold,’ i.e., the visible part of the site you see without scrolling.
  7. Be sure and use smaller, quick-loading landing pages for temporary promotions.
  8. Build discipline and process into your testing and monitoring efforts. Assign an in-house testing team, or hire an outside service. Take baseline benchmarks and test during specific hours to lower variables, for example.
  9. Use your analytics tools to identify the top three-to-five business processes customers are conducting on your site, and maximize them for peak performance.
  10. If Paris Hilton is seen wearing your product, this should be a good thing! Plan for the unexpected to ensure that your site can handle a massive influx of customers without crashing. Conduct a risk analysis using load testing and external performance measurements of service quality.

Sven Hammer is an expert in testing and performance monitoring and is CEO of Apica, a load testing and performance-monitoring provider for cloud and mobile applications.