March 31, 2003, 12:00 AM

Eternal vigilance is the price of success--especially at retailers` web sites

Vigilance is the price of success on the web—but it’s not always easy.

Before Uzi Nitsan founded web performance monitoring software company Vertain Software two and a half years ago, he ran an online hotel reservations start-up. One day, after booking a new customer, Nitsan departed for a trade show in London. He returned to discover that his site-and his business-had been down all weekend.

“We knew we needed monitoring-not only to see that the site was up but to see that a person could actually go on and make a hotel reservation,” he says. “We looked around and found there was no tool that could do that. That’s the reason I started this business.”

In the heyday of Internet start-ups, Nitsan’s experience was not unique, and it didn’t take retail sites long to realize that keeping a constant eye on site availability and page download speed was critical to survival. Retailers soon learned that when customers can’t access the site, or become impatient when page downloads take too long, they easily go elsewhere, taking their wallets with them.

Going deeper

And today, the savviest among them also understand that home page availability and speed are only part of the story. Plenty of other performance issues that can occur throughout the site can also lead to trouble. Stories of applications gone haywire have approached the status of legend: the luxury hotel operator flooded with reservations after a web page error listed an $89 price for accommodations normally listed at $890; the faulty GIF already hanging up traffic at an e-retailer launching a TV ad blitz that could drive hundreds of thousands more visitors to its site.

E-retailers are beginning to realize they must carry monitoring activities deeper into shoppers’ transactions to get an accurate read on site performance and its impact on customers, experts say. In response, web performance monitoring service providers are moving beyond simply tracking site availability and download speed. They are developing broader approaches to address issues arising from the increasing complexity of sites. Monitoring, diagnosis and repair service are available to support the technology at every point in the customer’s web experience, from front-end applications all the way into the infrastructure of local networks that represent a web transmission’s “last mile.”

Page loading speed was one of the first performance metrics to be monitored, but tracking used to stop at the home page. Today, other key pages in the transaction are part of the equation. “Depending on what the customer is trying to do on the site, the home page is not the critical thing, but the average page is,” Nitsan points out. “If it takes five to six pages to complete a task, for example, the bulk of waiting time for the consumer is not on the home page, but the rest of the pages.”

Vertain’s weekly monitoring of transaction processes beyond the home page at various retail sites shows that some have error rates-typically timeouts-of as much as 10% or more. “That means one out of every 10 customers who are trying to do some transaction on the site is not successful,” he says.

A study of the performance of eight popular Valentine’s Day web destinations over the eight days leading up to the holiday showed more trouble: transaction failures before the holiday were as high as one in 20.

The study, conducted by web performance monitoring services provider Empirix Inc., tracked the success rate for a three-step transaction: navigating to the site’s home page, initiating a search, and confirming that correct results came back from the search. The transactions were repeated at one-hour intervals, 24 hours a day, at each tested site over the eight days.

Down, down, down

The testing showed a downward trend in transaction success rates and response times and an increase in applications errors as the holiday approached and traffic grew. Performance was at its lowest February 10 and 11, as last-minute shoppers flocked to the sites in order to avoid overnight shipping charges.

Failure rates were highest at the web sites of Ghirardelli Chocolates and florist KaBloom. Over the eight days, the transaction success rate at Ghirardelli.com had a low of 96.2% while KaBloom.com had a low of 95.4%, meaning that approximately one in 20 transactions failed. Meanwhile, chocolatier Godiva.com turned in the best performance with a transaction success rate that averaged 99.9% over the eight days and was 100% on six days. The average transaction success rate across all eight sites was 99%.

Performance success rates that rank only a percentage point off 100% might not initially seem poor. But Empirix vice president of product management and marketing Walter Vahey points out that the failure rate of telephone systems, a popular alternative ordering mechanism, is never more than in the range of thousandths of a percentage point.

“Retail sites depend on consumer loyalty, because it’s so easy for visitors to just click to a competitor’s site,” Vahey says. “That’s why delivering a consistently good experience through the entire transaction is so important. Now that using the web is more mainstream, people are expecting the same level of reliability in Internet applications that they get through the telephone.”

Web applications failures have become a problem for e-retailers in part simply because there are now more applications per page. Web pages today tend to be more dynamic, and they integrate a greater number of elements: data, graphics and tools fed in from several different sources. That results in pages that may be slower to load at the user end, and it can increase the chance of error at any point in a transaction that uses multiple applications.

“Sites change so often. They are a moving target,” says Sean Kline, director of applications performance management services at Empirix. “They have lots of different moving parts in terms of physical hardware and software infrastructure. Then there are frequent content changes and third party dependencies, as when outside providers serve up images, for example.”

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