March 31, 2003, 12:00 AM

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

(Page 2 of 3)

Though the increasingly complex nature of web sites is becoming a handful for e-retailer IT staffs, some vendors have found expanded monitoring services and software a tough sell, given the current retail climate and a corresponding tightening up on new technology spending among many retailers. Nevertheless, many say they’ve demonstrated measurable gains for retailers.

TeaLeaf Technology’s hosted IntegriTea monitoring service technology, for example, can identify within unique user sessions where a glitch occurs. Multi-channel retailer Levenger says it’s cut 90% off the time it used to take to identify, locate and fix web site errors since implementing IntegriTea. Another TeaLeaf client, Hillerich & Bradsby Co., makers of the Louisville Slugger baseball bat, saw results in time for spring training and a seasonal spike in activity on the company’s retail web site, Sluggergifts.com.

“We’re able to recreate exact customer web sessions, reducing the time it takes to identify and fix problems from days to minutes,” says Christopher Caudill, web developer at Hillerich & Bradsby. Another benefit has been in the form of data that inform site improvements for better customer service. “Now, when a customer tells us he’s had a problem, we can go back and review the data IntegriTea gathers,” says Caudill. “We could see if customers were having an issue with logging in, for example, and then tailor the log-in process to make it easier by adding copy to make it more self-explanatory.”

Multiple goof opportunities

For a high-volume e-retailer, such site functionality typically requires multiple servers-introducing multiple opportunities for error, as Mike Baglietto, senior product manager at Keynote Systems, has seen often. “One e-retailer was doing a promotion with a farm of servers to handle the load. But every time users got directed to a particular web server, the image that was supposed to be served up wasn’t there. So they weren’t converting anybody on that particular server,” he says. “That sort of thing happens frequently.”

Keynote monitoring identified that transactions for the promotion had a failure rate of 5% to 10%, and that the failure was connected to a particular image, served by a particular server. With this information, IT staff made the change to get the image served properly.

At Brylane L.P., CTO Alex Betancur uses Keynote’s Measurement product on all seven of the company’s e-commerce sites to keep tabs on page download speeds as experienced in different locations throughout the country. Depending on local carriers involved in transmission, traffic, remoteness from central servers, and local events that can interfere with network transmission, download speeds are not necessarily equal.

Keynote provides the speed of monitored pages from the 10 geographic hubs, breaking down by hub which images, pieces of content or pages are loading slower or faster. It also identifies which carriers in the network serving the region are up, down, or experiencing problems.

Betancur’s goal in finding and fixing failures and slow-loading pages is to keep monitored pages at or better than the average load time in a blinded index of 40 top e-retailers monitored by Keynote. Load times that are too slow result in lower sales on the sites, he says. While page content, merchandise selection and other factors play into conversions, “The quicker the page downloads and gets to customers, the more apt they are to stay on the site and make the purchase,” he says.

The detailed performance data also are informing tech decisions for the future, he adds. “If we need to improve load times in a geographic area, that may mean building another network operating center, using a more effective cache system, or choosing another carrier. And those decisions on technology correlate to a faster page and therefore, a happier customer and possibly more items in the cart,” he says.

Though applications monitoring service offerings are broadening in scope and number, they don’t offer solutions that retailers couldn’t come up with on their own. Indeed, e-retailers can and do find, diagnose and fix applications errors unaided by third party services-but it’s at a considerable cost of time and labor.

As sites get more complex, finding and fixing problems gets tougher. Indeed, without web site performance monitoring that captures the right identifying data, the average time to locate and resolve site a performance issue is 25.8 hours, according to research from Newport Group Inc.

Unreported problems

And the impact of performance issues on site operations actually may be greater than those findings suggest, as the average resolution time reflects only problems that have been reported by users. That leaves a pool of unreported problems that may be even larger.

E-retailers vigilant about monitoring their site’s performance with staff and resources already in-house may still miss errors if they can’t replicate the customer view from outside their own firewalls. Cookie problems, security issues, and other site glitches clearly visible to the customer can remain invisible to site operators if they monitor only from within their own walls.

“Anyone could solve a web application problem if they throw enough time and resources at it,” says Tim Smith, director of marketing at TeaLeaf. “But the industry doesn’t have a lot of either. For that reason, our core objective is just to help site operators solve performance problems faster.”

While some e-retailers are out ahead of the curve in monitoring site performance and linking it directly to systems management, others lag. Part of that may rest in communications gaps that exist between IT and business groups within some organizations. Indeed, in a recent Newport Group survey of IT professionals, half said IT applications development staff worked collaboratively only when a problem occurred, and 8% reported strained relationships and a lack of any communication. It’s no surprise that efforts to solve or avert web performance problems are more likely to get the attention of business managers if they can be translated into the dollar volume of sales lost or gained.

Knowing the impact

“Customers haven’t yet run into these problems and don’t know what the impact can be,” says Kline of Empirix. But that can change when they do the math, he adds: If a site has 90% availability, for example, it could have had potentially 10% more customers. If the average sale is $100, depending on how many customers cross the site, the loss from faulty web performance could add up to millions.

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