February 4, 2004, 12:00 AM

10 Ways to Boost Site Performance

(Page 2 of 5)

But now that the retailer has a monitoring system in place and has taken other measures to improve performance, the number of broken links is dropping dramatically. Using applications from San Francisco-based TeaLeaf Technology Inc., Crutchfield monitors infrastructure components such as legacy systems, web servers, application servers, databases and load balancers to fix problems immediately or troubleshoot them before they occur.

Most problems with broken links can be fixed by viewing specific user sessions. Using TeaLeaf technology, Crutchfield records complete HTTP requests and the response stream for real user sessions. Captured data includes everything the real-time user sees and does, as well as underlying information such as page load time, cookies, referring URLs, browser type and version, operating system, IP address, and session IDs.

By analyzing this detailed information, as well as other data compiled from event and log capture, Crutchfield can evaluate page failures and broken links against defined thresholds. This means webmasters and application specialists can re-create problems almost instantly, determine which server or database is causing trouble and take preventive or corrective action.

Previous monitoring systems worked as separate elements. But Crutchfield’s TeaLeaf monitoring system is connected to a portal that can accept information from various databases and allows users to access it on a control panel or monitoring console via a web browser. The information can be displayed in any way that the user finds most helpful. As a result, potential problems are quickly detected, and Crutchfield has reduced by 60% to 90% the time needed to fix a broken link or other performance problem.

“With the monitoring system, we can receive notification of a potential problem in anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes,” says Steve Weiskircher, director of IT systems for Crutchfield. “We can reduce the time spent determining the cause of broken links and other performance problems because we can simply replay the problem user session. We don’t have to re-create the entire environment to determine what happened.”

3. Expediting checkout

Shoppers leaving a site before completing their transactions continue to be a major headache for Internet retailers. Customers abandon what’s in their shopping cart or decide not to hit the final Buy Now button for a number of reasons, some legitimate-to the shopper at least. But many retailers fantasize on how their financial performance would improve if they could only convert 1% or 3% or 5% of those abandonments to sales.

Some can be converted simply by streamlining the checkout process. For starters, retailers can limit the number of steps to complete the transaction by combining billing and shipping information onto a single page and by not asking for too much marketing-related information. From a performance stand-point, retailing analysts and e-commerce development companies say an effective checkout process should include no more than nine steps and allow the customer to complete the transaction in under five minutes.

Other performance enhancement measures include:

l Number the steps. Add a progress indicator and page number to each step of the checkout process so shoppers can review and make changes to steps they’ve already completed. Include a button that returns them to their most current billing, shipping or add-to-cart page.

l Provide links to product pages. For each page during checkout, include a link back to individual product pages that helps shoppers track the size, quantity, color and features/functions of the merchandise they’re selecting.

l Add images and availability in the cart. Show thumbnail images of the merchandise in the shopping cart. With a visual reminder and text listing what’s in stock, shoppers aren’t as likely to waste time clicking back through multiple pages.

l Include easy editing options and process reminders. Customers will complete transactions more quickly if they can easily add, change or delete merchandise. Make it simple to update selections, and include a prominent Next Step button that guides customers through the purchasing cycle.

“Web merchants can expedite the payment process by consolidating steps and thinking through where they can improve the shopping cart experience,” says Mike Levin, executive vice president of marketing and business development for LaGarde Inc., Kansas City-based developer of shopping cart software and other e-commerce applications. “Asking for credit card information before order information is entered or diverting the customer’s attention with too many individual shipping pages will slow the transaction down or, in some cases, result in the shopper getting frustrated and abandoning the transaction.”

Some merchants are dealing with shopping cart abandonment rates approaching 60%. But sites such as Cavalletta.com, an online retailer of specialty Italian items such as ceramics and glassware, are streamlining site performance with faster checkout procedures. Cavalletta designed its shopping cart with five steps-including an order page, a consolidated billing and shipping page, a buy now page, and two follow-up pages that include a transaction summary and a final “Are you sure?” before customers submit the order.

Cavalletta’s checkout takes about two minutes because billing address and ship-to address information are consolidated onto one page. The shopping cart application also is integrated with other customer service information databases to streamline the process for frequent shoppers. “We decided that reducing the number of pages in checkout was a good way to improve performance and customer service,” says Sarah Brown, president and founder of Cavalletta Inc. “Reducing barriers during checkout gives us a better chance to close the sale and make the process as seamless as possible for the shopper.”

4. Enhancing product display

Clean, crisp images that provide lots of detail and show merchandise in three dimensions can help Internet retailers optimize their product display.

Improved product display used to mean spending substantial time and money enhancing merchandising pages with Flash graphics, zoom-in features and three-dimensional modeling. But while these applications improved how shoppers viewed and compared products, too many extra technical features slowed site navigation or page loading.

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