February 4, 2004, 12:00 AM

10 Ways to Boost Site Performance

(Page 4 of 5)

Using internal resources and new technology, including Akamai Technologies Inc.’s EdgeSuite service, Sears Canada has a multi-tiered plan to improve site performance. To speed page load time to under 10 seconds, Sears Canada is using compression technology that makes pages thinner and reduces the size of HTML files. On its home page, Sears Canada is using less Flash technology and replacing some images with text product descriptions.

“Our current infrastructure was pushing us to the limit and, with increasing holiday traffic, response time was becoming an issue,” says Jim Osborne, national manager of e-commerce for Sears Canada. “We did an on-site survey where we could see more people referring to speed in their comments.”

Sears Canada also made several other platform and load-balancing adjustments to its internal web systems to improve response time. In addition, over the next year, the retailer is migrating to a new Java-based content delivery system that will make troubleshooting and load balancing easier to accomplish.

“We have incredible amounts of traffic and we need to ensure we’re able to satisfy customers,” Osborne says. “Response time is like a referee at a hockey game. You only notice when they are doing a bad job.”

7. Revving up search engines

Given that a single search-engine marketing campaign can cost up to $60,000 but may deliver only a few targeted buyers, there’s little doubt that web merchants can improve site performance by cutting down on the number of pages that take customers from a general product search to specific merchandise pages.

Many retailers take a shotgun approach to search engine marketing and include too many steps that impact site performance. Many retailers direct customers from results at search engines such as Yahoo and Google to the retailer’s home page, where the shopper must start all over, typing in the term, then waiting for the retailer to return results.

The result is an inefficient process. A shopper may need 15 or 20 page clicks to conduct a general search, shop a retailer’s site and complete the purchase.

But some retailers such as FurnitureFind.com are using a combination of web analytics and savvier marketing to drive shoppers from a search engine directly to a product page. With new technology and a better understanding of who is truly in the market for certain kinds of furniture, FurnitureFind.com no longer has to purchase as many as 20,000 word combinations from a search engine to drive site traffic.

Instead, web analytics are helping FurnitureFind.com to utilize site and marketing campaign data and specific sales and conversion rates based on keywords or phrases that shoppers type into a search engine.

For instance, if the phrase “blond oak furniture” is pulling in search engine traffic and resulting in more people coming to the home page, the retailer may register only a few “blond oak furniture” combinations. And if past keyword, product sales and conversion reports show that “blond oak furniture” is driving more serious traffic, FurnitureFind.com will adjust its home page to feature more oak merchandise; readjust its oak merchandise categories and move them higher on the home page; or put specific redirects-with the URL of the actual product page-in the links on Yahoo or Google.

“Our site performance is improving because we’re cutting out unnecessary clicks and steps between getting started on the search engine and finding a specific brand on our site,” says Cory Nielsen, project manager of web development and marketing for FurnitureFind.com. “We now know which keywords and phrases deliver better results, and that helps us improve our site navigation and design.”

8. Speeding up navigation

Improving how quickly and efficiently shoppers navigate a web site is an ongoing performance challenge for most Internet retailers. Most shoppers expect retailing sites to be content-rich, with an abundance of product images and descriptions.

But if consumers can’t find the merchandise or information they want because categories aren’t clearly labeled on the navigation bar, or because the site index button is buried several pages from the home page, or because the overall design quality is poor, then site performance-and business-will suffer.

“Studies show that more people are turned off by menu pages that are slow to load than by the time it takes to access the home page,” says Andy King, web optimization analyst and founder of Web Site Optimization LLC. “Site navigation impacts performance because it’s one of the top two reasons people leave an e-commerce site.”

Ideally, users should need no more than a few seconds to navigate from one shopping page to another. “Some e-commerce sites build as many as six different levels of hierarchical data into their navigation bars and menus,” he says. “That’s essentially displaying all the available data on the site on every page. And while that’s great for the depth of content presented, it alienates shoppers by taking too long to download.”

More Internet retailers are thinking long and hard about ways to improve navigation, and enhance site speed and functionality. Yankee Candle, for instance, developed a new navigation system, information architecture and taxonomy that helps visitors shop its web store more quickly and easily.

After a consultant’s report and user group sessions revealed that customers wanted a faster way to locate specific candles, Yankee Candle developed new site navigation that took shoppers instantly to the candle types and categories they were looking for. For instance, the left navigation bar has been reconfigured to allow shoppers to shop for candles and candle accessories in 12 clearly labeled categories. Six of those categories are highlighted in the center of Yankee Candle’s home page. One click takes shoppers to a product category page that displays all pertinent candle types, along with a series of four “we recommend” images that link to other product pages.

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