February 4, 2004, 12:00 AM

10 Ways to Boost Site Performance

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Yankee Candle is realizing increased conversion rates as a result of its navigation changes because customers can locate merchandise in as few as two steps and proceed directly to checkout in about five clicks.

“Yankee Candle’s improved navigation expedites performance because the site layout has been redesigned to support better cross-selling and merchandising and to help shoppers get to products more easily and efficiently,” says Darryl Gehly, vice president of Molecular Inc., which worked with Yankee Candle on site design and navigation issues.

9. Balancing the load

Preventing problems before they happen by anticipating traffic snarls or shifting volume instantly to available servers and web databases when trouble does occur is the job load testing applications handle.

But even though many Internet retailers spend significant time and money to install load testing applications, they can take a number of other steps to improve performance. Those include conducting quarterly benchmark studies, paying more attention to the role load testing plays in custom coding projects and making sure load testing applications are properly configured with other information technology systems and software

“Load testing isn’t the sexiest issue for Internet retailers to talk about, but proper load testing makes sure the site can handle performance expectations.” says Tim Drees, chief executive officer and co-founder of San Diego-based Webmetrics. “Many retailers have load-testing capability but they need to better understand how the applications work over the long haul, especially when they embark on site development or significant upgrades.”

Most Internet retailers experience load testing performance issues when they look to configure new systems or embark on custom projects and don’t include load testing in all phases of development. For instance, too many ad-hoc questionnaires or marketing questions can slow down a retailer’s shopping cart, but many developers might not think to include load testing as part of their code writing and database work. If they include load balancing as an ongoing part of testing and project rollout, they are in a better position to anticipate slowdowns and take faster corrective action when the new program goes live, Drees says.

Just as cars run more efficiently after tune-ups, performance can be enhanced if retailers pay more attention to how often they align their load testing applications with existing hardware and software. “When a site is launched or a major upgrade is about to happen that’s when many Internet retailers will think about fine tuning load balancing,” Drees says. “But many companies forget that e-commerce systems operate in a very complex environment and the nature of what these systems do is always changing.”

To gain more load balancing efficiency, web retailers must make sure that all areas of the company are clear on the importance of site performance. “Proper load balancing isn’t about adding hardware,” says Mark Weiner, vice president of marketing at NetScaler Inc. “Improving load balancing is about fine tuning, ongoing testing and making sure everyone from marketing to IT is on the same performance management page.”

10. Troubleshooting

Internet retailers are already committing significant amounts of time and money to monitoring their sites for signs of trouble, but they can still take additional precautionary steps to enhance site performance. These measures, complied by Keynote Systems Inc., include:

l Test early and often. Internet retailers should always plan ahead to make sure their sites can handle major product launches, seasonal promotions and marketing initiatives.

l Be realistic. Load tests should be based on a real-world mentality that accurately reflects the rate and pattern of visitors arriving at and leaving the site.

l Optimize images. Use a content testing application to ensure that images are optimized to minimize page load downtime.

l Benchmark the competition. From time to time, web merchants should conduct key transactions against their competitors. This will help in prioritizing improvements and identifying problem performance areas.

l Conduct regular holiday checkups. Retailers should assess key performance criteria such as downtime and page load after major holidays-and not just Christmas or Valentine’s Day.

“Internet retailers should take a holistic view toward achieving optimum site performance. That’s accomplished by putting in place a pro-active plan to troubleshoot as many mission-critical areas as possible,” says Roopak Patel, senior Internet analyst in Keynote’s Public Services group.

Keynote recommends that information technology and business mangers jointly develop a comprehensive trouble shooting plan for an e-commerce site.

11. (a bonus) Listen to customers

Not all performance enhancements are related to technology. Equally important is to listen to the site changes and upgrades customers deem to be priorities and then including ongoing customer feedback during the implementation process.

Recreational Equipment Inc., for instance, puts together a monthly report on e-commerce customer service issues that’s read religiously by the multi-channel outdoor gear retailer’s senior management. Complaints and suggestions are compiled from call center reports and by e-mails submitted on REI.com’s “how are we doing” form.

REI managers used feedback from web shoppers to add a fast-loading gift registry with personal editing functions and the ability to order gifts from the web, catalogs or stores. Throughout the year-long development process, managers from REI’s customer support department continually monitored shoppers’ suggestions for the gift registry and then made sure that a customer support employee was involved in all aspects of product development and rollout.

When the gift registry goes live later this spring, REI managers believe customers will like what they see because it was built with their performance expectations in mind. “Enhancing performance means listening to what customers have to say and then following through,” says Joan Broughton, REI vice president of multi-channel programs. “Our customers told us they wanted an online gift registry and the ability to order merchandise over the web and pick it up in our stores. In both instances we’re planning ahead by incorporating into the mix of what customers expect.”

Mark Brohan is principal of Milwaukee-based The Brohan Group, providing professional editorial and publishing services.

Click Here for the Internet Retailer Guide to Web Site Performance Solutions

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