January 31, 2006, 12:00 AM

Beyond the Numbers

Managing performance: The never-ending challenge of monitoring a web site`s health

There is no longer any doubt that monitoring web site performance is key to delivering a satisfying shopping experience to customers. The only question today is: How do you find out what’s broken-and then how do you determine what’s important. With more consumers gravitating to the Internet to shop, and retailers allocating more of their IT budgets to create dynamic sites using rich media, retailers can no longer afford to fix every performance problem simply because the metrics indicate a site malfunction.

“One of the pitfalls of Internet retailing has been that performance benchmarks are not always chosen based on the performance criteria that are essential to the company’s overall health,” says Steve Weiskircher, senior director of information technology for electronics retailer Crutchfield Corp. “Performance metrics need to be prioritized according to what is key to a retailer’s business and achieving customer satisfaction.”

Take off the blinders

All too often, retailers look at performance metrics with blinders on, industry participants say. If a performance indicator falls below the prescribed benchmark, retailers typically rush to fix the problem regardless of whether it directly impacts revenue. As a result, costly fixes that don’t necessarily cause a customer to abandon a shopping cart or not return to the site can be made ahead of problems that do.

One explanation for why some retailers fail to prioritize properly is that they often find themselves awash in a sea of performance data gathered by third-party monitoring companies. Because they have not necessarily determined in advance which performance metrics are most critical to their business, they try to compensate by focusing on everything. The result is often a helter-skelter approach to correcting site performance problems.

“I have talked to retailers that spend weeks trying to fix the bells and whistles on their site that really don’t mean much to the customer, while other problems that may seem smaller, but do impact the shopping experience and revenues, go unattended,” says Heather Dougherty, senior retail analyst for Nielsen/NetRatings. “Retailers need to learn how to better parse and align performance data against the elements within the site that lead to higher conversion rates.”

In fact, consumers are willing to tolerate some site performance problems, such as a slow loading page, provided they can still complete the transaction they intend to make, site performance experts say. “If a hundred users are known to have encountered the problem and all of them complete a transaction, it is a good indication the problem is not a sticking point,” says Geoff Galat, vice president of product strategy for TeaLeaf Technology Inc., a San Francisco-based site monitoring service. “Before retailers can understand the importance of a problem, they need to drill down to determine the cause and the effect of it on their business.”

The first step to drilling down to identify the root of the problem begins with a retailer making the same level of commitment to the performance of a web site as it dies to the performance of its other sales channels.

Retailers who do not consider the web a major component of their business are more apt to unwittingly erect departmental silos that impede performance due to lack of inter-departmental communications. In other words, IT, merchandising, marketing and administration need to establish common performance goals that are understood by each department. “Prioritization of performance is an internal discipline,” declares Ron Rose, chief information officer for travel site Priceline.com.

Nailing the sporadic problem

One of the most common problems encountered by Internet retailers is the identification of a performance problem that shows up sporadically. While merchandising may have been made aware of the problem by a dissatisfied customer, the IT department may see only a performance metric within the accepted range and insist there is no problem.

In reality, the problem may occur with a subset of users, such as customers entering the site through dial-up connections. Consequently, the IT department is likely to miss seeing that a subset of dial-up users is encountering a performance problem if IT’s performance metrics capture sessions only from customers with broadband connections.

Worse, the problem can be isolated to customers with another set of common characteristics. Unless the IT department can be given a clear description of the problem, as opposed to being told “the page is loading slowly,” technical support staff goes by the numbers-and often those numbers don’t tell the story.

The caching problem

Other potential problems can be missed when a retailer pulls together many elements of a site in a customer’s web browser. The practice, known as caching, requires third parties to deliver each element to the shopper’s browser. Typically, third parties will deliver these elements using multiple nodes across the country to create a localized delivery system to expedite page download times. It is difficult and costly for retailers to monitor every node in use by the delivery partner, let alone isolate the node experiencing performance problems at the right time. Unless directly spotted, the problem will not necessarily show up on the IT department’s radar.

“If a potential red flag is considered okay from an IT perspective, some retailers are comfortable sticking their head in the sand than understanding if a problem is affecting key processes of the site for some customers,” says Mathew Poepsel, vice president and application manager for Gomez Inc., a Lexington, Mass.-based performance monitoring service. “A lot of times, problems have to be broken down before they can be properly identified.”

Key to breaking down the root cause of a performance problem is tying together the actual sales and customer activity data gathered on the site with the IT performance data. Doing so provides a broader view of the problem and allows retailers to identify customer clusters, such as those residing in a particular ZIP code or that are accessing the site from a particular link that may be experiencing a problem, but which shows up as a minor blip on the IT department’s radar.

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