April 30, 2007, 12:00 AM

Many moving parts

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“That end user’s machine is probably the most fragile part of the infrastructure you are dealing with in a system that includes your servers, the Internet and third parties,” Mouline says.

But a consumer who encounters an error or problem on a site isn’t typically aware the problem may reside not in what the web site is attempting to deliver but in the user’s own browser. If any part of the chain breaks, it’s apt to be the retailer’s site that gets the blame.

So retailers that already have optimized the actual performance of their site also must find a way to maximize consumers’ perception of how their site performs. One way is to deploy technology that detects the capacities of a browser being used to contact a site and then automatically serves up the site experience compatible with that browser.

One technology vendor offering such detection capability is CyScape Inc., which sells browser and system analysis tools. Orvis.com uses its BrowserHawk product to ensure it serves Flash pages to customers’ browsers so equipped, and static images rather than blank spots to the rest. Orvis senior architect Sean Warner says when the site added Flash to selected pages four years ago, many consumers didn’t have Flash installed on their browsers. “Now almost everyone has it,” he says.

But BrowserHawk’s Flash-detecting capacities still are getting a workout as the advent of new browsers such as Firefox change the landscape yet again. “Some versions of Flash aren’t installed by default in Firefox, so the issue has re-emerged,” says CyScape CEO Richard Litofsky. “If it’s content the retailer has gone out of its way to produce Flash for, it could be the most important thing on the page. So it’s important to have an alternative.”

Where the buck stops
With retailers on the front line and accountable to their customers for everything that takes place behind the scenes to serve up web pages-whether it originates with them or is imported from outside-service-level agreements guaranteeing aspects of site performance have become increasingly important in managing sites as they’ve become more complex.

“If I am an Internet retailer relying on a third party to deliver that content, I am going to hold the third party to the standards my end users are holding me to,” Mouline says.

Service-level agreements are a fact of life not just between a retailer and third party vendor but also, in many cases, between a retailer’s internal I.T. group and the brands and business managers it serves. Redcats’ I.T. operation, for instance, is held to individual service-level agreements with all its brands, covering both the solutions it builds and services it brings in from vendors. It also has service-level agreements between the department itself and the vendors.

Service-level agreements between web sites and outside vendors are starting to cover more granular and specific metrics than in the past. For example, Panasonic of North America’s Panasonic.com now is writing a new metric, “transaction availability,” into service-level agreements with its outsourced I.T. partner, IBM Corp.

Panasonic.com conducts e-commerce as well as drives shoppers to channel partners to buy. Vice president of e-commerce Jeremy Dalnes says while monitoring the performance basics of page downloads and availability tracks the heartbeat of the site, driving the best business results out of the site required a closer look.

In fact, a review of its BizRate customer reports turned up comments on difficulty with the checkout process. To validate that, Dalnes used Transaction Perspective, a monitoring product of Keynote Systems Inc., to test sample sessions he mapped out on how users would travel through the site to buy specific products. The sample transactions were tested four times an hour from computers on the east and west coasts. Transaction Perspective pricing starts at $1,295 for a five-page transaction as measured once an hour from 10 U.S. cities.

Re-architecting
Testing showed a slowdown at certain times of the day, a finding that allowed I.T. managers to fix the problem by re-architecting how back-end systems communicated with each other. In fact, since implementing the service in December, Dalnes says the stability of the site with respect to visitors’ ability to complete given tasks has improved by 11%.

“The interaction between our disparate systems was causing performance hits in ways that would not have been evident had we not implemented Transaction Perspective,” he says.

Keeping an online store in top working order is a greater challenge today. From the way back-end systems talk to each other to what happens off-site on a shopper’s browser, the number of connections in a customer’s shopping experience has ballooned. Experts say retailers should prepare for more of the same as web shopping continues to evolve. Retailers should look ahead and plan and test for increasing complexity and new functionality and work that intelligence into the design process at the front end, rather than just going ahead and committing to new additions they may have to change after rollout.

“It’s a multidimensional problem, and we keep adding dimensions,” Mouline says, “Some people are still reacting-but they tend to spend a lot more money, lose a lot more customers and put a lot more effort into a fix later in the process.”

mary@verticalwebmedia.com

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