June 29, 2009, 12:00 AM

Complex retail sites create new performance demands

As online retailers add features to their sites they need better tools to optimize performance.

When it comes to bringing the brand to life online, NikeStore.com strives to excel as much as the star athletes associated with the brand. A redesign last year served up even richer content and features on the site than ever, with nearly 100 elements on the home page alone-images and Flash features, for example-by the count of one industry service vendor.

But loading up the site with features and functionality came at an initial cost in terms of performance. After the relaunch, an outside testing firm found pages took longer to load than the industry average. Visits to the site in a single day, for example, produced home page loading times ranging from less than two seconds to more than 20 seconds. At the time, Nike confirmed that efforts to serve up a more robust consumer experience online had resulted in some longer page loading times, an issue it was actively working to resolve.

The need for speed

Nike’s experience isn’t unique. It illustrates that for any online retailer, ensuring consistent and speedy delivery of pages and site features can become increasingly challenging with the addition of new bandwidth-consuming bells and whistles-many of them imported from third parties-that consumers are coming to expect of e-commerce sites.

And if that’s a potential problem at the level of a single consumer interacting with a web page in the middle of the night, how much is it multiplied by the demands of many consumers attempting to interact with the page during peak traffic times, such as during the holiday shopping season or the day when an online marketing campaign hits?

“Having a poorly performing web site is one of the fastest ways for a company to amass disgruntled former customers,” says Forrester Research Inc. in its report, “A Flawless Experience Demands a Fine Balance between Interactivity and Performance.” According to Forrester, consumers expect sites to be engaging, provide personalized information and let them complete tasks quickly.

“However, there is risk that the more rich content and interactive features you add to your site, the harder it will become to achieve either raw or ‘perceived’ performance,” the report says. “Your challenge is to find the proper balance between maximum performance and maximum interactivity.”

That makes ensuring that consumers are experiencing consistent site performance-the job of site performance monitoring-is a more critical and also a more complex task than ever. It’s not enough now for e-retailers to simply ensure that web pages are available and that they download at a speed consistent with industry standards, experts say. With the growing variety of rich media and interactive features appearing on e-retail sites now, from video to product configurators to consumer ratings and reviews, application monitoring is expanding as well.

Staying vigilant

So today, staying on top of site performance also means following how quickly and in what order individual applications load on a site, and how well they execute when consumers engage them. And because consumers are accessing the web through a growing variety of browsers, and different generations of those browsers, an element on a web page may not render consistently for all. Thus, ensuring good site performance for all visitors even extends into measuring how a site’s pages perform in different browsers.

As e-commerce sites continue to evolve, so will the demands of site performance monitoring. Given that, Forrester advises online retailers to be vigilant so as to find performance problems before customers do.

“Customers might not be complaining because they have already switched to your competitor,” the Forrester report notes. “You must proactively measure your performance to ensure that customers are getting the best experience you can afford to provide.”

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