September 29, 2009, 12:00 AM

Speed Sells

Just in time for the holidays, here are five tips for improving e-commerce sit performance.

Online retailers face a double whammy: At the same time as consumers expect more rich features on e-commerce sites, they also want those sites to be faster than ever. Even as retail sites have added bandwidth-clogging features like video, zoom and animated content in recent years, consumers have become less willing to wait for pages to load.

While most online shoppers said in a 2006 survey they would wait 4 seconds for a site to load, when the survey was repeated this summer 47% said they grow impatient when web pages take more than 2 seconds to load.

And least patient are those who shop the most: 61% of those who spend more than $1,500 a year online rated response time as important in determining where they shop, versus 52% for all shoppers, according to the survey by research and consulting firm Forrester Research Inc. and Akamai Technologies Inc., whose global network of servers speeds the delivery of web content.

Retailers need not despair, says Mike Gualtieri, senior analyst at Forrester who specializes in web site performance. “The bad news is that customers want richer content and Internet retailers have to provide it,” he says. “The good news is that improvements in technology allow smarter companies to mitigate the impact on site response.”

With the approaching holiday season sure to dramatically increase traffic to e-commerce sites, here are five tips for improving site performance. And some of them don’t cost a lot of money.

1. Cache as cache can

Many online retailers are aware of content delivery networks that store content on geographically dispersed servers to speed up delivery. But some may not know about the caching resources of their own e-commerce applications.

Sophisticated e-retail platforms can cache commonly requested content, and making use of that resource is one of several steps musical instruments retailer Sam Ash Music Corp. took to reduce demand on its servers and improve site performance, says Igor Gorin, CEO of SysIQ, which hosts the IBM WebSphere platform that SamAsh.com moved to a year ago.

The internal cache of an e-commerce application can store, for instance, a frequently viewed product detail page, Gorin says. To assemble that page from scratch requires reaching into various databases to pull out product name, description, images, price, customer reviews and more. All those trips to and from databases take time. Storing the assembled code of a page in the cache of the e-commerce platform can reduce page loading time from several seconds to less than a second, he says.

When SamAsh.com was on a previous e-commerce platform and using a different site host, company CEO David Ash once had to post an apology to customers for poor site performance. By moving to the IBM WebSphere e-commerce platform, and employing SysIQ-which was familiar with WebSphere-apologies are no longer required, Ash says.

The modern web browsers consumers use now also have considerable caching resources that can speed response times, Gualtieri says. Browsers can store commonly used elements of a web page, such as the logos that appear on every page, so they don’t have to be downloaded when the consumer moves to a new page. “But the programmer has to tell the browser to cache that information,” Gualtieri says. “It doesn’t happen automatically.”

The third common form of caching is to store frequently requested content in the servers of content delivery networks like Akamai and Limelight Networks.

Online jewelry auction site Bidz.com turned to Akamai this summer to accelerate site performance, primarily for overseas customers, and so it could add video to its site.

Pages load about twice as fast now for customers in key Bidz.com markets such as Saudi Arabia, Germany and South America, says Leon Kuperman, president and chief technology officer.

While caching is one big reason, Kuperman also says Akamai can retrieve quickly data that has to be kept centrally on Bidz.com servers-such as bids in an auction-by maintaining always-on connections to the retailer and monitoring the Internet to find the fastest path to the Bidz.com data center.

2. Cut out the fat

When it comes to site performance, every byte counts: the fewer bytes servers have to deliver, the faster a page will load.

Retailers can thin down pages by being smarter about how they employ JavaScript, a programming language that site operators use for web tasks like rotating an item or validating a ZIP code, and style sheets, which control the look of a site.

Often site developers seeking to add a function, such as address field validation, will download an entire standard JavaScript library developed for that purpose. But that library may include 20 routines when a site uses only five, says Matt Poepsel, vice president of performance strategies at Gomez Inc., which monitors web site performance.

“Retailers should take out the ones they don’t need,” Poepsel says. JavaScript can account for as much as 20% of the content of a web page.

Style sheets also can be compressed. Poepsel recently wrote on the Gomez blog about a free tool called Code Beautifier that analyzes a site’s use of style sheets. In the example Poepsel cited, the tool suggested ways to slim down style sheet content by more than a third.

While images often are in formats such as JPG that are already compressed, experts say retailers should monitor their use.

At Ritz Interactive Inc., which operates e-commerce sites RitzCamera.com and BoatersWorld.com, merchandisers select product images and are not always paying attention to their impact on site performance, says Mark Remington, chief technology officer. The Gomez site-monitoring service Ritz uses can identify precisely what part of a page is loading slowly, which helps Remington identify unusually heavy images that slow response times.

Site designers sometimes want to put text into image files so they can present messages with artistic flair, says Simon Rodrigue, assistant vice president of e-commerce at Sears Canada. But those images add more to page weight than standard HTML text. Unless the graphical presentation improves conversion, he suggests, skip the image and stick to text.

3. Find the best route

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