November 1, 2010, 12:00 AM

Sponsored Supplement: Site Performance – Speed equals success

Keeping e-commerce sites loading quickly gets steadily trickier as those sites become more complex. There's a science to maintaining site performance, and e-retailers must keep up with it. Gorgeous product shots and engaging video are great, and online shoppers have come to expect to find such engaging content at retail web sites. But they still expect those sites to load quickly. If a shopper has to wait even a few seconds, she may well move on to a competitor's site before that stunning product image even appears.

That's why online retailers must keep up with the latest techniques for ensuring their web sites load quickly, even as those sites add new features and become increasingly reliant on content and technology from other companies. Many performance strategies are subtle, but not expensive to implement once you know how. And social networks provide a useful early warning system of any problems that do develop on an e-retailer's site.

Retailers can have their rich media and fast download times, too, if they're savvy about site performance, experts say.

"Now that web sites are more interactive, there are a lot of variables that go into achieving fast download times," says Theo Schlossnagle, CEO and co-founder of OmniTI, a consulting firm that focuses on solving technical problems for e-commerce businesses. "A lot of site performance issues are related to site design and usability, but that does not mean retailers have to redesign their site to optimize download speeds. They can do it by reorganizing the order in which page content loads."

Frequent culprits for slow page downloads are commands for running analytics inserted near the top or in the middle of the content-loading sequence. Commands to download and launch tracking analytics are complex and web browsers typically stop downloading other content, such as images, and focus only on downloading the analytics code. This "single-threading" can add several seconds for the consumer's web browser to translate instructions. That can slow the download to the point the consumer thinks the page downloading sequence has stalled, prompting her to abandon the site.

"Inserting commands for analytics high in the downloading sequence can create a traffic jam that leaves the consumer with a page that is only partially downloaded," says Vik Chaudhary, vice president of product management and corporate development for Keynote Systems Inc., a provider of Internet and mobile web site performance monitoring and testing. "Moving commands to load analytics to the bottom of the loading sequence allows dynamic content that will engage the consumer to load immediately and uninterrupted."

Flash in a flash

It's also important that retailers be smart about how they use Flash, a technology commonly used on web sites to display video and animated graphics. Dynamic content created using Flash can take up to five seconds to download, far too long for consumers accustomed to content downloading in a second or two on top-performing sites. Again, there are techniques that let retailers use Flash, without the performance hit.

"When creating a Flash file, retailers need to take the performance characteristics of Flash into account," says Peter Kirwan, vice president of strategy for Neustar Inc., the provider of Webmetrics Performance Monitoring services. "One solution to ensure Flash files download quickly is to design the file so a portion of it loads fast enough that it can be viewed while the remainder of the file loads."

Downloading the first few minutes of a video created with Flash, for instance, allows the consumer to launch and view it right away, while the remaining portion downloads in the background.

"It is not always how fast all the content downloads, but how quickly consumers can interact with the content while the remainder of it downloads without the customer noticing," Kirwan adds.

Web retailers nowadays can display images with the vibrant color of high-resolution photos. But it takes a lot of Internet bandwidth to make sure such rich imagery downloads quickly. Slightly reducing the resolution of the images and colors displayed can improve page download times without noticeably reducing image quality. Resolution is typically measured in dots per inch, or DPI.

"There should be different DPI resolutions for images that are being downloaded for display on the web versus high-resolution images that can be printed from the web," says Gary Beerman, vice president, product management, for AlertSite, a provider of web and mobile performance management solutions. "As far as image quality goes, most consumers will not be able to tell the difference."

Larger graphic images within a web page can be compressed, thereby speeding the time it takes to download. "Compression programs will ask the server if the image is to be displayed or printed, which allows the retailer to determine the image resolution on a case by case basis," says Beerman.

Keep data close

Data caching, a process through which static data is stored in and accessed through the consumer's web browser, can increase the speed at which content is downloaded for customers returning to a site. Static data is typically information that rarely changes, such as store locations and hours, FAQ pages, return policies and customer service contact information.

When a repeat shopper requests data on her next visit, the request goes directly to her cache where it was previously stored. That reduces the time required for serving up that data compared to requesting the same information from a host server. The consumer doesn't really care where the data is coming from, as long as it appears on her screen quickly.

"Repeat visitors know the information they are looking for and expect it to be delivered fast," says Beerman. "If the requested information is static data, it makes a lot more sense from a performance perspective to cache it. Expiration dates can also be assigned to cached data to avoid the risk that it becomes dated."

While measuring the average time it takes for a page to download is a straightforward way of tracking site performance, retailers must keep in mind that it is just one metric. There are many other ways a consumer's shopping experience can be slowed, such as broken links to pages deep within a site that cause the consumer to hit the refresh button or indirect navigation paths.

Such problems can be hard to spot if not reported by consumers, which is why retailers want to constantly track conversion, bounce and site abandonment rates. "These are metrics that will reveal alterations in shopper behavior and indicate if site performance is falling off in other ways," says OmniTI's Schlossnagle.

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