November 1, 2010, 12:00 AM

Sponsored Supplement: Site Performance – Speed equals success

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Capturing the actual shopping session through the consumer's web browser and sending that data back to the host server provides a bird's-eye view of how a site is performing.

"It's important to understand how the site is actually performing for the customer as opposed to simulating the user experience," Schlossnagle says. "Retailers should also capture performance data on a regional basis and compare performance data by region, as well as compare how consumers are reacting to site performance region by region. It's this level of reporting that makes it possible to adjust performance hourly."

Founded in 1997, OmniTI helps retailers address scalability, performance, and security issues by providing web site design services, creating user experience solutions, writing custom applications and providing ongoing operational support of large-scale Internet databases.

Voice of the customer

Social media sites where consumers share all sorts of opinions are excellent resources for researching consumer sentiment about site performance. It's especially easy to track consumer sentiment on Twitter. After logging on to Twitter.com, a retailer can enter "#," the name of its site and a keyword, such as "slow" or "performance," in the site search box (i.e., # xyzretailer slow). The results will show any comments about the retailer's site loading slowly.

"There is so much information being exchanged between consumers on Twitter about site performance that retailers should be scanning it to hear what consumers are actually saying about them," says Keynote's Chaudhary. "Plus, it's easy to conduct a search for the information."

Putting performance metrics into perspective begins with getting a baseline measurement of competing sites. Measuring performance of a competitor's site, and of non-competitors' sites, eliminates the guesswork about consumer expectations for performance.

"Benchmarking is a great way to improve performance standards, because it allows retailers to know how their site stacks up against other sites consumers are frequenting," says Chaudhary. "It also helps them put consumer comments about performance into perspective."

Keynote's global monitoring network, which is comprised of more than 3,000 computers and mobile devices in more than 240 locations and 160 metropolitan areas, gathers more than 400 million performance measurements daily for online portals, e-commerce sites, business-to-business sites, mobile operators and mobile infrastructure providers.

Unexpected issues

The cornerstone of performance monitoring remains testing, especially after a retailer adds new programming code or a new application to its site. While the new code or application may function properly, their addition can create potential performance problems downstream in the site.

"More than just the home page and primary pages impacted by the new code or an application must be tested after making a change to the site," says Neustar Webmetrics' Kirwan. "Changes to the site can create unexpected problems deep in the site that can initially go undetected if retailers don't thoroughly check total site performance after implementing a change."

When a performance problem is spotted, the rule of thumb is to test all the servers a retailer employs to determine if it is a network-wide or regional problem. Neustar Webmetrics tests the problem a minimum of three times across the network to locate the origin and scope of the issue.

"It's always best to check the problem out on different servers in the network to determine the extent of the problem before yelling fire," adds Kirwan.

That's hardly overkill when retailers consider the potential financial impact of site performance problems. Each malfunctioning page link or slow-loading page raises the possibility the shopper may abandon the retailer's site and not return.

That can be an expensive proposition for retailers since performance slowdowns can cost them about $4,000 an hour in sales on average, according to AlertSite's Beerman. And while e-retailers may lie awake at night worrying about their sites becoming completely unavailable, what's more likely to occur—10 times more likely, in fact—is that a site will slow down but still function, according to analyst Bojan Simic of TRAC Research.

"A retailer can lose $20,000 for each hour from downtime, but with slowdowns 10 times more likely to occur they represent the greater potential for lost business over the long term because most retailers have achieved at least 99.5% site availability," says Beerman. "Retailers need to look at all the elements of their site that can slow performance."

AlertSite's DejaClick monitoring solution measures a web site and mobile site performance from multiple geographic locations for every recorded consumer interaction and records consumer interactions from inside the web browser to provide a consumer perspective of site performance. More than 2,300 companies use AlertSite's suite of monitoring services to increase their return on investment from e-commerce and mobile commerce sites.

Partner problems

Even if a retailer is doing a good job of providing its own web data and content to the consumer the site may appear to be loading slowly because other service providers the retailer has engaged may be slowing site performance. These days many companies have a role in a retailer's e-commerce site, from ad networks to providers of ratings and reviews and real-time inventory counts. When performance of a third-party partner slips, shoppers will hold the retailer responsible.

"Web sites are more distributed today than ever, so it's important for retailers to monitor the performance of all their third-party partners, not just their server network and data center," says Neustar Webmetrics' Kirwan. "Retailers that track the performance of a third-party partner along with performance data for their own site, and share all of that data with their partners, help each partner better understand how they impact the retailer's site."

Neustar's Webmetrics Performance Monitoring services test, monitor and measure the performance of web sites, web applications and transactions, web services, network services and streaming media to ensure consumer expectations for performance are met along with 24/7 uptime. External monitoring is conducted by a network of agents in more than 100 cities globally.

One tip for working with outside content providers: Decouple the other company's content from the retail site's page-loading sequence.

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