August 31, 2011, 9:50 AM

Find and Fix

With so many features impacting site performance, retailers must know where to look when pages slow

Lead Photo

New site features have helped propel sales at web-only marine supplies retailer Wholesale Marine over the last three years. "We've seen about a 40% growth in sales this year over last, along with an increase of more than 40% in conversion rates," says John Bissman, manager of e-commerce. And that's on top of a strong 2009, he adds.

Some of the add-ons that have boosted sales include personalized product recommendations through Baynote Inc. and a more effective site search and navigation system from a partnership between Thanx Media and Endeca Technologies Inc.

In addition, Wholesale Marine has built its own parts-finder tool on top of its Miva Merchant e-commerce platform. The parts-finder tool, combined with the site search function, has proved particularly effective at winning over shoppers who often find it difficult to find just the right part for their water craft—such as the right propeller based on a number of variables: fresh or salt water, sport fishing or water-skiing, ultimate power or fuel efficiency.

And like most e-retailers these days, Wholesale Marine is punctuating its web pages with Facebook Like and Twitter buttons to build on its reputation through the viral currency of social media.

But while all these interactive features help Wholesale Marine to splash up its conversion rates and sales, they raise Bissman's concerns about the performance of his e-commerce site. It's up to him to make sure all these elements work properly; if any one of them breaks down or loses its connections with remote web servers hosted by other companies it could take down web pages or even the entire site.

And Bissman isn't the only e-retailer worrying about the performance of his increasingly complex web site. Web pages on retail e-commerce sites today often are made up of 20 or more components, including videos, Facebook buttons, customer reviews, and tags for tracking site activity for analytics applications or advertising networks. While retailers always have watched how fast their sites load, now they have to look at performance in a more granular way, identifying and tracking the speed of each application so they can quickly identify the source of a problem when a site starts slowing down.

Combined with steady growth in site traffic, performance managers have a bigger and tougher job every year.

"As more features are put on a site, it makes it harder to maintain. And as our customer base grows, we get more hits and it adds to the level of complexity," says Mike Tran, technology and business developer for Sierra Trading Post, a web and catalog retailer with four bricks-and-mortar outlet stores.

'Held hostage'

The challenge for retailers is amplified further by the widespread use on e-commerce sites of applications, such as Google Analytics and hosted shopping carts, that constantly make data calls to external web domains. If those external domains don't respond quickly, the retailer's page loads slowly. "Your site is essentially being held hostage by those domains," says Mike Gualtieri, a principal analyst specializing in web application technology at Forrester Research Inc.

Once web pages take two seconds or more to load, abandonment rates rise and conversion rates decline sharply, according to data compiled by Gomez, the site performance division of Compuware Corp. And a June 2011 survey of 60 online marketers shows they expect to lose 10% of site visitors for every extra second a site takes to load, according to TagMan, a provider of services for managing tags on web pages.

That's a problem because the growing number of traffic-tracking tags on retail sites inevitably slows them down. Each tag on a site can take from 100 to 250 milliseconds, or up to one quarter of a second, to load, TagMan CEO Paul Cook says.

And the hot trend of tying e-commerce sites to social media isn't making things any easier. TagMan found that the Google +1 button (Google's answer to the Facebook Like button) slows page loads by a full second, and that the Facebook Like button slows load times by 0.2 second. "This means featuring both plug-ins on a page adds about 1.2 seconds to its page load time," Cook says.

How to cope

But there are ways for retailers to keep up site performance.

Sierra Trading Post, which recently launched a new site design with more elements like product color swatches, customer reviews and "quick view" product detail windows that pop up from product images, works with AlertSite, a web and mobile performance monitoring technology application from SmartBear Software, to continuously check the performance of its web pages. Its new site features up to 100 products on a page, up from a maximum of 60 on the old site. "We can see if all 100 images are loading properly," says Tran. "We get notified by AlertSite if any images are down."

When there's a problem, the retailer can drill down to see what it is. If a customer comes to a page on SierraTradingPost.com, clicks a sale banner and lands on a blank page, AlertSite will capture an image of the error page and send it to the retailer. "Then we're able to see if a particular web server was down, or if there was bad programming code," Tran says.

Retailers also use performance management technology to ensure that page tags that track advertising programs are not slowing down a site while measuring how often visitors are interacting with the ads.

OneStop, which operates retail sites for more than 30 apparel brands including Nicole Miller and 7 For All Mankind, uses technology from Tealium to monitor and manage multiple online advertising programs—without having to bother OneStop's I.T. department as it had in the past. "This enables us to go to market and test media buys much quicker," says Mike Africa, OneStop's senior vice president of client service.

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