March 8, 2012, 10:25 AM

Overstock.com balances site functionality and load times

A new site search function lets shoppers scroll quickly through results.

Lead Photo

Sam Peterson, senior vice president, Overstock.com Inc.

For an online mass merchant like Overstock.com Inc., managing masses of product content requires a constant balancing act of providing a good shopping experience while also maintaining fast page load times. It’s a challenge made more difficult by the complexity of modern web pages that often feature content pulled from several external and internal sources, says Sam Peterson, senior vice president of technology.

“It’s always a challenge to add more content to a page, but at the same time keep page load times the same,” he says.

Adds Carter Lee, vice president of technology administration: “We’re constantly putting new content out to make the customer experience better and drive revenue, but if it adds to the latency of our web site it can drag down revenue and hurt the customer experience.”

In one recent upgrade to its e-commerce site, Overstock, No. 27 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide, modified its site search function to let shoppers continuously scroll down through what can be hundreds of product listings, instead of having to click to through several pages, each with a maximum of 120 product listings. The change could potentially slow down the site’s load time.

But a recent search on Overstock for “sheets” produced 826 product listings, each with a product photo, which a visitor could quickly scroll through and see descriptions and images for each product. Overstock’s pages generally load within one or two seconds, Peterson adds.

To provide that functionality without adding to page load time, Overstock modified its site search so that enough listings appear immediately to fill the page area that a site visitor immediately sees. As the visitor scrolls down, the system continuously loads more images, leaving virtually no interruption in the viewing of product listings.

Forcing the page to scroll down quickly to the bottom results in a slight delay, less than a second, for some product images to fully appear. “It gives a nice customer experience and better site performance,” Peterson says.

Before Overstock went live with its new site search feature, however, it tested the load time performance with the Compuware Gomez site monitoring tool from Compuware Corp., which provides alerts when pages or particular page content isn’t loading properly.  Overstock also works with Nagios, a monitoring tool that enables it to drill down into particular software code that may be causing pages to load slowly.

“We had some tweaking to do so we could make sure the site performance we were expecting was what the end-user was also seeing,” says Peterson.

Peterson will speak on mobile commerce technology at the Internet Retailer & Exhibition in June in a session titled “The key to tablet owners’ hearts: apps.” Also at IRCE, Chris Reighley, director of e-commerce, Totes-Isotoner, will speak on site search in a session titled “Refining site search to meet your company’s needs.”

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