May 1, 2012, 12:00 AM

Are We On?

As web pages pull content from more sources, retailers must run faster to prevent delays.

Lead Photo

Web sites—and the challenge of ensuring that pages load properly—are just not the same as they were only a few years ago.

Content is not only more dynamic, with flashing and interactive images and consumer comments, but it's also being pulled from a larger number of sources. And many of these sources are sitting on the web servers of other companies, often out there in the "cloud"—the popular term for Internet server farms designed to provide client web sites with huge amounts of data storage and on-demand computing power.

For every pull of web content, of course, there's a push of data from a web server. And with many web pages today pushing requests to and pulling content from what can be 10 or more external sources, the chance is good that some content on a page, or an entire page, won't load quickly, if at all. Throw into the mix the surging growth of smartphones and tablets for accessing, viewing and interacting with this content, and you have a recipe for many things that can go wrong.

Not surprisingly, online retailers are finding there's no single piece of technology they can plug in that will address every potential threat to fast page load time. But many rely on a combination of vendor software and services, some of it relatively new or recently upgraded, to meet the challenge.

Balancing act

Among them is Overstock.com Inc., an online retailer that sells some 750,000 SKUs on its e-commerce site, which means it's managing lots of content about its merchandise. That content requires a constant balancing act of providing a good shopping experience while also maintaining fast page load times. It's a challenge made even more difficult by the complexity of modern web pages, with content often pulled from several external as well as internal databases and web sites, 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 response to the need of web site operators for ways to keep complex sites loading quickly, the technology for monitoring and managing the technical performance of web sites has evolved in recent years. "Application performance management used to be thought of as a bunch of separate tools used for a specific job by a specific person," says John Van Siclen, general manager of the Compuware APM business unit of Compuware Corp., a provider of technology and services for monitoring and managing the performance of web sites and web applications. "It was like, when you saw a nail, you pulled a hammer out of the bag. So I.T. had dozens of tools, but nothing correlated."

Web site operators say performance management systems are indeed becoming more useful and easier to use, though they often must deploy multiple systems. Overstock, for instance, relies on performance management applications from Nagios Enterprises LLC as well as from Compuware. And StubHub, the online events tickets retailer owned by eBay Inc., uses site performance monitoring and management systems from vendors including SmartBear Software and Tealeaf Technology Inc.

Both of these retailers say performance management has been an important consideration in site development projects designed to improve the online shopping experience. In one recent upgrade to site functionality at Overstock, the retailer modified its site search function to let shoppers continuously scroll down through what can be hundreds of product listings, instead of having to click through several pages, each with up to 120 product listings. "Now when someone searches for 'sheets,' we bring back all sets of sheets in results the shopper can scroll through to the end," Peterson says.

A recent search on Overstock for "sheets" produced 826 product listings, each with a product photo. It was hard enough to display a page with 120 listings without slowing page load times, so how does Overstock make it possible for a visitor to quickly scroll through 826 listings without experiencing missing content or poor images? In fact, Overstock's pages generally load within one or two seconds, Peterson says.

The secret to providing that long list of product information and imagery without adding to page load time is in Overstock modifying its site search so that only a few listings appear immediately, enough to fill the page area that a site visitor immediately sees. As the visitor scrolls down, the system automatically 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. Overall, "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 application, which provides immediate alerts when pages or particular page content isn't loading properly. Overstock also works with Nagios, a monitoring tool that can pinpoint the part of a page's software code that may be causing a page to load slowly.

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

Eyes in the cloud

Concerns about site performance also extend to the growing reliance of many web sites on cloud-based or Internet-hosted applications.

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