February 4, 2004, 12:00 AM

10 Ways to Boost Site Performance

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Now some Internet retailers, including FootJoy.com and Camper.com, are enhancing product images with newly emerging rich Internet applications that showcase products in better detail without sacrificing reasonable load times.

Rich Internet applications are based on web services technology and extensible markup language. Instead of using slower object orientation, flat files and older Java programming to display merchandise in a rich media environment, RIAs utilize XML feeds and other web services to integrate audio, video and text images more seamlessly.

For many retailers, using rich Internet applications to improve product displays means replacing static product images and text with sophisticated merchandising configurations that allow shoppers to personalize what they’re buying.

In September, FootJoy, a division of Acushnet Co., used rich Internet application technology and Macromedia Flash MX to re-launch MyJoys.com, seller of golf shoes. With RIA applications, customers can access a sophisticated shoe creation interface that allows them to see precisely what their shoe will look like as they design, change and personalize their order using 68 product configurations. The product configurator offers shoppers two base and 14 saddle cover options, plus the chance to personalize the shoe with up to three initials or numbers.

With rich Internet applications serving as the base technology for MyJoy.com, the product configurator is integrated with a shopping cart and checkout process that includes encryption, anti-fraud credit card checking, real-time address verification and a tax calculator. Product display is further enhanced because the product configuator allows users to save images of their custom shoe orders to an individual wish list page and to track the progress of their order through the manufacturing process.

Site performance is enhanced at the RIA-based store, FootJoy says, because the new images take less bandwidth to maintain, and customers click on fewer pages to find and compare the style and price of the specific golf shoes they want. “Rich Internet applications improve our product display capacity because we are presenting the customer with a better shopping experience that combines better imaging with interactive features that let them build shoes the way they want,” says Mike Lowe, Internet marketing manager for Aschunet. “We will extend this technology to our other brands.”

To date, European retailers such as Camper.com, an online Spanish shoe store, have been the first to make full use of rich Internet applications. But Tom Hill, chief technology officer for IconMedialab USA in St. Louis, believes the technology will catch on with U.S. web merchants looking to improve their product display strategies. “RIAs are transforming the ways retailers interact with customers online,” Hill says. “By displaying product images and information more seamlessly, RIAs enhance the shopping experience.”

5. Fine-tuning site search

Enhancing the performance of a site search box means more than just giving shoppers a generic tool to check out available inventory. If executed correctly, updating internal search engine applications with improved meta-tags, adding more sophisticated ways to help customers narrow their merchandise selections, and integrating search pages with Buy Now buttons or links to similar categories can help retailers reduce the time needed to turn browsers into buyers and increase conversion rates.

Altrec.com, for instance, has used advanced search engine technology from Atomz to more than double the sales conversion rate on certain outdoor apparel items it sells online and to reduce to under 3 seconds the time it takes customers to find a product.

The Internet retailer made specific improvements to page titles, keyword meta-tags, product description meta-tags and data elements that not only helped shoppers broaden the way they conducted a product search, but also returned more specialized results.

For instance, Altrec’s web development staff refined four categories of meta-tags to catch common misspellings. “If people typed in a misspelling of North Face, they had to come as close as possible to the correct spelling for our search engine database to recognize the term and get them to the right product page,” says Shannon Stowell, Altrec co-founder and vice president of business development. “Now the internal search function is more intuitive. The database can recognize multiple misspellings or combinations, but still deliver pages and categories that go straight to our North Face product line.”

Stowell says a well-organized vocabulary and blueprint is the key to improving site search performance. In addition to expanding the use of meta-tags, Altrec also has:

-- Made its search form highly visible at the top of the home page and inside product pages.

-- Provided pricing information with site search results.

-- Broken search results into user-friendly categories.

-- Shown product images and thumbnails with individual searches.

-- Placed an Add Item to Shopping Cart button on search results pages.

-- Analyzed search reports to see what visitors are looking for, in their own words.

-- Utilized web analytics to monitor conversions tied to search results.

“Shopping online is an emotional process. Implementing a well thought-out search engine strategy will increase performance and sales,” says Steven R. Kusmer, Atomz chairman and CEO. “People walk out of highly unorganized stores, and the same analogy applies to the web. If the search box doesn’t deliver results quickly and intuitively, shoppers will leave in an instant.”

6. Increasing responsiveness

During the recent holiday shopping season, when customers took to the web in record numbers, many Internet retailing sites strained under the volume of transactions. Shoppers needed almost 22 seconds on average to load a home page using a Macintosh PowerBook with a 56Kbps connection, according to a holiday shopping index of 14 retailing sites maintained by researchers and consultants Web Site Optimization LLC.

By now, online retailers are aware of the potential loss of business caused by slow performance. And web merchants such as Sears Canada, which has seen its annual online sales rise to more than $120 million and its average daily number of unique visitors reach more than 100,000, are taking measures to correct slow performance.

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