October 3, 2006, 12:00 AM

SPONSORED SUPPLEMENT: A New Way to Think About Performance Monitoring

Retailers are deploying measuring and monitoring tools that drill down to the root cause of performance problems to fix the ailment and not just the symptoms.

In today`s ultra-competitive e-retailing environment, web site performance is more critical than ever. Consumer perceptions about an e-retailer`s brand are formed largely on site availability and speed of page downloads, especially during peak shopping periods.

As a result, e-retailers who want to prevent data flows from becoming traffic jams that can slow page downloads need to pay attention to more than just network capacity or network connectivity issues. They must drill down further to find the root cause of any performance problem.

This means measuring and monitoring the amount, type and source of content on a page, geographical locations of servers in relation to the shopper, and the supporting infrastructure behind the pages the customer views, such as e-mail, DNS and FTP servers, to understand how these elements help or hinder web site performance

Keeping the customer relationship

"Retailers need to measure and monitor their site performance from a consumer perspective, because if they don`t, a competitor will and they will lose the customer relationship," says Jaime Ellertson, CEO of Lexington, Mass.-based Gomez Inc.

To gain a consumer`s perspective on web site performance, retailers also need to think in terms of each landing page or link to their site as a doorway that provides access to where the shopper wants to enter the store.

"It is essential to keep tabs on each doorway because it helps retailers understand how critical those pages are to the shopping experience and the processes that support it," says Ken Gross, president and CEO of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.-based AlertSite.

Central to the performance of each page within a retailer`s site are interactive media and streaming video applications that effectively grab the attention of shoppers, but which are still relatively new technologies e-retailers are learning to deploy.

"These are technologies that directly impact site performance and retailers need to understand what the impact on their site is before deploying them," says Ellertson. "The more tricks used to create a rich shopping experience, the harder it becomes to manage site performance."

To effectively manage such applications, e-retailers need to evaluate the cause of errors, such as a break in a Java script, to identify the root of the problem, which may lie in another area of the site. For example, a hacked database can cause a host of unforeseen problems elsewhere on the site, even though the hole the hacker exploited was promptly fixed.

"Retailers need to use metrics to look at the infrastructure that supports their web site," explains Gross. "There is a whole family of technologies and connected devices to the site that need to be monitored beyond the web pages put before the public."

Paying attention to needs

In July, AlertSite, which has 1,800 !=customers worldwide, expanded the cities where it has monitoring locations to 25, opening stations in St. Louis, Mo., Dublin, Ireland, Porto Alegre, Brazil, Stellenbosch, South Africa, and Tokyo. Of AlertSite`s 25 monitoring locations, 12 are in North America.

The increased number of monitoring locations allows AlertSite to track performance metrics with greater accuracy and pinpoint whether performance problems are unique to a single customer or part of a larger problem across a geographic region. The latter is of growing concern to retailers that are expanding their business internationally to cash-in on double-digit sales growth overseas.

"Retailers want measuring and monitoring vendors that pay attention to their needs," adds Ken Godskind, vice president of sales and marketing for AlertSite. "They want to see vendors that are proactive, reach out to them, and perform follow-up to implementation."

When choosing a metrics and measurement !=vendor, retailers are best served by selecting a vendor with extensive experience specifically !=working with e-retailers. Such vendors understand which metrics to measure, such as the shopping cart, speed of checkout, and store locators and how to put that information into data that management and the IT department can act on.

"Reports need to convert techno speak into what the end user saw when a problem occurred, because that`s music to ears of managers," says Ellertson. "The aim is to manage site performance better to drive business results."

The Gomez Performance Network measures site performance through more than 60 globally located Internet backbone agents as well as through a !=network of more than 12,000 consumers !=globally. These end users run Gomez software on their !=personal computers when visiting client sites.

Last mile monitoring

Known as The Last Mile Monitoring, the process provides a unique perspective on site performance. "It is important to get measurements as close to the end user as possible, because retailers need to trust in the measurements and metrics they are seeing," says Matthew Poepsel, vice president of !=performance for Gomez.

Delivering performance measurements and metrics from a consumer perspective opens the door for retailers to track the performance of third-party content, such as user manuals.

Although this data typically comes from the manufacturer and retailers do not have direct control over it, consumers are increasingly looking for this type of content to determine if a product is right for them. Knowing whether the link to that data results in slow page downloads or unavailability of the page allows retailers to work with the manufacturer to fix the problem before it adversely impacts their brand.

"The aim is to take performance measurements that create a consistent user experience, !=regardless of where the data being viewed originates," Ellertson says.

Site security is another performance measurement to which retailers ought to give more weight when selecting a performance measurement and metrics vendor. The ability to offer site and security performance all in one helps ensure consistency in how data is reported.

AlertSite is certified to monitor retailers for !=compliance with the Payment Card Industry (PCI) standards. AlertSite scans for more than 9,000 known vulnerabilities within the retailer`s web site, servers, routers, firewalls and Internet-connected devices. It then categorizes the risks and provides solutions to correct any identified weaknesses.

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