October 30, 2009, 12:00 AM

SPONSORED SUPPLEMENT:Site performance managing a multi-faceted challenge

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“The minimum standards for page downloads are shrinking, so meeting those expectations on the front end are a critical part of getting shoppers to commit to a purchase,” says AlertSite’s Godskind. “It’s not enough to set minimum performance standards, retailers have to understand what it means to their business.”

That means understanding how many shoppers are affected by each problem that exists on an e-commerce site. “Most retailers can’t address every site error as it occurs, so they have to prioritize how they fix errors based on the impact to the customer and their business,” says Mouline.

For example, if real-time performance monitoring shows only a few shoppers are experiencing a site error, or that the issue does not negatively impact conversion or lead to site abandonment, the retailer may want to address a more pressing performance issue.

“Understanding the tolerance level of their customers for certain types of errors can help retailers prioritize how they address performance issues,” adds Mouline. “Real-time monitoring helps retailers make these determinations by seeing how each error impacts their business.”

Certain performance issues are common across the web, and tolerated by many consumers. For instance, a video download may take longer than the customer might like, but, so long as the video plays within an acceptable timeframe, the retailer can take steps to reduce the risk of the customer becoming impatient.

“Showing a descriptive progress message as opposed to a blank white-screen indicates the process is working and can help shoppers in the checkout process be more tolerant of the wait,” says Godskind. “A customer’s tolerance level for performance often depends on where they are in the process. Search and product catalogs need to be snappy while log-in and checkout can take a little longer.”

The customer’s view

Delivering consistently excellent site performance requires an online retailer to understand how its site behaves under varying loads, both in terms of volume of visitors and shopper activity.

Pretesting programming code for new content under simulated loads can identify performance errors before the new content goes live on the site. Once the errors are identified, retailers and their third-party content providers can rewrite the code to eliminate the error.

“There can be up to 1,000 content changes a month for the largest retailers, so pretesting the programming code for those changes is a critical first step in the preproduction phase,” says Hokamp of Savvis. “Retailers want to make sure that they maintain performance levels when new content is loaded onto the site.”

Programming code also needs to be regularly tested once it goes live on the web site. “Testing of code is a lifecycle process,” says Hokamp. “Retail sites today are relying more and more on content from third parties, so they need to have disciplined preproduction, production and postproduction testing schedules.”

Testing is just one method to understand how a site performs under varying loads. Retailers also can gain insights into performance by recording each customer’s shopping session and reviewing it.

AlertSite’s Déjà Click is an advanced, yet easy-to-use browser plug-in for defining and measuring the customer’s site experience. This allows retailers to gather a detailed picture of how their servers, and those of their outsourcing partners, perform under varying loads. It also gives retailers a customer’s view of any performance issues that arise and how they affect the shopping experience.

“DéjàClick’s completely built-into-the-browser technology captures performance metrics for how content is delivered so retailers can quickly identify performance culprits,” says Godskind.

To understand how a consumer is likely to view the performance of a particular feature, such as video or site search, retailers must benchmark their performance with other sites. That includes sites of direct competitors and other noncompeting web sites, keeping in mind that it’s the consumer experience across the Internet that sets expectations. Armed with benchmark data from a range of web sites, a retailer can compare the performance of its own site to understand how it measures up to consumer expectations.

“The better retailers understand how the performance of their site compares to the performance of sites that set customer’s expectations for performance, the better prepared they will be to take steps to bring their sites on par or raise the performance bar,” says Mouline.

Gomez provides services to more than 2,500 customers that test web sites in development and measures and benchmarks them when live, employing a software-as-a-service model that lets client retailers plug into Gomez services via the Internet. Web site and web application performance, as well as the customer’s actual web experience, can be measured from design and development through deployment and production.

As the web continues to account for a larger portion of retail sales, retailers more than ever need on-demand scalability to accommodate peak loads, whether those peaks occur during the holidays or as a result of a marketing campaign or sale.

Cloud computing, which is essentially the delivery of server capacity from an outsourcing partner, is gaining popularity because it can provide retailers with the added capacity they need when they need it. That allows merchants to grow their businesses without the upfront costs associated with building or adding to a data center.

What differentiates cloud computing from a traditional outsourcing model is that capacity is elastic, meaning a retailer can scale capacity up or down in real time as needed. In addition, capacity and other computing resources, such as delivery of applications over the Internet, are usually sold by the hour, which helps reduce operating costs since retailers only buy the resources they need.

Savvis, which services more than 4,000 customers, offers a cloud computing model that allows retailers to outsource their computer processing and data storage and access that infrastructure on demand.

“Retailers need to have the right capacity to support their businesses during peak loads, but they don’t want to have servers being under-utilized during non-peak periods,” says Hokamp. “Cloud computing is the perfect solution to meet these needs.”

Choosing a partner

Once a retailer decides to turn to an outsourcer for help, it must establish criteria for selecting the right partner. When selecting a vendor for site performance monitoring it is recommended that retailers ask whether they can see site performance from an end-user perspective and determine how many shoppers are affected by a site error in real time.

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