June 24, 2010, 1:52 PM

Prepping a site for Santa

Rising sales, rich media and mobile commerce pose site performance challenges for the holidays.

Every year, online retailers face the chore of testing the ability of their web sites to handle peak holiday shopping season traffic. But this year the combination of rising online sales, the spread of rich media and the growing popularity of mobile commerce pose new site performance challenges for the holidays, experts say.

The confluence of these developments will put more pressure on e-retailers to test user experience from multiple locations and for mobile as well as more conventional computing devices, says Donald Foss, director of global testing services for Keynote Systems Inc., a provider of site performance monitoring technology and services.

The spread of rich media and more interactive features on e-commerce sites, he notes, is resulting in more complicated software applications. And the more complicated the software running on a site the more software components that the retailer needs to test to ensure they all function properly under heavy traffic volumes.

In addition, with more e-commerce applications running in Internet “cloud” environments, such as database servers hosted by an outside company’s web server farm, retailers must be careful to test site performance from outside their own firewalls, including from multiple locations where their customers are based, Foss adds.

Even upgrades designed to increase a web site’s ability to handle more traffic volume should be tested, says Dave Karow, senior product manager at Keynote.

“If a web site’s server can take 10,000 hits at once this year instead of 5,000, that doesn’t mean visitors won’t see error pages,” he says. “And if a site was rebuilt with a new front end with gee-whiz technology like rich media, it might not be able to handle the same volume it handled last year.”

Retailers should also consider the types of consumers frequenting their web site, which can provide insight into the level of expectations of site performance among their customer base. Consumers who are relatively affluent, who use high-speed Internet connections and who access the web via mobile devices tend to be the most demanding of site performance—and the most likely to abandon a poorly performing site for a competitor’s site, Foss says.

Keynote provides the following checklist for preparing an e-commerce site for peak volume in this year’s holiday shopping season:


● Load test the new features that were added to your site since last year’s holiday shopping season. 

● Test from where your customers are.  Don’t rely on just your internal “behind the firewall” testing; that’s the No. 1 way retailers get in trouble. 

● Test from multiple geographic locations. The user experience of visitors to your retail site differs significantly depending on their geographic location.

● Test all paths to your online users.  Load test the entire web application infrastructure, from the browser all the way to the data center, by using a load testing solution that allows you to script a realistic customer transaction from multiple locations.


Some retailers already are preparing for a spike in web traffic from holiday shoppers. “Traffic spikes sometimes strain system resources at any online retailer, especially during the holidays,” says Eric Klose, senior vice president of sales and marketing for CSN Stores LLC, No. 61 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide, and which operates more than 200 niche retail sites. “This year, we have invested more time and money into upgrading our servers and software to ensure we won’t have unexpected downtime.”

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