November 1, 2010, 12:00 AM

Sponsored Supplement: Site Performance – Speed equals success

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"A retailer that is working with an ad network does not want to have to wait for an ad to load before the rest of its page can finish loading," says OmniTI's Schlossnagle. "The retailer is better off leaving that space blank for a few seconds so the customer can start interacting with the content they want sooner than to risk losing the customer because the content provider slowed site performance."

Retailers are advised to establish agreements with outside content providers regarding their availability and performance. "Retailers shouldn't risk sacrificing the user experience on their site when working with a third-party content provider," Schlossnagle adds.

Among the questions retailers should ask third-party content providers is the number of clients they have and whether they have the server capacity to handle unexpected traffic spikes on their networks.

"A lot of problems can occur for third-party content providers when multiple clients have sales or special promotions that can generate a lot of traffic," says AlertSite's Beerman. "If the third party can't handle the load, all their clients will experience performance problems."

Mobile performance

As damaging as site performance problems can be to the results of a retailer's e-commerce site, they are magnified on m-commerce sites because of the smaller screens of smartphones and the varying speeds of the wireless networks that those phones connect to.

Though sales of smartphones are exploding, the wireless networks can't yet match the speeds of landline Internet connections. As a result, while a consumer at a personal computer can load a page on an e-commerce site in under two seconds much of the time, the average m-commerce site home page loads in 5.61 seconds.

"Retailers have no control over the speed of the phone network, so they have to respect the latency of the mobile connection to the site server and frame m-commerce pages to serve up critical content in the first data packet transmitted," says OmniTI's Schlossnagle. "Basically, the mobile web browser can't be asking a lot of questions of the site server because the time it takes to complete the round trip of the question and answer can be quite lengthy."

Best practices for designing an m-commerce site start with making sure the site properly formats to the smartphone used by the consumer. Web site servers can be programmed to recognize the signal emitted by the phone's web browser and deliver a web page specifically formatted to the device.

Retailers must be sure to have their servers ask the phone's web browser about the size of the device's screen and its pixel resolution, as newer models have improved screen resolution, according to Keynote's Chaudhary.

When creating an m-commerce site retailers should reduce the amount of the content compared to their e-commerce site. "M-commerce sites have to be sleeker because the lack of screen real estate on a smartphone limits functionality and how much content can fit on the screen," says Beerman. "The generation of shoppers growing up with m-commerce has much different expectations of the user experience than the e-commerce generation."

'No longer an experiment'

The rapidly growing ranks of smartphone owners are also becoming more accustomed to buying on those sophisticated handsets. A recent study by Lightspeed Research shows 48% of mobile phone owners have bought something on their phones, even if most of the purchases are of apps, games and ringtones.

"M-commerce is no longer an experiment and retailers that venture into it need to be prepared to deliver the site performance mobile users expect, so they must test performance, availability and optimization of their m-commerce sites extensively," says Chaudhary.

Once retailers know their m-commerce sites will format properly on smartphones, they need to carefully select the content they want to show on each page. The small screen size means less room for graphics or for lengthy product descriptions that would force consumers to scroll down to read.

"The rule for an m-commerce site is: Don't provide more information than is necessary or show images that require the consumer to zoom in for more detail, because there is not a lot of room on a smartphone screen," says Neustar Webmetrics' Kirwan.

There is an alternative to a mobile commerce site that can improve performance: developing apps tailored to popular smartphones, such as the iPhone, BlackBerry or the growing number of phones that use the Android operating system. Apps store data on the phone, which means they don't have to download as much content from a retailer's data center, speeding up performance. "Retailers that are serious about m-commerce will want to design a phone app because it is a way to cement relationships with existing mobile customers and bring them back to the site," Kirwan says.

With e-commerce sales on the rise despite a tepid economic recovery and m-commerce emerging as the next big wave in retailing, merchants will be relying on their web and mobile initiatives to provide a greater share of revenue than ever. Meeting consumer expectations of good site performance is no longer optional.

"The advances in e-commerce and m-commerce technology are making consumers more impatient than ever when it comes to site performance," says Keynote's Chaudhary. "Retailers that meet consumer performance expectations are going to be the ones that win the consumer's trust and keep them coming back by providing a good, reliable shopping experience."

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