July 2, 2012, 10:40 AM

Don't Dilly-Dally

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Jason Miller, chief technology officer and vice president of technology at Motorcycle Superstore Inc., uses a content delivery network from Akamai Technologies Inc., which stores all of the data required to build the m-commerce site on many of its 105,000 servers in 78 countries. This way, when a shopper on a smartphone types in a URL or clicks on a link, the data is as geographically close to her as possible, reducing the time it takes for data to get to the shopper's smartphone.

Miller, who declines to reveal the cost of using the Akamai network, says it can shave seconds from its pages' load times, and that 70% of shoppers receive data from the nearest Akamai servers, thus avoiding a trip to Motorcycle Superstore's servers. The average page load time over a 3G network for the ultra-light site, the company reports, is just under two seconds.

Lange at Sierra Trading Post uses Limelight Networks Inc.'s content delivery network. He says the monthly fee is several thousand dollars. He stresses that retailers should explore all their options when looking for a content delivery network.

"I can tell you over the years when CDNs first came out and Akamai was the only game in town, that was an expensive, premium-level service, but now folks are a lot more competitive," Lange says. "I saved several thousand per month just by shopping around at different vendors. That's shopping around and testing them to see who was the fastest."

Programming tricks

But there's much a retailer can do on its own to speed performance. That includes a series of programming tricks that are technical but easy to learn, retailers and performance experts say.

Keynote Systems advises its clients to use three primary techniques to ensure speedy page loads: CSS sprites, uniform resource identifier encoding and reduced domain name system look-ups.

A Cascading Style Sheet, or CSS, sprite is a tool that enables a programmer to place multiple images within the sprite. This way, rather than a server having to deliver five images taking five trips to the smartphone, it only has to make one trip, delivering the sprite, which on the smartphone side is opened by a CSS and placed in the appropriate position. CSS is a markup language used to design pages and define where objects appear on a page.

Uniform resource identifier encoding involves a programmer turning a file such as a GIF or PNG image into a string of alphanumeric characters via Base 64 encoding. The programmer encodes the file, which actually increases its size by about 30%, Keynote says. But then that file can be compressed through a common Internet tool known as gzip. Then the file is about 5% larger than the original.

The programmer then includes the gzipped file within the HTML file. In the end, the programmer avoids an extra round-trip per server per encoded file, and that means more for speed compared with adding a couple of extra bytes in a single request, Keynote says.

Master of your domain

And finally Keynote advises retailers to reduce the number of Domain Name System, or DNS, look-ups required to piece together a site on a smartphone.

"When you type in an address, one of the first things that happens is a Domain Name System look-up that converts Sears.com, for example, into an Internet Protocol address," says Harker of Keynote. "On the wired web these are really fast, as fast as 20 milliseconds. But in the mobile space, because it requires a round-trip conversation between your phone and a server at the end of a wireless connection, it's every bit as slow as doing another request on your page. So it's like adding four more objects on your page."

A retailer may have a DNS call to its Omniture analytics software, a Google Analytics DNS call, an in-house marketing analytics DNS call, and others. "Each of these DNS look-up calls takes at least a quarter of a second. They add up to a whole second very quickly and the user experience suffers as a result," Harker says. "So keep the number of requests to serve a page to a minimum. Each individual item, style sheet, object, requires a conversation between a phone and web server over high-latency wireless connections. The fewer of those conversations you have to have the better."

Harker says a retailer could get away with as many as 50 DNS look-ups on a wired connection where broadband speeds excel. But for a mobile site over a wireless network, Keynote recommends its retail customers have 10 or fewer requests per page.

"The faster the pages, the fewer requests, the less likely you will have a timeout because a carrier is slow at the moment," Harker says. A timeout is when a page load is stopped because the connection between the device and the server is broken. "The better performing a site is, the fewer concerns over mobile networks."

And when a site is performing well in terms of speed, it stands a better chance of performing well in terms of sales. Smartphone users tend to be impatient, and making them wait is a recipe for disaster. Retailers serious about m-commerce are using all the technology and techniques at their disposal to boost speed. They know if they don't, they could be wasting their investment in mobile commerce.



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