Holiday E-Commerce: As Excuses Run Out, Preparation is Key to Success
:: By Mehdi Daoudi, Catchpoint Systems ::
The potential for record-breaking revenue opportunities looms large with each holiday e-commerce shopping season. This makes any performance glitch during the holidays – a sluggish or unreliable website, mobile site or app - increasingly unpalatable.
The Black Friday/Cyber Monday long weekend may be a small window of time, but it can make or break online retailers’ revenues for the year. Still, e-commerce brands large and small have a history of crumbling under the flood of holiday traffic. This year, it was Macy’s that captured headlines – they were so inundated with traffic to their desktop website on Black Friday that they were forced to put shoppers in a queue, followed by eight hours of downtime for their mobile site the very next day. Old Navy also experienced intermittent outages throughout Cyber Monday – the worst possible timing. In 2015, major brand names like Neiman-Marcus and Target were among those to go down, while Best Buy made headlines for its outage in 2014.
Downtime or poor performance is sometimes unavoidable. No one could have foreseen the Dyn DNS outage a few weeks ago, which brought down many of the world’s leading websites. But those rare attacks aside, there are really no excuses for a major retailer to go down or go slow this year. Most performance problems under heavy load can be avoided, with the right planning. Here are several tips for optimizing performance and making it through the holiday e-commerce season unscathed:
Focus on Mobile
Preparing for a massive event like the holidays is a matter of evaluating all opportunities for optimization, and then capitalizing on those that will have the biggest positive impact on the customer experience. That opportunity is likely to involve mobile. ComScore research reported a total of $12.7 billion was spent via mobile devices during the months of November and December 2015 – a 59 percent jump from the year prior. Adobe believes mobile devices will see more shopping visits than desktop sites this year.
Success in mobile requires keeping sites as slim as possible. The webpage load time (e.g., the time it takes for enough page elements to load in order for a user to begin interacting with the page) for many e-commerce sites tends to increase in the run-up to the holidays, due to pages growing heavier with marketing content or product images. According to a recent analysis of mobile retail site performance, in Q3 2016, these sites were already showing slower speeds than Q4 2015. This is a dangerous trajectory, and e-commerce companies must realize that site performance trumps feature-richness when it comes to ensuring happy, satisfied customers. When conducting commerce on mobile devices, customers tend to not care about having many bells and whistles. They care more about getting into and out of the site and making their purchases quickly.
For Both Desktop and Mobile, Optimize Your Images
While heavy pages can have an especially negative impact on mobile site performance (given congested, constrained mobile networks), the same directive to “lighten up” is equally applicable to desktop sites. Marketing teams often blanket sites with excessive images and graphics to promote products or sales. Big beautiful images may be appealing to the eye at first glance, but if these impede a site’s speed or reliability, customers won’t be impressed for long.
Using fewer images, and ensuring those remaining are lightweight and compressed, can keep webpage load times down and customer satisfaction up. If reducing the number of graphics simply isn’t an option, then enlisting web acceleration services is the next line of defense.
Deploy Web Acceleration Services
Content delivery networks (CDNs) are becoming a standard for e-commerce companies. The geographic distance between a site’s servers and its customers is often a factor in excessive load time and other performance issues. Deploying a CDN requires minimal setup and can have an amazing impact on the user experience by accelerating the delivery to customers across the globe. There are many CDN options available now, but Cloudflare, Fastly, Instart Logic and Verizon Edgecast are all dependable choices that can deliver added security benefits as well.
It’s important to remember that peak traffic periods like the holidays, are peak periods for major CDNs as well. Content delivery is a mission-critical function and ecommerce sites using these services would be well advised to deploy multiple services, or have contingency plans in place to bump to another provider if a primary provider encounters performance problems.
Watch Your Third Parties Closely
Practically every e-commerce website depends on external third party services for important functions, from marketing and behavioral analytics, to features like social media plug-ins, video streaming and ratings and reviews. E-commerce companies are especially vulnerable to third party performance issues during the holiday shopping season, because like CDNs these third parties – serving many websites – are also under extremely heavy load. These services aren’t made to handle such a volume of consumers, so they often fail when online retailers need them the most.
For example, on Black Friday, Williams-Sonoma had ongoing performance issues as a result of problems with Photorank, by Olapic, a customer photo display service that integrates within a retailer’s website and is designed to help drive conversions with user-generated content (see image). Both the retailer’s desktop and mobile sites had load time spikes around 25 seconds – slow by any standards. Wal-mart experienced several issues throughout the long weekend, including spotty desktop web performance starting in Phoenix then extending to New York City and Denver, all resulting directly from an issue with a Rubicon Project tag. The desktop sites of Lenovo, QVC and Newegg also experienced issues directly attributable to third-party tags on Cyber Monday, with Lenovo’s webpage load time spiking to more than 18 seconds in the middle of the day.
While third-party services offer many benefits to sites including faster, easier access to needed services and richer customer experiences, one must also remember that each service represents a potential point of liability, or even failure. Retailers are at the mercy of each third-party service they have running - all it takes is one of these services to slow down or fail, for the entire website to grind to a halt.
So the first rule of thumb during the holidays is to keep the number of third-party services to a minimum. When services are essential and must be there – payment and analytics, for example – e-commerce sites should consider deploying asynchronous loading. In asynchronous loading, site elements and functions are arranged to load in a sequential order and will “skip” over any slow-loading elements, maintaining the user perception of a fast page download even if all the elements are not yet available.
All third parties being considered for holiday e-commerce need to be thoroughly vetted in advance. Sites need to understand their own performance under load both before and after a third-party service is added, to gauge if any potential performance impact is worth the service’s value. All third-party services need to be included in end-to-end site load testing, and when it comes time for the real event, e-commerce sites must also be able to drill down in real-time to see how all chosen third parties are holding up. This can help identify that service-level agreements (SLAs) are being met, or, that a third-party service’s performance is degrading so badly that contingency plans should be enacted, such as eliminating and/or replacing the service.
No More Excuses
The digital era is reshaping the way people perform basic, daily tasks. For decades, Black Friday weekend was synonymous with shoppers waking up at the crack of dawn to wait in line for the hottest holiday item. Malls were buzzing with holiday music, sale signs, and droves of people spending hours juggling shopping bags from store to store. While brick and mortar certainly isn’t dead, online and mobile shopping is expected to take center stage. Remember, in 2016 there are no more excuses, and the vast majority of optimization opportunities are well within the zone of control.
Mehdi Daoudi is the co-founder and CEO of Catchpoint Systems, where he combines in-depth expertise in developing and operating large on-demand software platforms with hands-on experience in application monitoring, performance management and IT operations practices.