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How to Ensure Your E-commerce Site is Ready for the Holiday Rush

Recently, Apica, a load testing and performance-monitoring provider for both cloud and mobile applications, released its top 10 tips for ensuring your e-commerce site is ready for the holiday shopping season. I found several of the tips interesting and asked the author and Apica’s CEO, Sven Hammar, for more details.

Hammar’s first tip is:

Put vanity aside and reduce the amount of high-resolution images and video on your site in order to minimize response times. If you’re too in love with the bulky images, then be sure and invest in systems that can handle short response times despite a high-resolution content.

So, what, exactly, is Hammar’s definition of “too many” images?

“There are two aspects that should be considered here, image size and the number of images,” he says. “The size of the images shouldn’t exceed 50 KB and they should be structured in separate DNS names (i.e., static.site.com/image1). This is important so that they are easy to front-end cache and store in CDNs. The number of images and URLs should be as few as possible. A good number to aim for is not more than 200.”

Fair enough.

His second tip is:

Consider using a CDN/Accelerator service to accelerate the delivery of rich content such as images and videos to customers. These services aren’t terribly expensive and the upside is huge.

Hammar recommends creating a sub-domain such as static.domain.com. “Once created, you can then create a Cname that points to your CDN provider. This is the only technical part that has to be done from the customer point-of-view.

“If you have done this correctly, every picture, CSS, etc. that is placed in the sub-domain automatically gets cached in the CDN because it points directly to the CDN provider. This will accelerate the page when traffic to that page is heavy and is only stored in the CDN for a preset amount of time. You set this up with your CDN provider and work it as a kind of “off-button” when there’s little traffic to the page.”

Hammar’s fifth tip is something all IT departments should be doing: monitoring performance.

Periodically test, monitor and optimize your site to ensure a great consumer experience. Web testing companies can test and optimize your site, simulating peak loads by using ‘synthetic traffic,’ and then suggesting improvements. These companies often offer complimentary surveillance services.

This made me wonder -- what happens if you’re not diligent about proactively testing/monitoring/optimizing? When then?

“Most sites are constantly being updated with new features, new demands, and new infrastructure,” Hammar replied. “The number of times you change your site will typically introduce an escalating “slow” feeling of the site. If you don’t react proactively, you will soon reach critical load-time levels and the site will become unstable. If this happens you will lose visitors by the second.

“Outside monitoring from the browser view will give you a baseline so you can pick up on minor deteriorations or have the time to react after a deployment when the response times increase 20 percent due to a missed configuration. Load testing validates the stability of the system and reduces the risk of system crashes.

“The most important aspect in the configuration is capacity. Performing a load test is the only way to make sure that you have the optimal configuration and have picked the correct number of servers. For example, should you have a medium instance in Amazon, determine the best configuration of your cache: 1 minute, 2 minutes, 10 minutes, etc.”

Finally, his ninth question caught my eye:

Use your analytics tools to identify the top three-to-five business processes customers are conducting on your site, and maximize them for peak performance.

I wanted to know what typical processes an e-tailer should look at first, and how much extra bang for the buck can you get quickly, given that the holidays are almost upon us.

“With tools like Google Analytics, you can see which paths are used and where the users start. Response-time analytics, together with page access, reveals when conversion is impacted by slow response times. If the checkout process takes 10 seconds vs. 40 seconds, how much is the conversion rate affected?

“’Search’ is a good example where you can easily find data from your peers in the industry. Leading performance vendors will provide you with a custom built index that can serve as indicators for management on how you are doing. Fast is always good -- fast build brands, fast improves conversion, and fast makes e-retailers more money.

“Benchmarking your site will provide an action list where you can identify the most pressing problems, and typical action is to continuously remove the five worst-performing pages or functions, thus always working proactively to increase performance on your website.

You can read all ten tips here. (No registration is required.)

-- James E. Powell
Editorial Director, ESJ

Posted by Jim Powell on 10/07/2011 at 11:53 AM