3 Last-Minute Tips to Optimize for Black Friday and Cyber Monday

The 2015 holiday e-commerce season is upon us, and for some leading retailers, it has already arrived: Amazon began offering Black Friday sales last Friday, November 20, a full week prior!

By now, most retailers have finalized their e-commerce site code for the holiday shopping season and have completed testing to ensure fast, reliable end-user experiences that drive conversions. But even for those in a code-freeze, a few simple, additional steps can provide greater assurance and peace of mind during this make-or-break season.

The harsh reality is, it’s impossible for retailers to protect themselves from everything that can possibly happen during the online holiday shopping season. Performance issues are a fact of life, especially at this time of year — and as in years past, there are sure to be some hiccups as the holiday season progresses.

But, there are ways (and still time, though fleeting) for retailers to proactively protect themselves as much as possible, through the techniques described below.

Subscribe to a Web Acceleration Service

This is a very quick and easy step to increase site performance (speed). Website acceleration services require no hardware or software installs or code changes to a site. These services run in private clouds as edge services hosted close to major metropolitan areas around the world. Once a retailer subscribes, their own site can take advantage of the web accelerator’s content delivery networks and caching services to reduce network latency, remove Internet bottlenecks and optimize content for geographically dispersed end users.

Web acceleration services are available as plug-and-play and require little to no implementation – all they need is a retailer’s URL. Services like Akamai, Cloudflare, Fastly, Instart Logic, and Verizon Edgecast are all good choices, and can have the added benefit of protecting sites from security risks as well. Some of these services can also run a site on the faster HTTP/2 protocol, without a site requiring any code or API changes.

Optimize Images and HTML

This may seem like a no-brainer, but images that are too large continue to bog down web pages. During the Back to School season, Catchpoint Systems saw one major retailer hosting a 5.3 MB JPEG, when a simple image optimization could have reduced its size to 28K while retaining 90 percent image quality. Images remain the largest content element on most web pages, accounting for 1.4 MB of the 2.2 MB average site content total, according to the HTTP Archive.

Site images should constitute no more than 80 KBs for a desktop site, and 20 KBs for a mobile site or app. For those images that are desired but don’t make the size cut, free tools including Image Optimizer, RIOT and Site Report Card can bring size under control. During the holidays, it’s especially important to optimize images that are “above the fold” (where a quick or slow image load can have a huge impact on end-user perceptions of a site’s overall load time), as well as images that are deal-related, since site visitors will be looking for them.

Images aren’t the only part of a site that can be shrunk down. Enabling GZIP compression on a Web server compresses all HTML, CSS, XML and JavaScript files, reducing the bandwidth needed to transfer a site’s files to customers’ browsers by up to 70 percent. This results in faster page load times as decompression of the files in the client browser is still faster than sending uncompressed files over HTTP. And, it’s important to ensure that HTTP Keep Alive is enabled and working. This functionality allows site visitors’ browsers to re-use existing TCP connections to the server, rather than creating new connections that add delays.

Audit Third Party Tags

Third-party tags, whether for advertising, social media, or content services, remain a potential pitfall for Web performance as Catchpoint Systems’ benchmark study from earlier this year demonstrates. If a single third-party service goes down or experiences a performance degradation, it can bring down all the sites that depend on it as well – a true domino effect. While third-party services can enhance a site’s feature richness, the fact is that each one of them presents a performance liability. And these risks associated with extra bells and whistles may not be worth it during such an important sales period.

For this reason, keeping the leanest possible inventory of third-party services during the holidays is a good rule of thumb. Site speed and availability are paramount and take precedence over any value-add (but not truly necessary) features. Advertising tags in particular are one area where most retailers’ sites can afford to slim down. For retailers with a compelling business reason for keeping these tags, it’s important to at least make sure these services are not delivering Flash, video or large images, which can put a major drag on the end-user experience. Additionally, it’s important to keep an eye on services delivering these tags (often cloud services) for performance issues that could extend through to sites.

Dennis Callaghan is Director of Industry Innovation at Catchpoint Systems.

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