Five Areas of Readiness for the Online Holiday Shopping Season

In 2009, in spite of a deep recession, three quarters of online shoppers maintained or actually increased holiday spending from the year prior, according to Forrester Research. The 2010 holiday season is predicted to exhibit a similar trend, as convenience and bargain-basement deals continue to drive holiday shoppers online.

In order to capitalize on revenue opportunities, online merchants must build and maintain high-performance websites that drive conversions. Here are five key areas of readiness to validate before this year’s holiday season gets underway:

Website availability
Availability is the most important metric for any website, because if your site is not available to your users, “your store is closed.” In preparation for – and throughout – the holidays, you should test availability from dozens of global Internet backbone locations, as well as thousands of “Last Mile” real user desktop locations around the world. Backbone locations are peered on the “highways” of the Internet while Last Mile desktops yield a true viewpoint of users closer to the Internet’s edges.

Taking a combined approach comprehensively verifies that your website is open for business across all key geographies and connection types.

Website speed
Responsiveness of Web pages is a key driver for user satisfaction. According to Aberdeen Research, each additional second of response time beyond 3.9 seconds per page can reduce online conversions by seven percent.

By measuring from previously mentioned Last Mile user desktops, you can routinely track speed and proactively detect slowdowns for various user segments and geographies. With this information, you can diagnose and fix localized speed inhibitors including local ISPs, CDNs, cloud infrastructures or Web hosting service providers. For example, you can use Last Mile speed data to prompt your CDN or Web hosting service provider to optimize or add infrastructure to a particular regional datacenter if needed.

Performance across all major browsers
As a first step, verify that your website renders properly (visually and functionally) across key browsers. Next, track your Web site’s page views in order to prioritize browsers and related browser performance optimizations.

For example, a technique called domain charding entails “fooling” a browser into thinking there’s more than one host, which enables more images to be downloaded simultaneously and as a result enhances response time.

Domain charding is not effective for all browsers, so it’s important to evaluate and apply only those optimization techniques that will enhance performance for the majority of users.

Performance under load
When load testing, many online merchants rely on an outdated approach of simulating high traffic volumes from their own datacenters. This approach would be fine if users lived in your datacenter, but they don’t. New load testing approaches combine load generated from the cloud with load generated from real user desktops around the world, yielding regional views of performance under load as subjected to a wide range of Internet variables including third-party services, ISPs and CDNs. Armed with this data, you can identify and resolve “breaking points” under load, from your datacenter all the way to users’ browsers.

Mobile Website performance
Users expect the mobile Web to be as fast, if not faster than a desktop PC. In addition, users are relying more frequently on the mobile Web not only to make purchases but also to enhance the in-store shopping experience – for example, by checking product availability or comparing competitive pricing as they actually peruse store aisles.

Mobile Web performance is exerting a bigger impact on revenue and market share, and for this reason it must be optimized using similar techniques that have been applied to the PC Web, such as those described above.

Matthew Poepsel is vice president – performance strategies at Gomez, the Web performance division of Compuware.

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