Horrid Holiday Website Crashes Hold Lessons for Retailers

Website crashes, downtime and other e-calamities can be an absolute disaster any time of year. But with the prime holiday shopping season upon us, the two-month make-it-or-break-it window ups the ante on the importance of a resilient site that can withstand the onslaught of throngs of shoppers.

Even some of the biggest retailers have learned the hard way how tough holiday shopping can be on even the most robust systems. In 2010, Sears.com and Kmart.com fared quite well, with only 2 minutes of total downtime throughout the entire shopping season. Yet last year, both sites caved under the enormous pressure of holiday traffic, suffering nearly 8 hours of downtime, according to website monitor Panopta’s 2011 Holiday Ecommerce Availability Index.

No one wants to get caught with their site down at precisely the moment when the money is rolling in, considering that shoppers can easily take their credit cards elsewhere with the click of a mouse. How can you be sure your website won’t buckle under pressure? Here are four core strategies for bulletproofing your site for a secure and prosperous shopping season.

Move to the cloud
Updating your website hosting services to a newer cloud hosting model allows any business to instantly add computing power and bandwidth to accommodate traffic spikes, remove capacity when the river of business shrivels to a rivulet, and – as with electricity – pay only for what you use. And, by utilizing the public cloud, you can avoid the considerable expense of buying, building and managing the infrastructure yourself.

Build it big
In the cloud, it’s much more affordable to provision more servers than you think you need, and then adjust when the traffic patterns become clear. If you think you need 10 servers, start with 15 or 20 instead. Cloud resources typically cost less than 15 or 20 cents an hour per virtual server so you won’t break the bank by overbuilding with this added insurance.

Lighten your landing pages
Your home page and landing pages get the most hits and make the biggest impression on shoppers. As a result, they suck up the lion’s share of bandwidth. Studies show that 40% of users will abandon a web page if it takes more than 3 seconds to load, so these first-impression pages must load fast to keep shoppers’ attention. The goal is to make your landing pages as light as possible without losing traffic. Utilize compelling content that’s light on the graphics to grab customers’ interest, or your prospects will leave for greener shopping pastures. It’s a delicate balancing act, but one that can keep your website up and running during crunch times.

Use a content delivery network
For faster load times, better video streaming and more efficient shopping cart processing, offload catalog images and other graphics to a content delivery network (also called content distribution network or CDN).

Available from your web hosting provider, third-party services, or in some cases telco service providers, CDNs have servers around the world that can upload images on a geographic basis from close-proximity nodes to shorten the travel distance and distribute the load to avoid slowdowns or bottlenecks during peak shopping hours.

Christopher Hill is a solutions architect for Chicago-based Hostway Corporation, a provider of cloud, managed and hybrid hosting services.