by David Vogel
Websites are big business for the UK’s service-led economy, but a slow website can fast become a major liability. There’s a blinding amount of science behind internet buying, but essentially once a consumer makes up his or her mind to buy something online, they usually want or need to buy in a hurry. In some cases, the need is psychological with the buyer wanting to get the transaction over with before they change their mind. Other times it’s more practical, like the desire to sneak in a cheeky handbag impulse buy while the boss’ back is turned or to compete for a last-minute discount holiday on a Friday afternoon.
The sobering truth is that it really only does take a second to lose a customer. Research from the Aberdeen Group and strangeloopnetworks.com, Customers are won or lost in one second, revealed that a mere one-second delay in page load time translates into a seven percent loss in sales and a 16 percent decline in customer satisfaction. This means that literally every second, internet retailers with sluggish sites are losing valuable trade to sites like Amazon that allow customers to complete purchases quickly and easily.
Internet retailers aiming to build faster, stickier, user-friendly websites will be at a major disadvantage unless they get to know a niche, but essential piece of kit called web caching (also called http caching) software. It stands to help anyone responsible for delivering large e-commerce sites that handle high transaction volumes earn more credibility and, most importantly, revenue.
Isn’t this a bit too techie for me to worry about?
Not unless you’re relaxed about your site losing money or driving loyal customers to your competitors. While the technology behind web caching is indeed complex, practically anyone capable of operating a computer can learn what it does and how to use and implement it. Web caching software is simply a way to serve up web content to documents rapidly. It works by creating a temporary storage area (or cache) to store information so that the computer does not have to keep re-accessing it from your central server. This technique of storing data in temporary buffers is what eliminates the lag time. Think of it as having a personal cappuccino maker at your desk so you don’t have to keep travelling down the hall to the kitchen every time you need a caffeine hit.
What kind of sites use web caching?
Pretty much every large, successful internet retailer and social networking site from Amazon to eBay to Facebook uses web caching software today. Internet retailers that provide goods and services that people buy quickly, in the heat of the moment, and also have lots of competition like those selling items such as concert tickets, flights and media downloads simply can’t afford not to implement web caching. However, it is hard to imagine any serious internet retailer today that wouldn’t want to offer the best possible customer experience and maximise revenue.
Another very fast-growing area for web caching is in online publishing. More publishers every day are erecting paywalls to keep their businesses viable but this move risks creating a backlash, especially if readers feel stung by a double whammy of having to pay for content and having to tolerate a poor user experience. Again, this boils down to people’s need for speed. The average businessperson, for example, needs to read articles in their industry but has very little time to do so and can’t waste time waiting for web pages to load up. Ideally, after a publisher erects a paywall, the user experience should improve because, naturally, when people start to pay money, they expect more in return.
Crucially, publishers are branching out into retailing to establish new revenue streams. Most of the UK’s major broadsheet newspapers offer their own consumer catalogues, offering white-labelled goods and services, from appliances to travel breaks that are designed to appeal to their readers’ lifestyles. In this respect, the worlds of publishing and internet retailing have been on a collision course for several years and the lines between them will only get blurrier.
Surely web caching is expensive?
The revenue and customer loyalty you will retain will more than make up for the relatively low cost of web caching software. However, if you are still not sure, bear in mind that an important side-benefit of using caching software is that you can run your website using a fraction of the number of servers you would need without it, saving you considerable money over time. Different systems vary, but in our experiences we have seen customers reduce the number of servers they rely upon by up to 85%. By freeing up budget that would otherwise be spent on hardware, you could invest that money where it is most likely to pay off – improving the customer experience.
A must for mobility
One important trend driving the need for web caching is the supersonic growth of tablets and smartphones. The reason the BBC added web caching to their site in time for the 2012 Olympics coverage was largely down to the fact that in the four years following Beijing, mobile devices really took off. By using web caching, the BBC was able to deliver content to hundreds of millions of people every day without having to add any further server capacity. Now there’s a win for the licence fee payers.
Grow your credibility and revenue
Web caching gives anyone in the internet retailing industry responsible for delivering websites – from project leaders to third party developers and consultants – a simple, tried and tested way to solve a critical problem that can’t be ignored. If you are trying to make a case for improving the revenue you generate through your site, the opportunity to explain how web caching can help achieve this provides a powerful ‘calling card’ to help you open doors, get meetings with the right people and build your professional credibility.
And finally, don’t feel worried if you hadn’t yet considered or even heard of web caching. Many of the companies we walk into, even the big brand names, are in the same boat. They only knew that their sites were operating on a tightrope, continually under the threat of meltdown at the worst possible time, like the back-to-school or holiday season. By introducing web caching, these companies gain the peace of mind that they can scale in response to these big spikes in demand and meet that demand without ever having to say good-bye to loyal, profitable customers.
by David Vogel, channel director, Varnish Software