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Guest comment: Make website optimisation your resolution for 2011

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by Graham Parsons

If past mistakes are valuable lessons learned for the year ahead, then the IT teams at Tesco Clubcard and Currys might be frantically testing their website’s performance this month. Both high profile retailers suffered reputational damage and potentially, a degree of financial loss, in December when their websites crashed under the weight of heavy user traffic. The Tesco Clubcard site fell over ahead of the deadline for redeeming Clubcard points for vouchers before rewards were cut by 25%. Currys experienced difficulties over Christmas as early sales shoppers were trying to get ahead of the game, leading to a spike in site traffic. Reportedly, visitors received a message saying: “Sorry for the wait. There is a long queue at the moment. If you can come back later we should be able to service you faster.”

Figures show that online sales are continuing to grow annually; according to the Office of National Statistics, average weekly online sales increased by 36.6% year-on-year to £660 million a week in November 2010 and during the same period, web business accounted for 10.5% of all sales in the UK retail sector. At the same time however, consumers are becoming less patient with web pages that take more than a few seconds to load. Extensive research into consumer behaviour shows that if customers perceive a website to be too slow, they are likely to switch to a competitor’s website to make their purchase, resulting in lost revenue and lost customers for the original retailer.

With all of that in mind, ecommerce represents a significant revenue stream for most retailers in 2011, provided that their websites are up to the task. Here is my advice to retailers on how they can optimise the performance of e-commerce channels in order to maximise revenue.

The significance of correct testing. A crucial part of any website’s development is performance testing. This means ensuring that pages load and the transactions complete without frustrating delays, regardless of how many users are trying to access the site, such as when an unexpectedly high number of users log on simultaneously as in the Tesco Clubcard case. It is not good enough just to check if the page is responding. It is also crucial to test every user scenario from a range of locations under varied load patterns as well as the underlying server platform to get a true picture of user perspective. Failure to undertake correct testing can result in a site running unacceptably slowly, giving error messages or crashing. With Google rankings now being partly determined by a site’s speed when responding to user requests, correct and realistic performance testing has never been so important.

Push testing to the limit – think of extremes There are many variables which can influence the amount of traffic a website encounters. Web traffic spikes can be caused by unforeseen events, such as the rush to exchange Tesco Clubcard points for vouchers before their value was discounted and the overwhelming demand for Take That tour tickets last October. This can create real problems; the key is to plan for the worst-case scenario in performance testing to ensure that even under the most extreme pressure, a site will perform efficiently.

Early and regular testing is crucial Traditionally, performance testing has been carried out at the end of a development phase for a new web application. With this approach, weeks of man hours and budget can be wasted if a fault implemented early on needs to be rectified at the end of a project. Advances in testing tools now mean that testing can be undertaken at regular stages throughout the development process. This better helps retailers to stay within budget and on deadline. Testing should also become part of the regular maintenance of a site. It is not enough to test a site thoroughly before launch and assume that it will continue to perform well, as many factors can influence a site’s performance throughout its lifecycle. Specialist network and application monitoring tools are available to continually check how a site is performing. Ensuring that a site continually delivers the best possible customer experience is a business-critical activity.

The performance of a website is as critical as its design Companies dedicate significant resources to ensure that their websites look the part, yet the importance of performance testing is often overlooked. No matter how great a website looks, it is of no use if a customer cannot complete a transaction online. To avoid performance issues being a weak link in the chain, rigorous performance testing should be planned in to the development and maintenance schedule for a site and given as much attention as the creative phase.

Research what testing options are available Traditionally, testing tools have been complex to implement, costly and inaccessible to non-specialists. There is now, however, a new breed of testing tool available which does not require deployment by experts and can subsequently be used by any member of the IT team. Offering optimum performance testing in a significantly reduced timeframe and at a lower cost, this new generation of testing tools has made performance testing more accessible to online retailers than ever before.

Graham Parsons is chief executive of Reflective Solutions, the development company behind StressTester™.

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