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Guest comment: New generation of website performance testing tools means it’s not too late to optimise online Christmas revenues

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By Graham Parsons

Cyber Monday, the first Monday of December and the start of the consumer lead up to Christmas, is now the busiest internet shopping day of the year. On Monday December 7 2009, £1.4 million was spent online in just one minute at 13:43, with sales peaking at £33 million between 13:00 and 14:00 according to figures from IMRG₁. This year all the signs are that these record statistics will be easily shattered making the performance of an e-tailer’s online shopping portal the critical factor in the battle for a share of this annual revenue bonanza.

Most e-tailers are well aware of the need to performance test their websites to ensure that they scale to meet the projected peak traffic loads. In the past, however, many have found the process to be costly, complex and lengthy as performance testing tools were mainly designed for a pre-internet shopping era and do not fit with today’s fast-paced and dynamic online retail environment. Also performance testing has traditionally required expensive consultants working for many weeks with cumbersome mainstream application performance testing tools to develop the required scripts needed to test the true scalability of a web application.

With the usual development project overruns resulting in the time allocated for performance testing being squeezed, many sites are subsequently launched without adequate performance testing and then either suffer the consequences when they fail to meet customer performance expectations or fall over as soon as traffic starts to build.

The Christmas Rush

As the figures demonstrate, Christmas is the peak period for online shopping and websites need to perform well under extreme and intense user pressure. Failure to perform well will result in lost sales as frustrated e-shoppers search elsewhere to spend their money. A study by Forrester Consulting₂ in 2009 highlighted that customers become impatient when a webpage takes longer than two seconds to load. The user can be lost for good if they find a rival site more responsive while providing the required goods at a fair price.

With the traditional 1st November ‘code-freeze’ fast approaching – a date when many organisations stipulate that no further changes can be made to a website before Christmas – e-tailers may consider that it is already too late to stress test their web applications and implement any necessary changes in the remaining time window. But recent developments in performance testing tools have made a dramatic difference to the time needed for realistic testing, which means it is now possible to carry out full load testing much later in the application development life-cycle.

Listening to the needs of its customers, the performance testing community has developed a new breed of tools that are extremely quick and cost-effective to learn enabling tests to be executed within days rather than the weeks that would normally be the case. In fact it is now possible for novices and professional testing consultants to intuitively learn and execute the required performance tests in just seven days from start to finish, without any prior knowledge of the application. This means that even during the last few weeks before the code-freeze, it is not too late to implement correct and realistic performance tests and still have time to react if the results show that the site will not scale to the required user traffic levels.

There are many advantages of testing closer to the code-freeze for example, e-tailers are able to be more reactive to market conditions and have the ability to make more accurate predictions on anticipated traffic. This culminates in commercial gain and lessens expenditure on unnecessary resources.

Measuring Success

As we are all aware, it is not just the IT team that is judged by the performance of a website. It is therefore important that e-tailers capitalise on the benefits of these sophisticated and efficient tools when considering the impact of an ineffective website on revenue and brand reputation.

My company was recently contacted by a marketing manager who had approved an expensive festive advertising campaign to drive traffic to his company’s website, only to discover that it was unable to handle the visitor volume predicted. The application needed to be accurately performance tested to find the bottlenecks so that the necessary changes could be implemented within the short timeframe available, ensuring the significant marketing budget delivered the required return on investment. By understanding the scalability of the website, the sales and marketing teams were able to manage their board’s expectations and forecast realistic online revenue and, more importantly, safeguarding their jobs, at least on that occasion.

Without doubt, a website that performs slowly or crashes is unlikely to build customer loyalty and realise the full potential of the e-marketplace. Etailers that have cut corners in the past to ensure websites were delivered on time and to budget have suffered from inaccurate and unrealistic testing which has produced false results. Such web applications then fail to perform as expected when implemented in the real world.

With this new breed of tools available there is no excuse for e-tailers not to implement proper performance tests that allow an IT department to guarantee a successful e-Christmas, either by executing such tools in-house or requesting that their external performance testing consultancies use the new breed of software.

1. Figures generated by IMRG member Retail Decisions (ReD):

2. Forrester Consulting: eCommerce Web Site Performance Today An Updated Look at Consumer Reaction To A Poor Online Shopping Experience – August 17 2009.

Graham Parsons is chief executive of Reflective Solutions.

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