Test Your Website Now to Avoid a Nightmare Before Christmas
As the holiday season ramps up, retailers of all sizes need to prepare for another year of record online traffic. It's an easy problem to ignore, since your website runs fine under a normal load and there are so many other high-priority tasks to complete, but ensuring that websites stay up and running under the holiday onslaught is critical to success (and can make or break the entire year).
Nothing can shatter the promise of high sales numbers more definitively than a crashed website, slow-loading pages and broken links. The holiday rush is the toughest test of website performance, creating a stressful nightmare for IT while images of sugar plums are dancing in sales reps’ heads. For many companies, technical issues and downtime can lead to millions of dollars in lost sales, frustrated shoppers and a damaged image.
There's still time for both small and large IT departments to make sure their infrastructure is up to the challenge. Here are three things IT can do to guarantee a happy holiday season:
1. Start monitoring everything now. Sometimes the faults and deficiencies in a website take time to reveal themselves. Companies pour energy into monitoring their website just before the holidays only to discover a serious error that, with enough time, might have been apparent and fixable months before. In essence, if a website is going to fail under heavy load, chances are the problem is already identifiable. Monitoring systems are supposed to be preventative medicine that are best at identifying and addressing risks before they ever become a problem.
During the holiday rush, the most important metric to monitor is uptime. By focusing on availability from the customer's point of view — i.e., monitoring multiple locations in real time — IT puts itself in the best position to succeed.
2. Monitor data that relates closely to user experience. If you don't have uptime, you don't have a user experience. Once you've covered that base, IT's focus should pivot toward factors that will influence consumers’ impressions of your website.
From an IT perspective, the single most important facets of user experience in e-commerce are page speed and full page load times. That 30 percent discount offer or product video needs to load instantly, because it does no good if consumers leave the site before they see it. To ensure they do, use ping requests and loading time measurements (i.e., the time it takes to download source code) to track page speed, and then find a solution to measure full page load times in a browser. You need to be sure that images, videos, flash content and all embedded materials come up quickly.
Also, test your site thoroughly for error messages and try out shopping cart features such as logins and transactions to root out any possible problems. If you don't already do this regularly, the time to start is now, not the weekend after Christmas.
Remember, the more ways people can interact with your website, the more things that can go wrong. Keep your site content rich, but keep it all working.
3. Don't forget the finer details. If you're confident that your site will be up and the content will load quickly, it's time to focus on the nitty-gritty details that can make a big difference. Again, the key is to address them as early as possible.
How much free disk space do you have on your servers? Log files, database entries, video and photo uploads, among other items, can eat up space quickly, throttling CPU loads and causing server failures. Stop this problem before it starts by simulating a high workload to test how your server will handle holiday activity.
Do all your links work? A variety of free or inexpensive web applications can make sure they do by scanning for broken links. Nothing frustrates a consumer more than the finding what they want, clicking the link, and getting a 404.
Although the return on investment on all this monitoring might not be apparent immediately, the preparation you put in now will guarantee that your busiest season won't be cut short by IT problems. Think of your website as an elite runner. Rigorous preparation is what it takes to get an athlete ready for a big race. If you're in e-commerce, the holidays are your Olympics — monitor your systems, correct your problems and go for the gold.
Christian Twardawa is the chief operating officer for Paessler AG, a company that develops and sells network management and network monitoring software.