Lessons Learned From the Holiday Season and 6 Retail Best Practices for 2014
Measurements were made over 3G network connections, which are noticeably slower than a fast Wi-Fi connection. Desktop pages aren't optimized for a 3G connection, and some contained hundreds of elements and reached over a megabyte per page, resulting in longer download times and a slower experience. If the tablet were connected through a broadband connection, the performance would have been more comparable to that of a traditional desktop experience.
2014 M-Commerce Tips
What Keynote observed in 2013, carrying all the way through the holidays, is that retailers are generally doing a pretty good job of maximizing the desktop user experience. They also seem to understand the importance of the mobile user experience. For many, however, mobile is synonymous with smartphones, not tablets. Slow load times are the biggest point of frustration for mobile web users; consequently, the next step in the evolution of mobile retail is the recognition and adoption of best practices that deliver a faster, more reliable and consistent user experience.
To this end, Keynote maintains a weekly index of leading mobile retail websites to provide an ongoing benchmark of industry health. The index is analyzed by a panel of mobile performance experts and the findings are published on a weekly basis. Keynote's analysis of top mobile retailers in 2013 has helped identify a list of recommendations for forward-looking mobile retailers who are planning for a successful 2014.
Here are our top six recommendations:
1. Dress light. Start with being disciplined about loading as few assets on the page as possible. Not only does this help achieve the desired look and feel of the site, but also promotes faster performance. When a site loads only 10 or 12 new HTTP requests and 100K or fewer bytes, there are simply fewer opportunities for errors to occur, especially during high-traffic events like Black Friday. One site this holiday season achieved good results by limiting the number of third-party assets (e.g., marketing analytics tags) on its mobile homepage. The site smartly loads these assets only after all critical page content has already been requested. That way, even if something does go wrong with a third-party tag, the user can still interact with the page and progress with the shopping experience.
Large images or script libraries are common contributors to an overall large page, and a large page with a lot of elements is a good recipe for slowness and transaction failure. The element count represents the number of individual components making up the page. These include HTML pages, images, style sheets and scripts. Modern browsers, including those on smartphones, attempt to load elements in parallel, but the page loading protocol is still one of ask-receive-ask-receive, and each such cycle must pay the time penalty of network latencies. Those latencies tend to be higher via the wireless connections used by carrier data services, so reducing this element count is a common path to improved performance.
2. Avoid long lines. Different browsers/phones have different numbers of parallel threads. Page designers do (should) try to keep this in mind, and a big sin is to have something which blocks other threads. The underlying protocol (ask-receive-ask-receive) stays the same, however. Overlapping threads maximizes the use of the available bandwidth. Employ image optimization techniques that not only ensure consistent delivery to end users, but also reduce the number of HTTP requests to fetch site elements. This reduces the aggregate roundtrip time and the total number of elements required to be downloaded. Adopting CSS sprites or employing DATA URI encoding techniques are additional ways to speed up the download process.
3. Anticipate the rush. You know it's coming, so why wait to prepare for the holidays? Load test your site early and be sure to see how mobile users are impacted by increased load as well. What's more, plan your strategy well in advance. Benchmark the performance of your site and set goals for transactional speed and reliability. You shouldn't be making any major changes to your site when the shopping season kicks into full gear.
4. Resist the marketing. One site Keynote observed during the holidays seemed to put on some weight, adding four additional elements that slowed down its site. A bit of investigation showed that the extra content was nothing more than promotional images. What's more, the promotional banners and marketing-related images accounted for 200KB out of 311KB of the total page size. In other words, marketing material exceeded the actual content on the page.
The trouble didn't stop there. The marketing images and banners were the source of intermittent content errors — failure to download parts of the page even when the rest of the site is available. The errors added even further to slower page load times as the browser spent more time making requests and fetching resources, only to deliver null content for that session. Good marketing can help to improve conversion rates, but if too much leads to downtime, slow speeds and site abandonment, you've gone too far. Your goal in mobile is to keep it light. When it comes to marketing, be nimble. Count every element and make every element count.
5. Partner up. No one says that you need to go at it alone, and in many cases you shouldn't. Many of the most popular sites followed are using content delivery networks to improve their website experience. Moreover, there are very capable platform providers that do a great job in helping retailers create and manage their mobile web presence. If you have the budget and want to do it right, sometimes it's better to engage experts who can free you to do what you do best.
6. Expect the unexpected. During the holidays, Keynote observed one mobile retailer whose site was down for an extended period of time. Planned or unplanned, this is something that can happen. Unfortunately, the site displayed a "page not found" error for several hours, potentially a source of great frustration on the part of a user. In this case, however, the outage seemed to coincide with planned site maintenance. A simple "Maintenance Page" would have been a much friendlier alternative for turning away a prospective shopper. Better yet, try and handle all maintenance well ahead of peak seasons.
Tim Murphy is the senior marketing manager for retail at Keynote, a provider of on-demand test and measurement products for mobile communications and internet performance.