Third-Party Services: The Ultimate E-Commerce Friend or Foe?
External third-party services can be a tremendous asset for online retailers. They allow sites to quickly and easily incorporate critical core functionalities — e.g., reviews, payments, site search, analytics — as well as “nice to haves” that help sites stand out — e.g., A/B testing, social plug-ins, product tours. Brands can implement these functionalities with little effort, eliminating the heavy lifting involved in developing new or specialized functionality in-house.
However, third-party services can inadvertently be a double-edged sword because each one represents a potential point of failure for an e-commerce operation. If a third-party service experiences a performance (speed or reliability) issue, this can quickly spread to and contaminate the sites using it. One poorly performing third-party service is all it takes to slow an entire site way down or, worse, bring it to a complete standstill.
In recent years, there have been high-profile instances of this, involving big names like Facebook and PayPal. Given the vast popularity of such services, their own performance issues can generate a massive ripple effect across the thousands of sites incorporating them. This past holiday season witnessed several examples, with a handful of leading retailers’ desktop and mobile sites experiencing major slowdowns directly attributable to malfunctioning third-party services.
Ultimately, the benefits of using third-party services outweigh the risks, provided organizations take the right measures to oversee and manage them. There are several best practices for doing this:
Keep a Close Eye on Third-Party Services
… especially those with the greatest potential impact on the user experience and revenue. When it comes to shaping users’ performance perceptions, not all third-party services are created equal. The key is to understand which services impact site speed, payments and the main areas of the shopping experience. As one of the first user engagement points, fast-loading, third-party site search is one such service, while a ratings-and-reviews engine may be less important.
For site search and other key services, retailers must factor performance requirements into service level agreements (SLAs). An SLA is a contract in which both parties have agreed to acceptable performance levels. If those levels aren't met, the third party will be held accountable.
Retailers must also remember that their peak online sales periods (e.g., the holidays) are also peak periods for many third-party services, which are shouldering the weight of an entire industry. Many of these services aren't designed to handle heavy loads. This dynamic has caused unanticipated frustrations for retailers in past years. Any critical, user-facing third-party services must have a robust, resilient infrastructure and proven processes in place to uphold agreed-upon performance levels, during both peak and nonpeak periods. These services should also be included in mandatory load tests.
Have a Solid Mitigation Strategy in Place
Even if retailers have thoroughly vetted their third-party services and inked rock-solid, airtight SLAs, the increasingly interconnected and delicate state of the internet means that anything can happen, at virtually any time. The Amazon S3 outage — which triggered major performance problems across thousands of websites and apps — is just the latest example.
The internet’s unpredictable nature requires retailers to have solid mitigation strategies in place for all mission-critical third-party services — e.g., payment processing and shopping carts. For non-mission-critical services, organizations should have “kill switches” in place that can roll back to the base e-commerce platform functionality. Ideally, retailers should have the ability to disable any third-party vendor that’s responding slowly or down altogether simply by flipping a switch on their own end. Many third-party services provide this option, but retailers fail to ask for it in the course of negotiations.
Leverage Front-End Optimization Techniques
There are several web design techniques that can help retailers contain and mitigate any negative impact resulting from poorly performing third parties. One example is asynchronous loading, which allows site elements to be loaded out of order. This means if one element is loading slowly, it will be “skipped over” and proceed to the next element.
Asynchronous loading helps ensure that a slow-loading third-party service doesn't hold up the rest of the site, hurting the user perception of a full download occurring. A similar design technique is to arrange for non-mission-critical third-party elements to load “below the fold.” Again, this helps ensure slow-loading services interfere minimally with the user’s initial experience.
Retailers should also supplement performance monitoring details on individual third parties, with automated performance testing for their entire web front ends. This helps IT teams correlate performance trends for individual third parties to overall front-end performance, and better understand how specific services are impacting the user experience. Modern testing tools actually enable IT teams to drill down and understand the specific root causes of front-end performance degradations, which can be extremely helpful as the number of third-party services on sites grows.
Finally, a good rule of thumb is to always keep the number of third parties deployed on sites to a minimum. Given the pace of third-party service adoption, it’s no wonder so many IT teams are struggling to get their arms around this complexity. Remember, users prize convenience above all else, with the latest Google research showing consumers expect both desktop and mobile sites to load in three seconds or less. Retailers may want all the newest bells and whistles, but they really need to exercise caution and understand if the benefits are worth the increased risk.
The e-commerce competitive landscape is fierce, and the rapid adoption of third-party services is a direct result of retailers wanting to stand out. They’re striving to deliver more compelling, satisfying experiences (and drive more conversions) through greater feature richness, but unless this is properly managed, they could be incurring more harm than good.
The benefits of third-party services are substantial and can outweigh the drawbacks, but retailers cannot afford to add them blindly and fail to manage them properly and consistently once they’re in place. Ongoing performance measurement, solid mitigation strategies and a strong emphasis on front-end performance optimization are keys to maximizing the good and minimizing the bad that comes with third-party services.
Gareth Dismore is the CEO of SearchSpring, a company that provides advanced site search and category navigation solutions for online retailers.