Accommodating Peak Traffic During The Holiday Rush

Thanksgiving weekend started the holiday shopping season off with an unexpected bang. Shopping during the four-day period from Friday, Nov. 28 to Monday, Dec. 1 contributed to a 13-percent jump in online spending, according to ComScore. On Cyber Monday alone, e-commerce sales reached $846 million, up 15 percent over the same time last year.

Even on Black Friday, typically known for generating brick-and-mortar retail sales, e-commerce sales increased one percent to $534 million. But unfortunately, not all online retailers were able to accommodate the surge in Web traffic - putting them at a loss this holiday season.

Several reports revealed that even some of the major retailers experienced performance glitches that likely drove away consumers and thousands or even millions of dollars in potential revenues. If your site was one of those that encountered this situation this Cyber Monday, you're all too aware of the damage. Luckily, there are steps you can take to prevent this from happening throughout the rest of the holiday shopping season.

Combat Overload with a Load Test
Understanding exactly how many visitors your Web site can handle is crucial to maintaining a reliable Web shop. Load testing tools allow you to simulate a specific number of artificial users to stress-test servers, databases, and pages. This will quickly reveal the thresholds at which your systems start to slow and, ultimately, break.

Know how many users the different pages and functions of your site, such as shopping cart, checkout, and login, can accommodate before performance starts to suffer. This allows you to proactively make adjustments. If a load test reveals that your site goes down under the anticipated traffic load, increase your thresholds.

Conducting a load test prior to an expected traffic surge is optimal, but it's also important to apply this practice regularly. Doing so will give you insight into site performance and ensure your site runs consistently at your target user loads.

Monitor Web Performance
Preparing your site thresholds is just the beginning. Continuous monitoring of your Web site is necessary to ensure all of its parts perform up to par for users anytime, anywhere.

Web performance monitoring tools measure the performance of your Web site and all its components as seen from the perspective of the actual Web browser. Called synthetic or active monitoring, these tools mimic critical Web processes and commonly trafficked paths, making sure all site functionality is available and performing optimally.

They monitor, measure, record and report on uptime, initial page load, image load, search queries, shopping cart functionality, and login and logout, all as they are experienced by the user. If any aspect of the site is not performing within established parameters, the Web performance monitor issues a real-time alert, so you can address the problem immediately, before it has a chance to affect customers.

Have a Back-Up Plan
Even the most comprehensive testing, monitoring and preparations can't ensure 100 percent reliability, so it's important to have a contingency plan in place in the event of an unexpected site or system outage. Draft a humorous, graceful, or personalized message that can be posted in place of the standard error announcement.

During the holidays, the inclusion of graphical elves and a cute message letting customers know that you're working to address the issue will soften the blow and demonstrate you care enough about their business to keep them informed. Personalized touches could make the difference to whether a customer comes back or hurriedly clicks away to a competitor.

More important than addressing customers, however, is the need to remedy the performance issue quickly. Designate specific employees as those to be notified of any outages or blips in performance, and provide them with an internal response plan outlining the steps for getting your systems back online in a smooth and timely fashion.

By load testing, monitoring Web performance, and having a response plan ready, you'll reduce your site's vulnerability, be prepared for traffic upticks, and consistently give shoppers the best Web experience possible.

Ken Godskind is chief strategy officer for AlertSite, a provider of Web performance management solutions.
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