1. Test, optimize and retest
Load testing (a kind of performance testing) involves sending increasing levels of traffic to your site under controlled conditions. The aim is to help you understand how it will perform when real visitors start to hit it in big numbers.
This gives you advance warning of any performance issues. You find out if and when it starts to slow down. You also get insights into why. You can then take action to fix any problems before retesting to find out if the fix has worked.
It’s crucial to start the load testing process early. It requires a lot of planning. You also don’t know what you’re going to find. And that means you don’t know how long it will take to implement any changes.
All this can create tension. On the one hand, you need to test as soon as possible. On the other, there’s no point in testing something that bears no resemblance to the finished article. So, you might find that you need to have your landing pages and key journeys ready much earlier than expected.
2. Understand the business impact of any slowdown
You’ve run your load test. You’ve worked out that your site will slow down by about half a second during peak. Does it matter?
Working out the business impact of a slowdown is hard. You should expect more abandoned visits, a higher bounce rate and a lower conversion rate. Ultimately, a slow website is going to make you less money than a fast one. But every site is different. To understand how slower load times are going to affect your sales, you need real user monitoring.
Some real user monitoring (RUM) solutions can analyze your past performance data and correlate it with bounces, conversions and revenue. A few go one step further and use this to predict the impact of a given change in load times.
Only when you understand what a slowdown will mean for your business, can you then decide what to do about it. Similarly, real user monitoring can also tell you how much more you could make from a faster website. If it’s worth investing in your website to avoid the revenue hit from a slowdown, why not invest in making it faster, so you can increase your sales and beat your forecast?
3. Check for third-party single points of failure
Most ecommerce stores rely on a large number of third parties. Some, such as payment gateways, are essential for the site to work properly. These are the key partners you’ll want to include in your load testing process, and it’s important to get them on board at the earliest opportunity.
Others, such as analytics and A/B testing solutions, offer extra value to the site owner but aren’t critical to the running of the site. Many of these should be excluded from the load testing process (as a rule, you don’t want to be load testing other organizations, especially without their permission).
You also need someone to analyse your code to identify which of these third parties are ‘single points of failure’ or ‘SPOFs’. Sometimes, a third party that fails or is slow to load can stop your own web page from displaying.
“The danger is always greater during peak periods because these services aren’t just getting extra traffic from you – they’re also getting it from every other site that uses them.”
If you do find a third party that could impact your own site’s performance, you have three options:
- One is simply to remove it, either just for the peak period or permanently. This may or may not be possible, depending on the value of the service and the available alternatives.
- Another is to look for a different implementation. It may be that the offending tag has been on your site for a while, and the service provider has since released a version that won’t jeopardize your site.
- Finally, you could just leave it there. It’s a risky option, but maybe you’re confident that the third-party provider won’t slow down or fail and that it delivers such great value that you absolutely have to have it.
4. Manage demand
In recent years, we have seen hordes of shoppers descend on physical stores, desperate to take advantage of time (and stock) limited deals. In some cases, the result has been utter chaos. And just as bricks-and-mortar stores are ill-equipped to deal with a sudden spike in visitor numbers, many websites are equally unable to cope with waves of visits to the site.
Fortunately, retailers have since gotten much better at managing demand. Black Friday deals are spread over one or even two weeks. Email campaigns are carefully timed to avoid flooding websites with more traffic than they can deal with.
Managing ecommerce marketing activity in this way is no guarantee that you’ll avoid traffic-related slowdowns or outages. But it does greatly reduce the risk.
5. Have contingencies
Most of what we’ve talked about so far is risk mitigation. Peak periods present a danger as well as an opportunity, and there are many things you can do to minimize that danger. But you can’t eliminate it entirely.
It’s therefore important to know what happens if things go wrong. If your website goes down, will that affect other systems, for example? And how do you deal with it if it does? How are you going to deal with the PR and any negative reaction on social media? Do you have a queuing system in place to take the strain if your own systems are stretched to the limit?
Making the most out of the opportunity
Peak shopping periods are, of course, more about opportunity than they are about risk. And as retailers are getting better at mitigating the risks to website performance during the busiest sales, it might be time to start shifting the focus from avoiding outages to delivering better online experiences when it matters most.
We’ve seen how real user monitoring can be used to predict the impact of changes in load times on sales. Armed with this information, you’ll be well placed to prioritize delivering a faster, more effective website during the peak sales season.
(This post has been updated since it was originally written in 2017).