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November 14, 2018

Is your website ready for the holidays?

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Image courtesy of (noomhh) / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Far too many entrepreneurs and online business owners conclude their websites, stores, applications, and various online tools they use to keep sales going and revenue growing require little or no maintenance. Nothing could be further from the truth.

As counter-intuitive as it might sound, experienced developers will tell you computer programs rot if they are left without occasional maintenance. This is especially true in matters of digital security, where, if applications are left without appropriate patches and updates long enough, they could easily fail and subject both the business and its customers to various hazards, including identity theft and possibly even theft of the company’s money and property.

The obstacle businesspeople face is very often the time factor and the fact they have no assurance the testing, maintenance, or upgrades they perform will net them any real benefit. Every entrepreneur knows how easy it is to invest hours, days, or even weeks building and maintaining digital assets like storefronts, shopping carts, and middleware only to find their solution isn’t performing properly, or worse, has brought down their entire business until even more repairs are made. Depending on the time of year, this can be catastrophic, as many companies depend on certain annual events for considerable portions of their income.

The absolute worst time these kinds of problems can happen is in the lead-up to the holiday buying season, especially if the site and company in question is selling a product or service that would make a good gift. The good news is there are ways to not only improve the results of stress and functionality testing, but to automate the process as well.

Serverside Issues

When your website is set up to take orders from the general public, process payments, and generate the information you need to ship products to your customers, a lot of the “heavy lifting,” so to speak, happens on the server. A server is a computer programmed to send your visitors the information to display your website and to send it all the information needed to run the client-side programs necessary to process their requests. It’s the computer that answers when a customer accesses your site URL.

This is all accomplished through specialized software called a web server. When information is entered into your site, and customers place an order, some of the programming that handles those events runs on the customer’s computer, but the purchase information is ultimately transmitted back to your server where your middleware and web server store it in a database, ensuring you have a record of the transaction. There is a high likelihood you will be handing off the payment processing to another service, which is one more item your web server and middleware must handle.

All these steps take place in roughly the same order for each and every customer you have. The total combination of all this activity is called the “load” on your server. You could even think of it as the total “weight” of all the transactions happening. If your server is unable to keep up with the load, some of those customers and their orders may have to wait. Others might not get processed at all. The speed with which your server handles the load is your site’s performance.

The way pros make certain their site won’t fail under the load from an event like a holiday sale or Black Friday, is to test their server’s ability to handle the load from different kinds of traffic patterns. Can the server operate normally if it is processing ten transactions a minute? How about 100? When does it fail? How does its maximum capacity compare to the number of orders we know we’re going to get? How about ten, or even twenty percent more?

These are among the many questions a good load testing process will answer for you. Using technologies like headless browsers, different operating system architectures and different hardware platforms, solutions like Loadview Testing create an automated series of site visits that look to your server just like visits from real customers. Once the test is complete, all the metrics from the test battery and your server’s logs can be examined and analyzed to see what the limits are and if they can be improved in time to meet the holiday demand.

The most important benefit to a test like this is the ability to plan for future capacity. Even if you aren’t expecting a big increase in visits, you may have occasion to serve a lot of customers all at once in the future, and that’s when a load testing service can make the difference between a technical support nightmare and a record quarter.

Client-side Issues

E-commerce site performance isn’t limited to just what is happening on the server. Your customer’s device and hardware can have an effect, especially if they are using an older machine, an incompatible browser, or even if they have various network problems, like poor wireless access, a bad cell connection, or substandard home Internet.

One of the key components of any e-commerce application is the shopping cart. This is very often a set of functions written to run on your customer’s computer and store information in one or more cookies on that same customer machine. Theoretically speaking, it is easy to write reliable shopping cart software. Practically speaking, however, it is common for such software to fail, and often fail in subtle ways that are difficult to detect and reproduce for the developers.

The reason shopping cart problems are so insidious is because their failure will almost always result in the customer simply abandoning your site and moving on to a better option. Rarely, if ever, will a customer complain they can’t get your site to work properly for them. In a world of instant gratification, people have been conditioned to expect instantaneous results and to give up if they don’t receive what they expect.

What e-commerce sites need more than anything else in a situation like this is a list of customers who will complain, and do so with specificity, when client-side shopping cart software fails. That’s where tools like the EveryStep Web Recorder shine. What if you could point an automated “customer” at your website and let them try and navigate it? What could you learn if you were able to program and automate critical end user steps and transactions to make every possible mistake? Could your shopping cart adapt? Would your site help that customer navigate their way to a successful order? How many times a day or week might that extra functionality come into play?

What these tools help you do is make your site more transparent. They give insight into how your potential customers see your store rather than how you envisioned it when it was built. In the real world, this is relatively simple. You can just watch your customers as they shop. On a website, most of your customer’s activity and all their thinking process is hidden. All online stores struggle with reluctant customers. Unless you can figure out why they aren’t buying, you might never make another sale! EveryStep simulates those potential customers as motivated and vocal technical support volunteers. The information you get from them is likely not available anywhere else.

Up-to-the-minute

If the idea of server-side load testing and client-side site testing hasn’t persuaded you yet, consider the fact that all these tests can be completely automated. During heavy shopping season traffic, your site’s uptime is the most important metric you can measure. You simply can’t afford to be “closed” when there are paying customers at your door.

Both server and client testing can be configured to run on a continuous basis and alert you if something goes wrong. If you are selling ten products a minute, how much will a half-hour outage cost? Now imagine what you’ll save if you turn those 30 minutes of malfunctioning software into three. Wouldn’t that be worth something to the average business owner? The peace of mind alone would be worth pursuing.

The sooner your business can get started monitoring its online presence the better. Setting up a plan with the experts and helping them understand your company’s needs and the kinds of products you sell is the first step. Everything after that will get easier as the sales roll in.


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Glenn Lee is the chief product engineer for Dotcom-Monitor’s LoadView load testing platform. Glenn is an industry expert on load/stress testing and has appeared on numerous tech publications across the web. When Glenn’s not testing the limits of websites, he enjoys cooking, flying airplanes, and racing motorcycles.

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