While experts insist distribution and fulfillment issues were the biggest failure last year for e-commerce companies, other performance problems popped up as well. Slow download times made shopping inconvenient, especially as many Web sites became so bogged down with traffic that they became almost inaccessible.
According to a study of 120 popular Web sites taken in November and December 1999 by Exodus Performance Optimization Solutions in Boulder, Colorado, a unit of Exodus Communications, which is a provider of Web site performance monitoring and measurement services, many sites had slow response times during the holiday season, with a degradation of performance as the season progressed. For example, during the week of November 28, the average download time was 4.8 seconds. But during the week of December 19, the average download time had slowed nearly 20 percent to 5.74 seconds.
Bob Merlo, vice president of marketing for Exodus, says the reason these sites were so slow was because "sites didn't anticipate their capacity needs well." Some sites, for example, featured too many graphics on their pages, and congested bandwidth only made it worse. Other sites had back-end servers that couldn't scale upward.
In order to prevent another online traffic jam this year, Merlo suggests adjusting Web pages and servers for holiday time to improve performance. One way to determine your Web site's performance under stress is to test it before the holidays hit. If the site is too slow or unavailable, you'll still have time to update your server or change the design.
Exodus, for example, sells a performance-monitoring solution called SM-WEB ($495), which helps netpreneurs see what it's like to visit or buy on their sites. It tracks site responsiveness, availability in different parts of the country and whether an ISP is slowing down the Web site. It can also track whether customer experience is similar on a competitor's site and pinpoint the source of a performance slowdown. SM-WEB also offers the Internet Index, which compiles the top 100 Inter-net sites and monitors their performance, allowing you to see how a Web site performs against the competition or the Internet as a whole.
Exodus also offers a stress- and load-testing service (prices vary) that generates simulated load on your site to let you see how well it functions during high-volume conditions. The service lets you learn your site's breaking point-and determine the number of users you can support with your architecture.
Or try Keynote Systems Inc., a measurement-services and performance-monitoring company in San Mateo, California-it offers Keynote Perspective, a service that measures the time it takes to download Web pages and compares that time with download times from 40 well-known Web sites. The price starts at $295 per month for each URL being tracked.
However you decide to check your site, be sure to check it before the holiday crunch. Says Merlo, "This will give you some time to go out and make alterations prior to the holiday season."
Melissa Campanelli is a technology writer in Brooklyn, New York, who has covered technology for Mobile Computing & Communications and Sales & Marketing Management magazines. You can reach her at email@example.com.