Article Published by Internet Retailer

Now is the time to test and optimize your site before the peak season rush. Preparing your e-commerce site for a busy holiday season is an absolutely crucial process that has to begin well before most shoppers start looking for gifts. It’s important to realize that no single change will fully protect your site from the issues that commonly arise during periods of heavy traffic. Instead, you and your business must make a number of changes. You have to engage in some planning, testing and optimization before your site is ready to weather the storm of holiday shoppers that will soon arrive. Here’s a look at five tools, processes and methodologies to help your site remain active, responsive and engaging for customers throughout the upcoming holiday shopping season:

1. Follow through with on-site testing

Several forms of site testing are used to resolve this issue with low visitor capacity and reduced performance, with one of the most important being the peak-load test. This determines the maximum number of simultaneous users your site can host before performance degrades. Tests should occur twice a year, with the first setting a baseline and the second determining the maximum load for holiday shopping.
Other considerations in terms of monitoring include using Google Analytics to track concurrent users and look for sudden drops in page views per second and visitors. Hardware monitoring is also critical, especially in terms of CPU, disk and memory utilization. Finally, application monitoring helps you track key performance indicators, like page load time. Tools to facilitate this process include AppDynamics, DynaTrace and New Relic.

2. Utilize expire headers and cache control

Reducing the number and size of informational transactions between a visitor’s web browser and your site is a major element of fast, efficient performance, even more so during the holiday shopping season. A first-time visitor may have to make many HTTP requests to access all of a site’s components. Expire headers help reduce image sizes and control caching to cut down on transactions and stop redundant transactions from piling up.
With the right expire headers, site elements become cacheable and minimize HTTP requests in the future. These headers are frequently used on images – which should also be optimally sized to not waste resources – but can be used with nearly all site elements to reduce load and encourage cache use.

3. Optimize domain sharding

Domain sharding is a major benefit to businesses that use it, improving page load time and search engine visibility by splitting resources across multiple domains. Domain sharding is a technique for splitting resources across multiple domains, improving page load time. When multiple domains are used, browsers are able to download more resources simultaneously, resulting in a faster user experience.

This widely used optimization tactic allows visitors and their selected browsers to make better use of high-speed internet connections and is especially valuable for sites with many images. While a two-connections-per-server rule was once commonplace for browsers during the era of slower internet speeds, and spurred the use of sharding, many now allow significantly more connections. For example, Firefox’s desktop browser accommodates eight connections per server.

Sharding is a vital element in reducing load time, but it has to be properly implemented and tested. Otherwise, improvements will be minor or the changes may even be negative – especially for responsive sites and mobile device access. You have to optimize the sharding taking place and explore how different iterations affect loading speeds – sometimes, reducing sharding can create more successful performance. With mobile visits increasingly common, you have to test performance and optimize sharding for customers who access your site through both traditional computers and handheld devices to derive the maximum benefit.

4. Use a content delivery network

Content delivery networks optimize the provision of web content through a system of distributed servers – a network – that shifts depending on the location of the visitor. The closer the user’s computer is to the specific server, the fewer potential problems exist in terms of network bottlenecks. This boosts speed and performance.

By offloading static pages, CSS style sheets, images and other content, you increase your site’s ability to handle more concurrent users and improve responsiveness – two musts for the holiday shopping season. Using CDNs in concert with optimized domain sharding further boosts the benefits these two tactics provide.

5. Clean up promotions, minimize the number of rules

Removing old, unused promotions reduces needless work on the part of your site and improves response times. As the number of promotional rules increases so does the number of calculations your site needs to make at checkout. This redundant logic is neither beneficial nor necessary. During especially busy times, it can be the difference between a visitor staying or going to a competitor.
Sites that don’t clean up their promotions will face more and more negative outcomes as time goes on, which means it’s especially important to get an early start. Using conditions to target specific customers instead of rules is an effective alternative, as it cuts down on server load while still incorporating special offers.

This approach to improving performance in time for the holidays doesn’t rely on any one change. It draws on the cumulative advantages of planning, testing and optimization to create holistic change for your website, enhancing a number of critical areas and removing unnecessary obstacles to success in time for the increased customer traffic that is, in e-commerce, the hallmark of the holiday season.

ObjectWave is a full-service provider of digital commerce solutions. He can be reached at