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Don't let your Website get Stuck in the Chimney

Profile image for Ross Coombes

When do you start getting prepared for Christmas?

I’m a procrastinator - unless I consciously try not to, I will wait until the last shopping weekend before Christmas before I start shopping for the family. I like the chaos of the options and the decision making, the challenge of getting it done in time and the achievement of pulling it off. 

My sister is the opposite, it’s July and I guarantee that she will have at least one or two presents stored away for Christmas already, she probably has spare ones from last year. 

When things go wrong during my last minute festive fury, it’s my sister that I call whilst I’m searching online or from Bournemouth high street when I’m short of ideas. I know she has already considered several options and researched all of them, she knows what everyone else is buying and as such, she has the resources available to comfortably deal with my sudden spike in activity.

But she’s not the only one I rely on in this situation, I rely on the preparation of the businesses themselves.  Firstly I need the shop to be open when I need it to be, the layout needs to be good enough to move around it and find the things I want.  I will only pay with card and I am not going to wait more than 10 minutes in a queue, if I have a normal question I expect the shop assistant to know the answer. If they fail on any of these fronts, I’m going somewhere else.

 

e-commerce is even more complex

With e-commerce, the situation is even more complex. I have a lot more options than I have in the high street and my user journey is very different so the businesses I buy from online have to be even more prepared.

First and foremost, if you are an e-commerce brand that I might buy from, you need to get my attention in the first place, I need to know your brand well enough to think of it as an option, to trust that my money should be spent on your product or service.

In order to do that you need to know where I am active online, do I spend time on Facebook, do I search on Google, am I subscribed to a particular YouTube channel or do I regularly read articles in certain places?  Have you figured out the best place to put an Ad or a remarketing banner such that it will appear in front of my eyes and did you create the correct messaging and visuals such that I would notice it?

Have you managed to get an email into my inbox that I’ll actually read, what value is it providing me? After all, if I’m Christmas shopping, I get zero value from knowing what products you sell.  All I want is to find a present that my Mum opens on Christmas Day that she likes so the only value I get from your email is if it helps me find that present and order it on time.

To find those prospective customers where they are hanging out online, to have positioned yourself correctly in their mind, to deliver the right cocktail of messages such that in that key moment of decision making, they think of your brand is, well… a lot of things to get right. 

An awful lot of work and preparation is required to pull that off and that’s just the digital side of things to get me on the site in the first place. As an e-commerce business in the run up to Christmas, there are a million other logistical things to get right, the products on sale, controlling the stock levels, means to deliver, staff to service and many many more.

Over the years our e-commerce clients come to us seeking advice on all sorts of questions around how best to navigate these challenges but we’ve noticed that there’s one question that seems to be frequently absent and which deserves your attention this summer.

 

spikes

My sister is able to comfortably deal with my sudden spike in activity on the last day of shopping but do you know how well your website will handle the spike in activity from your customers?

Have you ever actually load tested your website? Depending on your website hosting setup, your site will typically perform in one of two ways as things start to get a little busy.

The first is to fail fast, the server recognises that users are waiting too long and displays an error message leaving them unable to continue with their journey.

The second is to fail slowly, the user doesn’t get an error message, everything just seems to take a little longer to get done and the journey becomes increasingly tedious until eventually the load reaches a point where it falls over completely.

The best way to think of it is like going to a busy restaurant for dinner. One restaurant tells you the moment that you walk in the door that they’ve got a backlog of orders and that they’re not taking any more. You’re initially disappointed but at least you now have options.

The second restaurant invites you in, lets you sit down. After a bit of a wait, you’re able to order drinks, choose your starters and main. Then you wait, the drinks take time to arrive, the food is over an hour and whilst you’re sitting there getting frustrated, there’s nobody around to ask how long things are likely to be.  Ultimately you get what you came for, a meal but the experience has been horrible and will leave you with a bad feeling.

A few months ago we were asked to do exactly that on a very well known travel company who had just built a new website and wanted an independent test done by another agency.  They had aspirations that their website could handle 1000 users concurrently, the truth was it could only handle 100 and like the second restaurant - it failed slowly.

And by the way - there are other options. The Adido hosting platform scales to meet demand, our latest server infrastructure is able to detect an increase in traffic, predict the amount of resources it will need and deploy that resource within a minute of the initial detection. It does this all on its own, without human intervention as and when necessary so all the customer knows is that the website continues to run quickly at all times.

If you don’t have a server that can scale, your first job will be to calculate what you believe will be the highest number of concurrent users.  We use a tool called LoadImpact to help us with this kind of work and they’ve put together an article explaining a bit more about how to calculate this number.

 

So, in summary, I strongly recommend that if you have never done it or not for a while that you load test your website.  Because when that day comes, having been very very busy elves making sure everything was ready, the last thing you want is for your website to get stuck in the chimney. 

No presents, Christmas is cancelled, the people of Whoville boo hoo in despair.

As a final point, may I also suggest that you don’t simply get yourself prepared and then let it happen. The tools are out there to watch your website in real-time, to even watch an individual person’s journey. 

There is so much more to learn from real-time monitoring than you ever can from monthly aggregated data - and if the festive season is critical for your business you may not be able to afford to ignore it.  But... that’s a topic for another blog post.

 

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