Sluggish site performance could cost millions

Computer World –

As much as $362.2 million in U.S. e-commerce sales may be at risk each month due to unacceptable Web download times, according to new research from Redwood City, Calif.-based Zona Research Inc.

While the Redwood City, Calif., consultancy's figures and methodology could be debated, the report spotlights a problem that commerce sites acknowledge they continue to battle.

Zona calculated its figures by determining the number of online users connecting at different speeds, eliminating the 15% who don't use their online connections and taking the 20% of the remaining users who actually make purchases online. Zona then assumed that each buyer would spend about $200 per month online, barring any problems. And then it factored in projected losses due to slow load times, load failures or connection failures.

"We really need to stress, we are not saying that $362 million is absolutely lost every month. Rather that $362 million is at risk of being lost," said Jack Staff, chief economist at Zona.

The findings are part of a new Zona study titled "The Need for Speed." The study compiles data from a variety of sources, including primary research by Zona and parent company IntelliQuest Information Group Inc., and the "Internet Backbone Measurement Results" report by Boardwatch, a Penton Media Corp. publication.

The research used a popular Webmasters' "eight-second rule" as the benchmark for when a user loses patience with a download and becomes at risk for bailing out. According to Zona, about one-third of online shoppers frustrated with download times simply give up, and only one in seven of that group clicks through to another Web site.

"When people in a mall don't get waited on promptly, they might put their items down, go have a cup of coffee and then come back," Staff said. "The reason they do this is because they've gotten in their cars, driven down to the store, found parking, and touched and felt the merchandise. They have a lot invested in going to a store. Online, however, these same customers are only one click away from going somewhere else."

Sites have no control over many of the factors that affect download times, such as a customer's computer processing power and Internet service provider connections. So many try to design their pages with realistic expectations, balancing business needs against striking visual features that potentially can attract users.

CDnow Inc., one of the Web's most trafficked retailers, tries to keep its pages simple and functional, with a "strong visual identity," yet a limited number of the tables, colors and fonts that can cause a page to download slowly, said Michael Krupit, a CDnow vice president in Jenkintown, Pa.

But when CDnow merged with N2K Inc., it inherited pages that carried a picture with each of the artist's albums. For an artist such as Frank Sinatra, that could mean hundreds of images on one page.

CDnow compromised, showing the first five album covers and listing the rest of the albums.

To monitor its customers' download experience, CDnow hired Keynote Systems Inc. in San Mateo, Calif. Keynote samples download times in at least 35 cities around the country using different computers and Internet service provider services. CDnow's average page download time last week was 4.55 seconds, but a worst casse of nine seconds one afternoon served as a red alert for further investigation, Krupit said.

Some sites also set page size limits. Day-Timer Digital Inc., which offers its scheduling calendars online, tries to limit the footprint to 50K bytes per page, said Robert Humphrey, vice president of operations and development in San Mateo, Calif.

Standard & Poor's takes daily snapshots of page generation time and size for its Personal Wealth site through log reports from its application server. The company holds its most visited pages to higher performance standards than less visited pages, said Tom Gerhard, chief technologist at the company's consumer markets division in New York.

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