Three Ways to Improve Website Performance

A new IDG Research Services survey reveals that it takes longer to learn about website performance issues than to solve them.

 

Not long ago, website performance was a much simpler exercise. Basic content, slow connections and limited device speeds shielded users from back-end performance flaws. As brands and consumers have moved online (the latter in the billions), with bandwidth and powerful devices following, Web content has become more dynamic and website management more complex. Today, website owners can no longer hide poor performance. Increasingly, company revenue and reputation are at stake.

And that performance is more important than ever. Companies, especially market leaders, are seamlessly integrating their online presence with business objectives. According to a recent IDG Research Services survey on website performance, 90% of IT professionals report that their organizations’ websites leverage Web applications, including live customer support and lead generation. When it comes to e-commerce, 80% of respondents report that customers use their websites to make online purchases and process other types of transactions.

All of this activity translates into a growing dependency on revenue generated online. Among those organizations whose websites offer online transactions, respondents report that, on average, Web purchases account for about one-third of their annual revenue. That’s likely to rise, and is probably the reason why 85% of those IT professionals acknowledge that failing to have either a reliable Web presence or provide an exceptional user experience leads to a highly negative conclusion: lost revenue.

Standing out in the research is a rising priority: the user experience. The vast majority of organizations (96%) are mindful that they must provide more than site uptime and availability; in order to be competitive, they must offer a high-quality experience to website visitors and customers.

That means thinking carefully about how website performance links so closely to business activities and—more important—revenues. In the current online world, monitoring website performance, identifying problems and mitigating those issues is more important than ever. To improve performance and gain a competitive advantage, companies need to focus on three key areas:

  • Improving the online user experience
  • Investing in the baseline
  • Focusing on continuous improvements

Where the Problems Exist

Respondents to the IDG survey report multiple issues in dealing not only with website performance but also their ability to manage it. These include:

LOAD TIMES AND LATENCY.
Nothing frustrates users more than a Web page that takes forever to load. But the issue also frustrates IT professionals (half of whom cite this as an issue), who frequently aren’t notified when content either from internal marketing or external advertisers changes without its impact being tested.

UNPLANNED WEBSITE DOWNTIME.
Cited by 47% of survey respondents as a problem within the previous 12 months, this issue’s impact is clear: If a website is down, impatient users will just click over to a competitor’s site. For IT, unexpected downtime is an indicator of a deeper, undiagnosed issue that needs to be resolved.

APPLICATION ERRORS.
Another frustration for users: websites not performing as expected, displaying error messages or with content missing. This was also cited by 32% of the respondents as an issue. This problem stems from a lack of interaction between departments within IT, with developers accidentally introducing scripting errors, among other issues, because of improper testing procedures.

Each of these issues contributes to an overarching problem respondents point to: It takes too long to become aware of a performance issue. On the one hand, 49% of respondents receive automated alerts from website monitoring systems. But the majority indicates that they only learn about these issues when they are alerted by colleagues. Sometimes these colleagues are on the network operations or Web operations teams, but frequently colleagues outside of IT bring problems to their attention. Embarrassing as it may seem, some are even notified of website issues by their customers.

IDG research shows that when respondent organizations experience unplanned downtime on their websites, they estimate that, on average, they are alerted within about three-and-a-half hours of the downtime’s occurrence and are on their way toward resolution of the problem within three hours of being notified. When experiencing long page loads, notification time increases to five-and-a-half hours (on average), with problem resolution beginning within four hours. All told, that’s close to a full business day elapsing before problems are solved. It’s unlikely that the patience of a prospect who wants to make a purchase will stretch through an entire day.

Considering all website performance issues covered in the survey have mean notification time of three-and-a-half hours or more, it’s no surprise that less than half of respondents (46%) are satisfied with their organizations’ ability to diagnose website user-experience issues; only 12% are extremely satisfied.

The problem here is that organizations are too often applying late 20th century paradigms to 21st century problems. They still rely far too much on manual efforts, particularly those reactive in nature, in finding and fixing website performance problems contributing to delays in both notification and mitigation. This burden leads to the larger risk of missing root causes and perpetuating a cycle of underperformance. It’s like increasing the dose of allergy medication instead of identifying and digging up the plants spreading pollen in the garden.

There is constant pressure to not only keep a website up and running, but ensure that it’s perceived as more responsive than competitors’. That pressure to perform at high levels, however, collides with modern system complexities that make deep monitoring hard to do. In fact, organizations frequently rely too heavily on problem alerts that come through a dashboard. This often delivers problem notifications without context and fails to identify problem sources. The situation isn’t going to get easier over time. In fact, it’s getting harder.

As the research notes, website interactions and transactions are tied more than ever to company revenues. Monitoring website performance under these conditions means that IT departments need to broaden their views. IT organizations at market-leading organizations look at website performance as it pertains to marketing strategies, business objectives and revenue expectations—not just to technical systems and their optimization. They leverage automated, contextual information about problems and deep analytics to track what happens, how frequently and why. That means less time chasing problems and more time getting in front of trouble.

All told, that’s close to a full business day elapsing before problems are solved. It’s unlikely that the patience of a prospect who wants to make a purchase will stretch through an entire day.

- IDG Research Services

Three Key Areas for Resource Investment

Simply put, IT must look at the larger context of website monitoring—not just what it’s monitoring, but why it’s monitoring, and how it affects the business and customers. Many are already refocusing their efforts. Asked about top objectives for improving the online customer experience, survey respondents cite:

  • Mobile Web application/site access (48%)
  • Improved site performance visibility/monitoring (41%)
  • Improved/new shopping experience (37%)

Success will not be easy. Respondents expect a tough road ahead, especially when it comes to mobile site access and improving the shopping experience. Four out of five respondents report these objectives will be challenging or extremely challenging to accomplish over the next 12 months. Nevertheless, companies are making the effort, backed with serious funding. On average, respondents report budgets of $958,000 allocated to projects designed to help them improve the online customer experience.

Where should these funds go? Three key actions (which frequently overlap) will benefit organizations the most.

IMPROVE THE USER EXPERIENCE.
Companies must monitor and test their website performance assiduously to determine what users see when they access content. That means investing to understand performance from the user perspective, across a spectrum of devices (desktops, laptops, tablets, smartphones) using a variety of media (wired and wireless, in all of the latter’s permutations, such as Wi-Fi and LTE). Holistic monitoring also reveals scripting errors that can frustrate users.

INVEST IN THE BASELINE.
Synthetic monitoring involves testing the website under controlled network conditions and should be performed from both outside and inside the firewall. This reveals issues relating to back-end performance and establishes a baseline from which Web investments can be properly scrutinized. Companies must also invest in benchmarking to understand how they perform against their competition to gain an advantage and right-size the investment. Knowing where they stand helps organizations better direct budget dollars and prevent under- and over-investing in the online presence.

FOCUS ON CONTINUOUS IMPROVEMENT.
The information collected must contribute to ongoing efforts to enhance the user experience. That means using the information to improve application development, to increase collaboration with marketing and to continue competitor benchmarking. The latter is important to improve, as compared to both previous internal efforts and competitors’ efforts.

The importance of collaboration cannot be overstated. IT must inculcate in its monitoring efforts an understanding of how performance impacts customers and, eventually, revenues. In a fast-moving business climate, where Web technologies are advancing quickly, IT needs to work closely with the business to help its colleagues understand the performance ramifications of content, graphics and development tools.

The Payoff: Benefits of Website Monitoring

Applying this broader perspective, the benefits of website monitoring become clearer. IT can use its test results to enhance the customer experience, which leads to both improved customer satisfaction and increased customer engagement. That in turn leads to a strong competitive advantage, an improved revenue stream and increased brand protection.

Greater competition makes this imperative, simply because in the online world, companies never know when or from where new competitors will arise. With companies using e-commerce to not only generate revenues but to enter new markets, only those that continuously monitor and tune their online experience will thrive. Website monitoring is a discipline to be honed for companies that want to become and remain market leaders.

Another, perhaps subtler, benefit to a strong monitoring effort is increased insight into the activities and needs of other groups, especially in marketing. Gaining an understanding of what works and what doesn’t when it comes to images and graphics will w IT, sales and marketing to work together more closely on finding and developing content that serves both customer needs and corporate objectives.

Clearly, online interactions with customers will only increase. That means the ability to understand how customers and prospects interact with a corporate website—whether with transactions or other activities—is only going to become more important in today’s digital economy. IT leaders who recognize the importance of website performance monitoring and testing, and who put processes and procedures in place to ensure its continuous improvement, will reap ongoing insights and benefits from these efforts.

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