The holiday shopping season starts earlier and earlier each year, with stores putting up decorations and websites running holiday features as soon as November begins. However, when big sales come around some websites always seem to struggle. Luckily, even in the middle of the holiday season there are several steps websites can take to ensure they are smoothly running through December and into the January sales.
Set up robust monitoring and reporting
One of the most important things to understand as you go through the peak traffic period is how your users are experiencing your website;
- Are all your users still having an acceptable browsing experience? Are they able to view products and go through the checkout process quickly?
- Where is your traffic coming from?
- How many more visitors can your site handle without crashing?
While synthetic tests can estimate user behavior, it’s extremely difficult to guess what the real user experience will be when your site is at record traffic levels. So the best solution is to use a real user monitoring (RUM) system to measure what your users are experiencing in real time. Monitoring the performance of your webpages from the browsers of your users can provide you with invaluable assistance to help you make informed decisions on the fly. What’s more, quality monitoring and reporting will also allow you to have a meaningful post-December breakdown and help with the preparation for the next high traffic event.
Deploying real user monitoring can be very simple; taking just minutes of the IT department’s time to engage the monitoring tooling. There are a number of different vendors in the market today and each has their strengths and weaknesses in this space. We recommend New Relic, and Section customers get discounts on New Relic tools.
Deploy Infrastructure Wisely
When setting up your website for peak traffic periods, having banks of servers prepped and ready to go might sound attractive but can be very costly (in terms of hosting and software license costs) in addition to unwieldy to manage. Making use of cloud-based elastic infrastructure can provide “burst” capacity so you only pay for the capacity during the period in which you need it. Be aware that truly burstable hosting infrastructure can require you to architect your site in specific ways and not all hosting providers can accommodate server scale increasing immediately on demand.
Using correctly deployed Content Delivery Networks can be a great way to offload traffic from your infrastructure. Content Delivery Networks can prevent up to 98% of user requests even reaching your application infrastructure. This delivers a tremendous increase in your application capacity (and the speed of your website pages) without making any changes in your hosting or application, and allows your servers to focus on the critical checkout transaction processes.
We should note that incorrectly deployed Content Delivery Networks can slow your website down. However, It is possible to have a correctly deployed “whole website” Content Delivery Network up and providing offload and acceleration for your website in hours.
Prepare for the Best (Worst) Situations
The best possible situation you can have through the festive season is a website flooding with quality traffic and the worst thing that can happen at that time is a website crash. This happens to every website at some time and the trick is not to panic.
You should always have a graceful way to inform a user your site is down or not functioning fully rather than throwing them to an ugly “Server 500” error page. You could serve the static pages for your site from alternate infrastructure (such as the Content Delivery Networks); this may include a custom error page which informs the user that the site is offline in a user friendly manner.
Thus, even when transactions aren’t being captured at that moment, at least the user has a more pleasant experience and may be more inclined to return later. Correctly structured “outage pages” can also give users a sense that this site and its offer is so hot everyone wants some and they have to come back.
There are also several services which offer features that prevent websites from going offline by capping visitors at a certain number and telling any subsequent visitors they need to wait until someone leaves the site to be let on. Section offers this in our Virtual Waiting Room, which uses visitor traffic data to set a reasonable visitor limit and prevent site crashes.
Get time on your side
Sending out the marketing emails to your user base advertising the latest deal will undoubtedly bring quality traffic to your site. But if you already have good quality traffic hitting your site, sending out that a holiday email with great deals can be the straw which breaks the camel’s’ back.
Ideally, you should be able to send out your marketing emails at the time which generates the best click through rate for your particular user base. However, you do not want to drive traffic to an under-performing site and create a poor experience for all users.
Subject the level of traffic on your site, it may be prudent to break your list down into chunks so you can email groups of users at different times and control the timing of traffic being driven to your site. Managing the timing of the marketing campaigns well can be enabled by understanding what is happening on your site in real time. (See Monitoring and Reporting above).
Avoid the “Hail Marys”
This is always a tough call. It’s easy to say avoid panic in a high traffic period but when the site is down and everyone wants to know what you are going to do about it, the temptation is to reach for any option. Rarely do the Hail Marys come off. In fact what they can do is complicate things both in trying to bring the site up immediately and then later when in the cold light of late January, you and the team conduct a post-mortem.
That said, if you have reached the point of watching over a digital corpse in December as traffic floods your website, then a Hail Mary option from the tech team may be a sound decision. Try and do things which have been done before and keep the monitoring turned on.
And next year, get started on steps 1-4 as early as possible.
Section is a website performance and security tool that has worked with many ecommerce sites through record traffic times. Our platform allows developers to configure a smart caching solution on our global CDN in just a few hours, just in time for peak traffic times. Sign up for a free trial here or contact us with any questions about preparing for peak load times.