What Sets the Top-Performing E-Commerce Sites Apart?
August 12, 2016

Mehdi Daoudi
Catchpoint Systems

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One way top-tier e-commerce companies maintain their prestige and keep customers coming back is by delivering an exceptional customer experience. Users can depend on these sites for fast, reliable web interactions, and speedy and convenient transactions. Catchpoint just analyzed and ranked the top performing e-commerce companies and one thing is clear – they all make performance optimization a priority, allowing them to meet and exceed users' expectations.

The top three performers – Target, Apple and Walgreens – shared several best practices that have allowed them to achieve their competitive edge.

Low Page Weights

Each of the highest ranked sites kept their page weights low, which is typically effective in improving overall performance. Excessive total downloaded bytes can slow load times and frustrate end users. Ensuring that sites aren't excessively bloated, like these companies did, should be a priority in all e-commerce sites' performance plans. The desire to feature a lot of marketing content must constantly be balanced against the ongoing need to maintain and protect download speeds.

In fact, before any decision is made to add any marketing content, marketers and IT teams should work together to evaluate if a particular campaign is worth any potential performance degradation. There is no point in having an especially flashy ad or campaign if the net effect is going to ultimately drive users away.

Catchpoint conducted this analysis during the first half of 2016, after the holidays. The holidays, of course, are a prime time for e-commerce sites to "put on weight" and slow down. As e-commerce companies start thinking about 2016 holiday planning this summer, avoiding holiday excesses and keeping page weights to a minimum will be an important consideration.

Content Delivery Network

In addition to managing page weights, Target, Apple, and Walgreens all used CDNs to deliver their static content. A content delivery network (CDN) is a system of distributed servers that stores and delivers web pages and other web content to users based on their geographic locations. CDNs get static web content "closer" to end users around the world, minimizing time-intensive server "roundtrips." The closer the CDN server is to the user geographically, the faster the content will be delivered.

CDNs can be highly effective in speeding the delivery of content from websites with routinely high traffic and global reach. They can also provide protection from large, sudden surges in traffic.

Limited Third-Party Services

Limiting third-party services was also a common practice among the leading companies, particularly Apple, who only had one. Third-party services like social media plugins, videos, and analytics are frequently used to enhance the user experience; however these can be overdone. External services increase performance risks because they are ultimately out of an e-commerce site's direct control. Just one small issue with one of these services can affect performance for an entire page; so, the more outside services that are running, the more susceptible a website becomes to potential problems.

Like the issue of page weight, third-party services are a very important factor in holiday season planning, and e-commerce companies need to limit these to the ones they truly need. During the 2015 holidays, many of the outages Catchpoint detected – particularly in the mobile realm – were the result of third-party services having problems. During periods of peak traffic, third-party services are likely under heavy duress as well. Those services that are enlisted must be monitored around the clock, and e-commerce sites should always have the ability to directly understand how a third-party service is impacting the performance of their pages. They should also have contingency plans to quickly remove (and if necessary, replace) any poor performers.

Asynchronous Loading

There are other techniques that can make sites appear to download faster, such as asynchronous loading. Synchronous loading means that all elements on a site are loaded in a straight, sequential order. The problem with this is that when any particular element slows down and takes a long time to load, it holds up the rest of the page, hurting the user perception of a fast download.

Asynrchronous loading, on the other hand, skips over page elements that are taking longer to load than others. This helps maintain the user perception of a fast download, as the main elements appear quickly and the user is still able to interact with the site without requiring the other elements to load.

Asynchronous loading is especially important given the recent rise in ad blocking. Catchpoint just conducted an analysis which revealed a surprising finding: in addition to ads, ad blockers sometimes block content and features that aren't ads, including items related to sign-in and authentication processes. If a site is not designed to load elements like these asynchronously, this blocking can slow down or disrupt the entire page.

The key to achieving success in digital business is delivering an amazing customer experience at all times, so performance must be a priority to meet those standards. Each of the performance-enhancing practices described above are simple tweaks and optimizations that could be adopted by virtually any e-commerce site, regardless of size.

Besides keeping users happy and driving transactions, a focus on performance can help mitigate negative impacts of ad blocking. Strong performance will deter users from growing frustrated with slow speeds and activating ad blocking in the first place. As e-commerce sites begin their holiday planning, they should "follow the leaders" and adopt their techniques to help maximize their own performance.

Mehdi Daoudi is CEO and Co-Founder of Catchpoint Systems.

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