For companies doing business over the web, any degradation of the customer online experience can have a negative and immediate impact. When a website does not operate fast enough on customers' screens and mobile devices, there's a serious problem.
Whether an individual is responsible for IT, sales or marketing, it's never fun to watch a website's traffic and conversion metrics sink while the abandonment rate skyrockets. This may be happening even though the data center status monitors show that everything is green.
In such situations, very soon someone higher up on the corporate ladder will require a solid explanation regarding these falling numbers. So, the logical thing to do is call the IT department, to get an explanation of what's going on. Here are some likely responses:
- "What are you talking about? Everything's good. Look, green means good! You get it?"
- "Oh, good to know, you're right web traffic is down. Hmm, let me dig into that."
- "Not us this time, ask marketing and their ad providers."
Of course, this is likely happening at peak hour and there's not even the beginning of an answer for management. But in these situations, when the internal IT team doesn't seem to be aware of the business issue, they may not be the ones to blame.
"Blamestorming" sessions, as they are called, are often useless. Almost every time, the cause will be found with one or several third-party content providers. These are the ones who are placing all sorts of content, from ads to shopping carts, customer reviews and other social media widgets on websites. Ironically, while the goal of these services is to enable rich end-user experiences, they can actually have the adverse effect of slowing down a site and driving end users away.
How Do Third-Party Services Work – and What's the Danger?
In a sense, a webpage is like a dinner party. Only when all the guests have arrived and are seated at the table can the banquet officially commence. In the same way, only when all the pieces that constitute the webpage have come together on the screen, then customers can fully enjoy the website. Marketing teams often put a lot of brain power to engineer these pages so that visitors can get a lot of information about their company's products and services, popularity, customer reviews and other recommendations.
The goal of third-party services is to capture visitors' attention, generate sales leads and ultimately convince them to buy something. The problem is that all this content is not coming from only inside the company's data center. Increasingly, this content is delivered by third-party providers to the website via web services. Any delivery problem with any of these can cause the website to slowdown, just like when guests are stuck in traffic.
In the real life, when people have to wait, they just do, like when they are at the airport and have to go through security check. On the Internet, people don't wait because they don't have to. One click takes a potential customer someplace else where they likely will be able to find similar products and services for a similar price.
Research shows that the average number of hosts that an internet browser has to call in order to fully load a webpage is around 10. Anyone of them, at any point in time, in any geography may become a nightmare because it may cause an entire website to slow down to the point where visitors decide to leave. This in turn, negatively impacts sales. In addition, it is the website owner – not the third-party service – that takes the hit to brand and reputation.
What Can Companies Do?
If third-party services can make a mission-critical, revenue-generating website so vulnerable to performance issues, is it worth it to use them? Like it or not, for most companies third-party services are a way of life and are here to stay. It's far easier to sign a contract with an advertising firm to help optimize the display of ads on a site, for example, than to try and design such a system internally.
Fortunately, there are things companies can do to experience the benefits of third-party services while minimizing any potential negative impact. For example:
1. Companies must measure and monitor third-party service performance closely, using the end-user experience as the ultimate litmus test: Before a third-party service is enlisted, a company should carefully test its performance, including under heavy load, to ensure the service can hold up.
But remember, third-party services originate from beyond the firewall and are "added" into the cumulative web experience delivered to the end-user browser. Therefore, the best and only way to get a true read on performance — including during periods of peak traffic — is to measure from the real end-user perspective, at the browser-level.
Some companies have found it useful to compare website performance before a third-party service is added in order to gauge the overall performance impact. If a performance degradation is identified once the service is added, organizations must work with the third-party service to resolutely fix the problem before the service is implemented.
But realizing that third-party service performance issues can be completely unpredictable, performance measurements in advance of deployment are not enough. Monitoring third-party services in production, 24x7 is also important, in order to validate service-level agreements (SLAs) and to identify third-party performance issues as they occur and take appropriate action.
For example, when a serious performance problem is detected, companies should have contingency plans in place so that offending third-party services can be quickly removed. While they can be extremely valuable when performing well, many third-party services — such as analytics — are not worth having if it means frustrating customers and preventing online orders from coming in.
2. The end-user experience needs to be top-of-mind in all third-party service decisions: In general, websites should keep third-party services to a minimum. Companies always need to ask themselves before adding a third-party service, if the added feature/functionality is worth the potential increase in overall vulnerability and lost conversions. In this vein, there needs to be constant communication between performance monitoring teams, and the teams who request and depend on these third-party services – usually marketing teams who are focused on driving traffic. This is the key to making the smartest decisions that will protect and promote revenues above all else.
Additionally, when a third-party service is implemented, there are certain design steps organizations can take to minimize any negative end-user performance impact, thus proactively reducing risk exposure. For example, by understanding the load order of elements on a site and making sure third-party services and applications are on the bottom, organizations can protect and enhance perceived customer load time, even when a third-party service does suddenly go awry.
3. Leverage industry resources: Look for free services that identify third-party service outages and the corresponding regional impacts. Services like this may not prevent major outages from happening, but they can help organizations at least see when a widespread performance issue is not their own, and give them a head start in putting contingency plans into place and communicating proactively with customers.
Today, most websites rely on a patchwork of content sections delivered by different providers, operating from different locations and different data centers. This increases complexity by inviting more "guests" to the proverbial dinner party. Almost every time a company becomes aware their website is slow, or sees that their conversion rates are heading south for no obvious reason, the cause is not the internal IT team, but third-party content providers.
For these reasons, internal blamestorming sessions are rarely the answer. They can be an exercise in futility and a huge waste of time and effort for everyone, as precious seconds tick by. Rather than blamestorming, companies need to take a closer look at their third-party services and consider the techniques described above. In this way, companies can better position themselves to experience the benefits of third-party services, while minimizing the risks.
ABOUT Vincent Geffray
Vincent Geffray is Senior Product Marketing Manager of Enterprise Solutions for Compuware’s APM business and has more than 14 years of experience in the IT Operations Management industry, with specialization in datacenter performance improvement.
Comic strip by Siobhan Ohmart and Vincent Geffray