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How to cope with a boom in website users

How to cope with a boom in website users

By Mark Ferguson from AppLabs

As more and more consumers desert the high street, turning instead to the internet to both research and purchase goods, companies are busy devising new and innovative ways to take advantage of this new channel. With more campaigns aimed specifically at driving consumers online, companies need to prepare for the often exponential demand that their websites will have to handle.

Online shopping has grown from a nascent industry to a booming giant, with uSwitch estimating total UK spending online to reach £40bn by the end of the year. However, the better companies become at driving demand online, the more the press seems to feature stories of monumental website failures.

The press reports provide a worrying view of how unprepared many companies are for peaks in website visitations resulting directly from their own marketing communication campaigns. A recent example saw Radiohead offer their new album for sale at any price customers wanted to pay.

Extensive marketing promotion drove thousands to their website hoping for a bargain but poorly prepared IT meant that the site simply couldn’t handle it, leaving fans without albums and marketers with egg on their faces.

So what are the reasons that lie behind web failures of this nature and what can companies do to boost their sites’ performance?

One of the major problems is that companies fail to test their websites sufficiently. For a start, most companies are unable to ascertain the largest number of users that their website could attract. Whereas in the past, if a retail company had a call centre with 300 seats, they knew that they could deal with 300 requests at any one time – any more than that and the customer would be put on hold until someone could deal with their query.

Website traffic is far less predictable. Surges in demand can be caused by many different variables and so it is important for companies to try and determine to the largest extent exactly what these are and how they could change.

For example a campaign like Radiohead’s is obviously likely to tempt thousands of fans online. As such, its website needed to be tested for the most likely demand that could result from the campaign. If websites still go down after such tests it could be that the site does not have enough kit to deal with the load – in cases like this; the company would need to invest to boost the load capacity.
However, problems don’t always arise from simply a surge in demand; issues can often arise when companies fail to test at the most extreme levels i.e. when the number of users on the site is at capacity.

With regards to the performance of the website when the number of users is high, it is often tested for large numbers of people doing regular things, what is known as a “well trodden path”; going to the home page and logging in would be an example of this. However, bugs in the software can also be triggered when there are an inordinately high number of users, and one user makes an irregular request, an “un-trodden path.”

Using Radiohead as an example, the site may have been tested for performance to cope with 50,000 users entering and trying to purchase the CD. But it may not have been tested for the eventuality of 50,000 people being on the site and purchasing, whilst three users were taking the more irregular ‘path’ of asking for a refund.

This request could have triggered a bug in such an extreme operating environment, and the company would not realise that such a defect existed unless it had tested for that particular occurrence. In order to ensure that all bugs are detected, companies need to run load testing and performance and functional testing simultaneously.

Launching an earth shaking marketing campaign is great if e-tail systems are ready for the inevitable increase in demand and diverse web activity it could create. If they aren’t, any campaign will simply be a waste of time and money.

Continued failures of this nature indicate a definite disconnect between marketing and the IT department that organisations simply have to address – creating demand is simply a job half done.

If companies are to ever see the end of these embarrassing web crashes, they must ensure that systems are of sufficient strength to meet the likely demand. Marketing and IT departments need to work together, to ensure the IT team is always in-the-know regarding upcoming campaigns and the likely changes in user numbers.

This extra communication will ensure that the appropriate load, performance and functionality testing of the site can be conducted. If systems are unable to cope in a safe, testing environment, they definitely won’t handle demand in the real world.

With this knowledge companies can shore-up their hardware and software to an acceptable level, mitigating future embarrassment, financial loss and most importantly, loss of invaluable customer goodwill.

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