5 Ways to Prepare Your Site for Peaks in Traffic

Peak trafficAs an IT professional, you covet page views and unique visitors to your site. But at times of peak traffic, they can be as much of an obstacle as an asset. The popularity of your website can make it the victim of its own success.

Target experienced this problem firsthand when it introduced its Lilly Pulitzer product line with a torrent of multichannel advertising. Unfortunately, this advertising worked as intended. Customers flooded Target’s website, but it wasn’t quite prepared to handle the stress of that load.

The site never crashed, but it did experience severe lags in performance. At one point, administrators even shut the site down for 15 minutes voluntarily. Worst of all, the customers who did have the patience to wait through slow load times often discovered that products were out of stock or in limited supply. Customers were eager to buy, but Target’s website lacked the resiliency to accommodate peak demand.

This example is hardly unique, and it’s often worse for smaller sites. Reddit, for example, is great for increasing brand awareness, but that awareness can bring a “hug of death”: a spike in traffic so sudden that it puts enough strain on resources to crash a site. CodinGame, a training platform for programmers, is just one example of a site that was overwhelmed by enthusiasm.

Peak traffic is something all websites strive for, but few properly prepare for it. It’s time to understand how that approach can negatively affect your business.

Performance Is Perception

The 2016 UPS Pulse of the Online Shopper report found that 51 percent of purchases were made online that year, and nearly 40 percent were cross-channel (blending digital and physical activities). With more purchases happening online, a company’s online presence and the overall perception of its brand have become inseparable. Just look at Target. It’s a brick-and-mortar retailer, but its disastrous digital run on the shelves certainly affected customers’ perception of the whole brand.

Online shopping has become so ubiquitous that customers rarely notice how seamless the experience can be. The consequence is that less-than-perfect performance stands out and sours the customer’s experience in seconds.

Research indicates that visitors will abandon your site if it fails to load in fewer than three seconds. And because of that delay, the majority are unlikely to return. Impatience might seem like a minor problem, but it has a dollars-and-cents impact when you can’t deliver perfect performance. A site making $100,000 a day could potentially lose $2.5 million a year due to a one-second page delay. Scale those figures to your own business; they’re still shocking.

Slow-loading, unresponsive pages, database problems, and even complete website downtime can all result from a lack of planning. Peak traffic is something that is hard to predict and foolish to discourage — you need to get serious about being prepared.

Preparing for the Peaks

Unlike an issue such as cybersecurity, it is relatively easy to plan for peak web traffic. By making a few investments, upgrades, and accommodations, you can feel confident handling any volume of traffic. Here are some tips to help you prepare:

  • Study your own traffic. Spend some time learning about your traffic patterns and defining what a spike would look like. Be aware of any active and passive efforts you’re making to encourage a sudden surge in traffic. The easiest peaks to prepare for are the ones you anticipate.
  • Invest in a CDN. A CDN service can offload most web traffic from your servers — up to 99 percent in some cases. That way, your main servers don’t have to do the heavy lifting when demand is high. Many of the top CDNs also serve as DDoS mitigation services in the event that those peaks are due to malicious users.
  • Know your capabilities. Regular performance and capacity testing is essential and should simulate real-world customer traffic as closely as possible. Consider investing in staging servers that match the scale and configuration of your production servers. Trying to predict performance is a notoriously uncertain process. The most reliable way to be sure of your capabilities is to test their limits directly.
  • Optimize your e-commerce application. Throwing resources at server problems is a huge waste if the real problem lies in your e-commerce application. Think of it as pouring more gas into a tank with a leak. Determine whether the application’s resource consumption is reasonable given the demand being placed on that application.
  • Consider caching for dynamic content. Caching comes in many forms, but in all cases, it improves site performance and lessens the load placed on your origin infrastructure. Once you lift that weight, your core resources can handle more dynamic transactions like checkouts.

It does not take a huge amount of capital to prepare for peak traffic, but it does require an ongoing commitment. If you prepare in advance rather than react in a panic, you’ll be primed to ride the wave of sales success to the highest points it can reach.

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