Train to take the strain: How marketers can avoid the damage of a website crash

Sven Hammar, founder and chief strategy officer, Apica

The website crash experienced by Virgin Money Giving proved to be a very expensive mistake by the brand. Even temporarily ignoring the financial aspect, in the short-term it prevented friends, colleagues, and relatives from personally supporting those who were running. In the long term, it could potentially have far reaching consequences for one of the most trusted and successful British brands.

Having said that, Virgin is not alone and should not be put on a pedestal just because of the charitable ramifications in this instance. The Glastonbury ticketing site has previously been found to buckle under the strain of high demand while limited edition and collaboration clothing collection sites regularly do the same. Of course, these are all designed to create such a spectacle and drive so much traffic that it becomes self-perpetuating.

But for marketers, a degradation in website performance means lost revenue and a lower Google ranking. Making the first page is very hard for a slow site as Google uses the load time as part of the ranking algorithm. Consumers are very sensitive to how web pages perform, and conversion will typically have a correlation with speed. Research has found that 34% of consumers say they would abandon a website that takes over 10 seconds to load. During the Amazon outage, some of the world’s largest took over 30 seconds to fully load their home pages.

To use a well-placed cliche, building a website that is fit for purpose is a marathon, not a sprint. Much like the event itself, 99% of the work is done beforehand to make sure it is ready when needed. So how can brands and marketers ensure they don’t fall foul of site set-up? Here are five key steps to take you through the process:

  1. The end – Any brand or business knows well in advance when its busiest day is going to be. So, the starting point is to work backwards from there. Organisations should check previous peak numbers, and gauge estimated traffic growth. For example, the Virgin Money Giving site was able to process more than $29m in donations on the day of the 2016 London Marathon – that would have been a good starting point to define how much traffic the site needs to handle.

 

  1. The schedule – Like any build project, having a clear plan of what is happening when, how and by whom is key – and it needs to have a direct line of sight both to the next step in the chain and the end of the project. Website load testing isn’t about overloading pressure to make the site crash. It’s about defining a test project to identify bottlenecks and pace the site to handle bigger and bigger load.

 

  1. The support – Much like a marathon, website building goes far beyond the area that is doing the work on the big day. Modern transactional websites have multiple components which need to interact to function correctly. Under heavy loads, these components may not function as planned, and often lead to site failure. Through load testing, organisations can identify the weak links and the load levels that cause the site to slow, and eventually crash.

 

  1. The final check – The most important aspect of website and app load testing is to set and test for the maximum amount of anticipated traffic, plus and additional margin based on past data. A professional load test project can simulate peak environments quickly and easily, and, if the site fails, pinpoint exactly what went wrong. The finale result validates performance according to your updated load expectation, so you can launch the site with confidence.

 

  1. The backup-plan – If an outage happens, marketing teams should have a communication plan in place for their visitors and customers. They need to promptly communicate when and why a service degradation occurs, and what steps are being taken to resolve it. If the load goes over the limit, a waiting page with information can be prepared in advanced, and ideally the site should be able to que overload traffic so the site don’t crash completely. Virgin wasn’t planning on its website going down on its busiest day of the year but the fact it reacted quickly and with the donation pledge is to be commended.

 

The website is a shop window into the brand and a touch point engaged with almost all customers at some point. Making sure it does what it needs to, when it should be a priority. Of course, most of the time it does yet with any marathon things can go wrong, it is better to prepare for all circumstances.

Sven Hammar
Sven Hammar Sven Hammar is founder and CPO of Apica. Sven has decade-long experience and expertise in web performance, load testing and security.