When the UK government's European Union (EU) referendum voter registration website crashed shortly after 22:00 on 7th June, it served as a warning to all organisations that conduct business online.
The crash caused tens of thousands of potential voters to be temporarily disenfranchised less than two hours before the 23:59 registration deadline, which had to be extended as a result.
Similarly, when Pokemon Go launched on Wednesday 6th July, within 24 hours there were reports of servers crashing worldwide as the game enjoyed phenomenal uptake.
While you might not be expecting tens of thousands of people to visit your website in a two-hour period as a result of your latest campaign, you still need to ensure that your site is appropriately equipped to cope when traffic spikes occur.
Here are my tips to help you to take control of website performance during planned campaigns, to avoid locking your customers out during your busiest periods:
Know what normal looks like
Know your website thoroughly. Through user journey monitoring, you can simulate real users accessing your website from all over the world, helping you to identify the exact points at which errors and delays occur. Are there bottlenecks occurring at certain times of day, or days of the week, when customers are ordering fresh stock? Are your channel partners experiencing frustrating delays or page crashes when they try to register deals using your online portal?
Armed with this information, you can clearly see current bottlenecks, or potential problems, that need to be addressed, which is particularly important ahead of an expected traffic surge, following a successful marketing campaign.
Don't get caught with your site down
Monitor uptime. When your website is down, you cannot run your online business or provide your services and many customers may never return. Benchmark the normal performance of your site. Just how reliable is your website on a day-to-day basis? How quickly are pages loading? You can now monitor the uptime of your site free of charge with our new service.
Remember that while a 99% uptime might sound good, this could mean your site is down for more than three-and-a-half days a year. How much business could you lose in that time? How many frustrated customers would switch providers?
Until you know the scale of your problem, you cannot implement an efficient solution. Don't let a seemingly minor headache become a crisis if your site experiences a sudden spike in traffic.
Keep your finger on the pulse
Once you know what normal performance looks like, comprehensively monitor the performance of your site on an ongoing basis. Set up email and text alerts to enable you to immediately see if performance has fallen below the optimum levels. You can even benchmark those results against industry standards and competitors.
Using your chosen monitoring service, are you confident that your customers and business partners are receiving the fast and efficient service they deserve now and will your website cope with a sudden surge in queries?
A web server has a limited amount of memory and if too many users simultaneously request information, the server response times will start to slow, leading to timeout errors or, ultimately, a crash. If your site is slow, it may well be approaching the edge of a cliff. A sudden surge in traffic could push it over.
Balance the load
Slow page loads and errors on ecommerce websites are usually caused by insufficient database server capacity. However, at present, few digital marketing professionals know the point at which their site becomes unresponsive. Implement load testing to establish the capacity and breaking point of your site.
If necessary, contact your hosting provider to ensure that extra server capacity can be allocated to support sudden spikes in web traffic during the busiest period of your campaign. Check your SLAs and get your hosted service provider to commit to providing the required server infrastructure to support your entire campaign period.
While load testing technology has been unjustifiably expensive in the past, the good news is that affordable load testing solutions are now available to help digital marketers to ensure that their carefully crafted campaigns don't become victims of their own success.
Know your market
The Cabinet Office claimed the referendum website had crashed because of "unprecedented demand". Perhaps. But unforeseeable demand? Hardly.
Be prepared. If you are holding a flash sale; launching an addictive new game; or announcing a long-awaited new service to your customers, you would naturally expect a surge of traffic to your site. Remember to look beyond your own activities, though. Is an impending government announcement likely to drive more businesses to your website for information? If so, could your site cope?
Spot the glitches before your customers do
Your online service or e-commerce offering is only as strong as the supporting technology. If that technology fails under pressure, your business effectively closes during its busiest periods, leaving your customers locked out. So if you're not sure about the stability of your website, act now. Plan ahead and put additional capacity in place before the site becomes unusable or unavailable.
Now you know what "normal" performance looks like and you have your alerts in place, you can use these early warning signals to avert the risk of your site slowing or crashing completely. If you know you have regular seasonal spikes in site visitors, you can work on increasing the capacity of your physical infrastructure to better cope with a sudden surge in traffic.
For unexpected spikes, then benchmarking and daily monitoring and alerts are invaluable for allowing you to spot a slowdown before your customers and business partners do.
By Andrew Mason, co-founder and technical director of RapidSpike
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