Customers increasingly intolerant of slow Web sites

Consumers have very little patience for online stores, e-banks and travel sites that slow down, act erratically or crash during busy transaction seasons, according to a new study from Gomez, a provider of Web performance optimization tools and services.

As the intolerance with clunky Web sites rises, so does the cost of lost e-business for the banks, retailers and travel agencies running these sites, according to the study, which was conducted by Equation Research and will be officially announced next week.

"Web performance impacts business results, whether measured by revenue, conversions or brand strength," said Jeff Loeb, vice president of products and solutions marketing at Gomez, a division of Compuware.

For the study, Gomez polled around 1,500 people who have conducted e-transactions during what it calls "peak seasons," like the holidays for retailers, school vacation periods for travel agencies and marked stock-market changes for banks and brokerages.

While shoppers may put up with longer lines at a real-world store during the holidays, they won't be as understanding if a retail Web site renders pages more slowly due to increased online traffic, Loeb said.

More than two-thirds of respondents said they had no more tolerance than normal during peak periods. "They expect the sites to be just as snazzy and fast as during normal times," he said.

If the sites falter, many consumers will click away to a competing site, including in the case of banks and brokerages, where such a move requires the inconvenience of opening new accounts, Loeb said.

The survey, conducted in December 2009, found that 78 percent of consumers jumped to a competitor's site after encountering slow-loading pages, errors or transaction problems.

Moreover, 88 percent are less likely to return to a site whose performance disappointed them. The company's brand as a whole also suffers. "People are pretty impatient nowadays and they don't want to wait," he said. "They have other choices."

In 2009, 72 percent of survey respondents said they encountered slower Web sites more frequently during "peak" periods, he said. In addition, 58 percent of respondents reported more errors and 51 percent experienced a failed transaction.

The problems affected all three types of sites: retail, travel and financial. "User expectations weren't met last year during peak traffic times," Loeb said.

Not only will people take their business elsewhere, they are also very likely to share their bad experiences with friends and families in various ways, including through social media sites. As many as 42 percent of respondents said they'd share their experiences in such a way, according to the study, which is titled "When More Website Visitors Hurt Your Business: Are You Ready for Peak Traffic?"

While catastrophic, lengthy Web site crashes are becoming less and less common, retailers, financial institutions and travel agencies now need to further fine-tune performance so that consumer experience is consistently solid.

"The next frontier is in the response-time side," Loeb said.

To accomplish this, Gomez recommends that companies proactively determine if their Web applications and infrastructure can support peak traffic volumes by doing load testing.

"Organizations need to know how much headroom they have, how many additional users they can [accommodate] before performance begins to degrade," he said.

"Peak seasons are when you make most of your revenue, so you should be pretty confident and have tested to be sure that you can handle those loads," Loeb added.

In addition, companies must benchmark their sites' performance against that of their competition and of industry leaders, because those are the expectations they will be judged against by their customers.

Finally, Web sites need to be continually monitored, in particular from a customer's perspective, so that companies are aware of latency issues for users located in a specific region or high error rates tied to the use of a particular browser type and version, he said.

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