How to prepare your website for Black Friday traffic

As more retailers than ever prepare for Black Friday, Aaron Dicks, managing director at Impression, explains how to prepare your website for an influx in traffic.

In 2015, shoppers spent over £3 billion on Black Friday according to Experian data. 2016 is expected to be an even bigger year, with more and more retailers taking advantage of the event (which falls on 25th November).

A well planned and executed Black Friday campaign can have many benefits for your business. As well as driving more sales via a range of discounts and deals, it also provides opportunities to extend your audience base and re-engage lapsed customers too.

However, if you fail to prepare properly for the increase in website traffic that comes from a great Black Friday campaign, you could end up with hundreds of unhappy customers who are unable to buy the products you’re offering.

When a big retailer’s website crashed last week ahead of their Black Friday launch, users voiced their frustration across social media and the story was covered across the web. This kind of negative PR and poor user experience is never good for a brand.

A website will typically crash when it is overloaded and cannot respond quickly enough. Here, we share our tips to help you prepare your website for Black Friday by improving load speeds and using external services to keep the pressure off your servers – resulting in a better user experience for your visitors.

The importance of a good impression

Where household names will probably be able to shrug off any negative PR around Black Friday activities, it is not so simple for the majority of smaller businesses that are looking to attract and retain new customers. A new customer struggling to use your site on Black Friday may decide that it’s not worth it and spend their money elsewhere.

One of the most important things you can do in these last few days before Friday is make sure that your website is prepared to withstand the traffic that your marketing team is gunning for.

There are several things that you can do to improve your site’s performance in such a way that it can cope with Black Friday traffic and continue to perform well in the months afterwards. The broader tasks include speeding up your existing site,  separation of concerns and improving your hosting setup.

Making your existing site faster

The speed at which your website loads plays an important role in how well it is ranked by major search engines and on the experience users have on it.

Google suggests that pages with a load speed of under 200ms perform very well commercially.

Software caching is a common feature offered by most content management systems – if it’s not in the core code, you’ll be able to get a third party plugin that offers it. It basically means elements of each page, such as images, are saved so they can be shown immediately to the user rather than having to load it afresh if they’ve visited before.

Full page caching is a level up from software caching, and involves the server storing whole pages that it can display to the user almost instantly. Implementing this where you can will go a long way towards improving the user experience of your site.

The size of files that have to be loaded on your website has a huge impact on its load speed.

If you have images on your website, it’s important you make sure they are resized to be appropriate for the web before you upload them. Even if you use your content management system to make the image smaller once you’ve uploaded it, the site still needs to load the larger image first then make it smaller, which slows your load speed. Resize images before upload.

Also, take advantage of your web server’s ability to zip files up. All modern web browsers support a variety of compression protocols, so there is no reason not to use these when sending files online to reduce the amount of time they take to load.

Separation of concerns

Web servers have to work hard, often having to build pages on the go, execute database commands, and serve up all kinds of style sheets and JavaScript files, as well as any other media the site might feature.

When demand on the server increases, it makes it more and more difficult for your website to be loaded efficiently. That’s where we get these outages.

Separating out these tasks into different servers and services will allow your web server to cope better with the additional traffic that Black Friday will bring.

There are a range of different content delivery networks around, but the basic principle is always the same: some website elements will be delivered by a group of always-on global servers.

Ecommerce sites can ease the pressure on their web servers by allowing content delivery networks to provide product imagery, for example. This simply means your images are stored away from your own server, making it less likely to buckle under the Black Friday pressure.

With cached pages, you can afford a bit of extra time to bring in another server to handle your database.

DBaaS (Database as a Service) is becoming more common, allowing you to use separate databases to handle different elements of your website. Using these solutions allows your web server to handle connections and sending files.

Improving your hosting setup

Cloud computing is a common English term now, and it’s going to stay that way for the foreseeable future. Cloud computing simply means using entities outside of your owned technology to improve processes or reduce load on your servers, for example.

With your files and databases hosted elsewhere (with a separation of concerns as talked about above), then you can use the cloud to store the the executable files that run your site and replicate them across numerous machines in the cloud, making your site more scalable.

This works by using a ‘load balancer’ to use the best/fastest available server.

A firewall ensures that the traffic your website is receiving is the traffic that you want, i.e. real people.

A firewall blocks any unwelcome visitors such as bots or virtual crawlers. This will prevent your website from collapsing under the strain of additional visitors that aren’t even shoppers.

Firewalls can be installed on your server or you can use external services. Using an external firewall is normally the best option, as your server’s CPU will never have to handle the extra traffic in any form.

Don’t make assumptions

You should test your website well ahead of Black Friday to make sure it’s not going to suffer from outages or issues.

Free tools like Pingdom and Google PageSpeed Insights will help you to see how quickly your website loads, and give you an idea of the improvements you could make.

There are also both free and paid services for testing how well your site handles hundreds of simultaneous visitors. This is essential if you’re preparing for a Black Friday rush.

Tracking

The purpose of improving your site’s speed and ability to handle traffic is to make more money for your business on Black Friday weekend and in the long term. Be sure to track all of your Black Friday marketing campaigns and use tools like Google Analytics to see how your site is performing.

If you are unfamiliar with any of the techniques listed here, talk to your web developer; they will be able to advise you based on your specific website setup.

Aaron Dicks is the managing director of Impression.

Further reading on website management

Related Topics

Black Friday
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