Q&A: Online merchant sites have to load fast or lose customers within seconds

December 14th, 2012 | by Alfred Siew

Ravi_Maira

This holiday season, more shopping is carried out over smartphones than ever before, as people seek to beat the queue and turn to the device they trust the most.

Just how do online merchants and other companies keep their websites accessible during rush hour and despite the frequently clogged mobile networks?

Techgoondu recently caught up with Ravi Maira, vice president of site performance products for Akamai Technologies. The Internet content distribution network, known more for its caching of Internet content all over the work for smooth distribution, believes its smart network technologies will make surfing and buying things on the mobile much easier. 

1.    Many businesses have built mobile-friendly sites, but how many of them actually see sales from mobile phones and/or are convinced to invest in the acceleration of such sites? 

Transactions from mobile devices have become a big part of many businesses’ revenues. Etsy reported that one-third of its visitors on Cyber Monday were shopping from their mobile devices compared to a quarter on a typical day. One of our customers, an airline company, recently said that 30 per cent of its transactions came from mobile devices.

In markets with high mobile usage overall, sales on mobile devices is growing quickly. According to a recent PayPal study, in Hong Kong, one of the world’s most mobile-centric markets where the smartphone penetration rate is 62 per cent, mobile shopping grew from 10 per cent of the total online shopping market in 2011 to 41 per cent in 2012.

We have seen a clear shift in mindset from customers. Whereas in the past they may have done price comparisons on mobile devices and then completed the final transaction, now they are making purchases on the go via a mobile device.

ASOS, one of our customers, recognizes that speed is essential across every part of its proposition, including mobile, and that it needs to deliver the best customer experience possible regardless of device. There is a strong case for businesses to invest or who are already investing more into accelerating their mobile sites to create a better customer experience. 

2.    Which segments in Asia-Pacific are seeing the biggest impact of these so-called “omni-channel” shoppers and how can they improve the experience?

Omni-channels are seen across all areas, including fashion, consumer goods, home and grocery, but the travel industry has really seen the biggest impact in this region, specifically hotels and airlines. These businesses are starting to realize the need to contextualize the experience for their customers and think of it as a Web experience as opposed to a website. In the same way that Apple’s Siri can tell you the weather by retrieving information from the Web, even though it is not a website, the nature of the Internet is changing.

In order to contextualize the experience, businesses need to think about the customer across all their devices, how they are most likely to interact with the company from each device, what time they are interacting with the company, their present location and previous interactions. Instead of loading the home page for a customer to navigate through, a company can improve the experience for a customer by presenting the most relevant information first.

In the case of an airline company for example, customers are probably looking to check-in If they are logging in to the website from their mobile device within 24 hours of their flight, so the application or website should bring the customer right to the check-in screen as opposed to the home page.

The physical store is still a big part of the retail equation. In addition to developing an online store presence, businesses are also bringing the online element into the physical store so they need to carry less stock. This could especially work with kiosks at airports that help customers locate and purchase items within the airport mall and deliver it to their gate before the flight. 

3.    Traditional e-commerce accelerators are already in place for many merchants during Christmas. How would another mobile-specific offering help them? 

Having to manage too much traffic load and improving the performance to conversion rate of websites or Web applications are the two main challenges during peak periods that most businesses face. At Akamai, we have been talking for a long time about how the speed at which a website loads can affect the conversion rates on transactions.

A study we conducted with Forrester showed that customer expectations of website load times on mobile devices are similar to load times on desktops. The study revealed that customers’ abandonment rate was 89 per cent on tablet, 83 per cent on PC and 59 per cent on mobile phones if the website took longer than three seconds to load. A similar study by Wallmart on customers visiting their website showed that the likelihood of a customer making a purchase was more than double if the load time was 0-1 seconds as opposed to 1-2 seconds and doubled again if the load time was 1-2 seconds as opposed to 4-5 seconds.

4.    We understand that network congestion is one of the biggest issues with many users browsing mobile content, for example, in Singapore. Is that a bottleneck that can be easily overcome by Akamai’s mobile-specific tools? Briefly, how is this done?

Akamai is currently not deployed at the mobile network level but we have announced our intention to do so by partnering with Ericsson. In future, we will be able to make it better and take off some of the load from the congested mobile networks.

Mobile users are most likely facing a high latency experience and often lose connection due to the current congestion. Hence, it is important to have everything work perfectly when the user does have that connection.

Akamai can help make the Internet portion of the connection operate faster by employing our mobile acceleration solution Aqua Ion. It will assist with protocol optimization specific to mobile devices in order to make the best use of the mobile user’s connectivity.

We also have capabilities with front-end optimization that reduces the load on the mobile network by reducing the number of requests and the amount of data that needs to be delivered to mobile devices.

In the event that the mobile user has a really bad connection, Akamai can utilize adaptive image compression. Four versions of the same image at differing quality levels can be stored on our servers and the user’s connection strength is measured in real-time and the appropriate image gets delivered so that the load time is minimized.

Another way Akamai can help reduce network congestion is by integrating Akamai software onto the mobile device. Our recent partnership with Qualcomm to integrate Akamai software into their chipsets for mobile devices allows us to further reduce the amount of data that needs to be sent since both the mobile device and our network now speak the same ‘language’.

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