Web sites battle slow download times

Zona Research last week claimed that an estimated $US4.35 billion per year in electronic-commerce sales may be at risk because of unacceptable Web-page download times.

Although the Redwood City, California, consultancy's figures and methodology can be debated, the report spotlights a problem that e-commerce sites acknowledge they continue to battle.

"In terms of a general trend, it doesn't matter that much whether it's $2 billion or $4 billion. What really matters is that the need for speed is critical to make money on the Web," said Zona analyst Jack Staff.

Sites have no control over many of the factors that affect download times, such as a visitor's computer processing power and Internet service provider connections.

Therefore, many companies try to design their pages with realistic expectations, balancing business needs for speed against striking visual features that may attract users, but also slow the site down.

Keep It Simple

CDnow, one of the Web's most trafficked retailers, tries to keep its pages simple, with a "strong visual identity" but a limited number of the tables, colors and fonts that can cause a page to download slowly, said Michael Krupit, a vice president at CDnow in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania.

When CDnow merged with N2K, it inherited pages that carried a picture with each of an artist's albums. For an artist such as Frank Sinatra, that could mean hundreds of images on one page. CDnow compromised, showing the first five album covers and listing the rest of the albums.

To monitor its customers' download experience, CDnow hired Keynote Systems in San Mateo, California. Keynote samples download times in at least 35 cities around the country using different computers and Internet service providers. CDnow's average page-download time last week was 4.55 seconds, but a worst-case of nine seconds one afternoon served as a red alert for further investigation, Krupit said.

Some sites also set page size limits. Day-Timer Digital, which offers its scheduling calendars online, tries to limit its site's footprint to 50K bytes per page, said Robert Humphrey, vice president of operations and development at Day-Timer, also in San Mateo.

Keeping a Log

Standard & Poor's takes daily snapshots of page generation time and size for its Personal Wealth site through log reports from its application server.

The company holds its most-visited pages to higher performance standards than less-visited ones, said Tom Gerhard, chief technologist at the company's consumer markets division in New York.

The division uses a 40K-byte target threshold per page. One way to achieve that is to use style sheets that automate the styling of text in table cells, Gerhard said.

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