Monday, September 1, 2008

Web Performance, Part VIII: How do you define fast?

In the realm of Web performance measurement and monitoring, one of the eternal and ever-present questions remains "What is fast?". The simple fact is that there is no single answer for this question, as it it isn't a question with one quantitative answer that encompasses all the varied scenarios that are presented to the Web performance professional.

The answer that the people who ask the "What is fast?" question most often hear is "It depends". And in most cases, it depends on the results of three distinct areas of analysis.

  1. Baselining

  2. Competitve Analysis

  3. Comparative Analysis


Baselining


Baselining is the process of examining Web performance results over a period of time to determine the inherent patterns that exist in the measurement data. It is critical that this process occur over a minimum period of 14 days, as there are a number of key patterns that will only appear within a period at least that long.

Baselining also provides some idea of what normal performance of a Web site or Web business process is. While this will provide some insight into the what can be expected from the site, in isolation it provides only a tiny glimpse into the complexity of how fast a Web site should be.

Baselining can identify the slow pages in a business process, or identify objects that may be causing noticeable performance degradation, its inherent isolation from the rest of the world it exists is its biggest failing. Companies that rely only on the performance data from their own sites to provide the context of what is fast are left with a very narrow view of the real world.

Competitive Analysis


All companies have competition. There is always a firm or organization whose sole purpose is to carve a niche out of your base of customers. It flows both ways, as your firm is trying to do exactly the same thing to other firms.

When you consider the performance of your online presence, which is likely accounting for a large (and growing) component of your revenue, why would you leave the effects of poor Web site performance your competitive analysis? And how do you know how your site is fairing against the other firms you are competing against on a daily basis?

Competitive analysis has been a key component of the Web performance measurement field since it appeared in the mid-1990s. Firms want to understand how they are doing against other firms in the same competitive space. They need to know if their Web site is at a quantitative advantage or disadvantage with these other firms.

Web sites are almost always different in their presentation and design, but they all serve the same purpose: To convert visitors to buyers. Measuring this process in a structured way allows companies to cut through the differences that exist in design and presentation and cut directly to heart of the matter: Show me the money.

Competitive measurements allow you to determine where your firm is strong, where it is weak, and how it should prioritize its efforts to make it a better site that more effectively serves the needs of the customers, and the needs of the business.

Comparative Analysis


Most astute readers will be wondering how comparative analysis differs from competitive analysis. The differences are, in fact, fundamental to the way they are used. Where competitive analysis provides insight into the unique business challenges faced by a group of firms serving the needs of similar customers, comparative analysis forces your organization to look at performance more broadly.

Your customers and visitors do not just visit your site. I know this may come as a surprise, but it's true. As a result, they carry with them very clear ideas of how fast a fast site is. And while your organization may have overcome many challenges to become the performance leader in your sector, you can only say that you understand the true meaning of performance once you have stepped outside your comfort zone and compared yourself to the true leaders in performance online.

On a daily basis, your customers compare your search functionality to firms who do nothing but provide search results to millions of people each day. They compare how long it takes to autheticate and get a personalized landing page on your site to the experiences they have at their bank, their favourite retailers. The compare the speed with which specific product pages load.

They may not do this consciously. But these consumers carry with them an expectation of performance, and they know when your site is or is not delivering it.

So, how do you define fast? Fast is what you make it. As a firm with a Web site that is serving the needs of customers or visitors, you have to be ready to accept that there are others out there who have solved many of the problems you may be facing. Broaden your perspective and put your site in the harsh light of these three spotlights, and your organization will be on its way to evolving its Web performance perspective.

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