Online retail sales in 2009 reached €68bn (£59bn) for Western Europe, recent research from Forrester has revealed, and are projected to grow to €114bn (£99bn) by 2014. On average, €483 (£420) was spent online per person. So, retailers are likely to see increased levels of internet traffic over the coming years.
While this is excellent news for e-commerce, how are website administrators preparing themselves for the heavy traffic visiting their sites? If a website crashes and fails under the pressure of too many hits at the same time, then visitors are likely to just give up and spend money elsewhere either on or offline.
What can websites do to avoid the potential pitfalls of high volumes of traffic, and keep their businesses afloat?
As internet shoppers look for their online shopping to mirror their offline shopping experiences, sites are using more rich content such as video and sounds than ever before. However, rich content can slow down the loading speed of web pages, making the user experience a little painful. How, then, can websites be exciting and engaging while offering the ultimate user experience?
Domestic broadband users make a decision about how much they are willing to pay for a particular speed of connection. In a similar way, website owners make decisions about how much they will spend on hosting and server support to keep their sites up and running.
In the US, the net neutrality debate has posed issues about websites paying different amounts to network operators or service providers for their presence on the internet, according to the type of content held on their site. This would effectively create a 'two-tier' internet. For example, companies wishing to create video websites would have to pay more for their website than other, less content heavy sites.
Rather than creating a two-tier internet per se, it is now feasible through clever hosted technology to prioritise traffic at the next level down. 'Traffic shaping' at server level allows e-commerce sites to offer a two-tier experience that users will be unaware of, but that will benefit them by helping to deal with high volumes of traffic.
Using this system, preferential treatment is given to 'premium' visitors. For example, if many visitors try to reach a particular webpage at the same time, they can be profiled so that purchasing customers (who have an item in their basket, for instance) will get preferential connection with the servers before browsing customers - transaction completion being the key desirable for most e-commerce website owners.
For retailers that don't like the idea of traffic shaping there are other options. The first is load balancing; where websites are hosted over a number of servers and traffic is spread across them. 'Intelligent' load balancing goes one step further, allowing administrators to inspect and route traffic based on the visitor type.
There are also ways to utilise servers according to location. Content delivery networks that cache data on the 'edge' of geographically dispersed networks are becoming increasingly popular. As the data is stored locally rather than on a single server far away, latency times are decreased, meaning the website takes less time to load. Simple caching of popular content is another way to cut loading time. Although something will take longer to load the first time it's clicked on in a day, the load is then taken off the main web server which leads to performance improvements and an enhanced user experience, as the content no longer loads from scratch.
E-commerce sites are in the classic catch-22 position. They are perfectly placed to benefit from providing the enhanced user experiences expected today, but at the same time too much rich content could be the reason behind poor website performance. Strategies using load balancing, content caching and traffic shaping are great ways to increase conversion rates and ensure that it's not the website that's to blame for 'lost sales'.
Neil Barton is a director at Hostway