In 2014, Argos was the second most visited website on Black Friday in the UK – just behind Amazon – with 13.5million unique visitors. This figure could have been higher, but Argos’ website suffered downtime for around two hours because it simply wasn’t prepared for high quantities of traffic.
Various projections by IMRG, Adobe Data Forecast and Forbes suggest this downtime could have cost Argos an estimated £5million in potential revenue. The same projections for 2015 claim this year’s Black Friday could be three or four times more profitable than 2014, meaning £5m could quickly become £20m. So, if a crash is so costly, why do some companies fail to keep their website online on Black Friday, and what can a company do to prepare against this happening with less than two weeks to go?
Increase your hosting service temporarily
This really is the most important thing any business can do in preparation for Black Friday, but to do it effectively, you will need to know how much traffic your business is expecting. To work this out, it’s important to analyse YoY data to identify trends and past traffic demands. Without this data, it would be worth looking at your competitors who experience similar traffic and looking at a service that can cope with these traffic demands.
Campbell Williams, group strategy and marketing director at Six Degrees Group (6DG), discusses the importance of scaling up servers: ”Dealing with a high volume of traffic is tough; you need some serious scale, but that’s what cloud-based technology is all about. It would have taken many months of planning in the precloud era, but now that it’s a software based approach you can definitely scale up in a much shorter period. In fact, most retailers will be turning on the extra capacity the day before and turning it off the day after.
If you want to get involved with Black Friday then you need to play the Black Friday game. There should be absolutely no question in anyone’s mind that if you’re a retailer you have to have a website that can take customer transactions – so why wouldn’t you scale up to meet demands?”
Stop thinking of IT as a cost and start thinking of it as an investment
This seems to be the number one reason any business fails to invest in adequate hosting services on days like Black Friday. The added costs of temporarily scaling up services are always worth it because of the potential profit. If Argos had made only 10% of the potential profit it lost while its website was down, this would have far outweighed the cost of scaling up the infrastructure. Optimise your site Optimising the load speed can help ease the pressure on your website on Black Friday. Smaller image file sizes and reducing unnecessary coding means your website will load faster in periods of high demand and these changes are some of the quickest fixes you can make.
To optimise images, think about the size that they are being displayed on a website. An image that is over 2000px wide is completely unnecessary if it will only ever be displayed as a thumbnail at 300px wide.
Another great quick fix is minifying Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) which can sometimes contain many rows of information. These rows are often separated by a tab or return to make things easier for web developers. Removing these spaces can reduce the load speed of CSS by up to a third.
You can check your page’s loading speed and receive a tailored suggestion on how the website can be improved using Google’s free tool PageSpeed Insights.
Carry out capacity testing
Testing your website to see if it can cope with high traffic demands is vital, whether you’re preparing for Black Friday or other important shopping dates, now and in the future. Doing this will give your business a clear and accurate indication of whether a website can withstand a surge of customers, at any time.
Williams comments: ”An SME needs to do the same things as a large retailer – it’s just on a smaller scale. You should use test and dev servers so you can really stretch and test a website and see if it can handle it.”
Make sure your hosting allows load-balancing
Load balancing separates all website requests and sends them to different servers to reduce strain. This makes it easier to increase servers when necessary in periods of high demand. A great example of load balancing in practice is Google. Google claim to receive around 60,000 requests per second; if an average server can handle 2000 requests it means that Google will send these requests to 30 different servers to reduce strain. If they receive more requests they can easily add a handful more servers to deal with the extra traffic.
Be ready for a DDoS attack
This is a potential issue for many SMEs. Paying for DDoS attack services is relatively cheap with the right know-how and without it the damage can soon leap into thousands of pounds. It’s worth pointing out that some smaller businesses have been known to attack their competitors in peak periods, so it always pays to be prepared. Large retailers usually are set-up to cope with an attack, but SMEs may be vulnerable. Capacity testing can help with preparing for a DDoS attack. But temporarily and properly increasing the service you receive from your hosting supplier will let you survive a malicious website attack intact.
Williams continues: ”You need to work under the assumption that it will happen to you – it’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when. Retailers need to be prepared for any scenario: you need to have teams monitoring your traffic and in particular the profile of that traffic. If it looks like a DDoS attack it probably is.”
What can a company do for next year?
Start tracking traffic data – and analyse it
The first step in calculating the additional services a company might need over Black Friday is to look at the amount of web traffic over the past few years. Using data to identify patterns and trends will help to more accurately predict future trends and patterns – and Black Friday traffic volumes are no exception.
The more data a company collects the better. Large amounts of data may seem intimidating but there are many companies that provide big data analysis services which can aid in this process. If a company has years’ worth of data, creating an accurate picture of upcoming Black Friday demand is much simpler.
A company should always compare the data it collects with data published by competitors. This is helpful if a company is unable to collect its own data, or if it’s only just started collecting data.
Williams says: ”Unless you’ve experienced Black Friday before you won’t have any data and you’ll have to find benchmark data elsewhere. This could be other retailer’s stats or your nearest comparison in terms of the event.”
Measure market growth
Ask yourself a few questions. Has your company’s industry grown over the last year? Has the amount of internet users in the company’s target country grown? Both are great examples that businesses should be asking themselves in the run-up to Black Friday. A yes to either of these questions means an increase in web traffic. Be prepared.
Make sure your hosting provider is selling you a scalable service
Make sure that the service you receive is flexible enough to cope in times of high demand. Not only is this important for Black Friday but it can help your business be prepared for other peak times.
Williams concludes: ”If you don’t have the in-house capability you need to find a company that knows what it’s doing.
When it comes to scaling your service, buy more capacity than you need. When 6DG host retail websites that are expecting a very serious amount of traffic for a short period of time we engineer it so it can handle double.”
DDoS risks, security risks, a massive excess of traffic are all part of the reality of doing business in the digital age. But if you spend time preparing, and have the right services and solutions in place you will reap the rewards from Black Friday and boost your business.