One second can cost you tens of thousands of dollars.

If that sounds like an exaggeration, Jayaram Bhat, vice president of marketing for Mercury Interactive , cites a Zona Research study that found that eight seconds is the threshold of an average user’s patience when waiting for a Web page to download or a transaction to complete. If your site is slower, you’re probably losing customers.

But how does a business know if its Web site is performing up to par? What options does your company have if it needs to determine site performance?

Many businesses use performance testing to ensure their Web sites are performing well. In this article, we’ll look at how downtime affects a business, and discuss a few of the companies that offer performance monitoring.

Why performance testing?
Jacque Anderson, Director of Marketing for Freshwater Software , a Boulder, CO-based company that makes performance monitoring tools, stresses the importance of keeping yourself constantly apprised of your site’s performance. A few years ago, for example, companies would just wait for someone to call in and report problems with the site.

“Now, the focus is on making sure those problems are detected and fixed before a customer notices,” Anderson said. “Customers don’t need to call to let you know there’s a problem. Your competition is probably online, so your customers can just go one click away and do business elsewhere.”

Besides lost revenue, Anderson argues that downtime also takes its toll on brand recognition and integrity. Forrester Research , for example, claims that 58 percent of customers won’t return to a site where they experienced problems on the first visit, while 62 percent are unlikely to go back to a site where they experienced transaction failures.

“If a site goes down and a customer tries to log into a site and is unable to do that, that person often feels uncomfortable about doing business with that company,” Anderson said. “Integrity is probably the biggest concern our customers are talking about.”

Performance testing
Mercury Interactive and Freshwater are just two of many companies that offer performance testing. Both offer the service in two flavors:

  • Front-end monitoring runs automated scripts that mimic user behavior from various points around the Internet. They measure the results in order to determine how visitors experience the site.
  • Back-end monitoring allows a business to run software on its own server to test such processes as database updates to ensure reliability.

Mercury Interactive’s front-end monitoring launches scripts on a network of POPs (Points of Presence), which are computers sitting at Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in 25 or more cities across the U.S., Europe, and Asia Pacific picked by the user. At intervals of 15, 30, 45 or more minutes, Mercury launches a transaction, completes it, and reports on the time.

Users can set time thresholds for transactions and receive alerts—via e-mail, Web-enabled cell phone or paging—when the time limit is exceeded. Users can also access reports from a Web page.

But obviously, it’s not enough that things appear okay to your customers when they place their orders. You also need to make sure you charge the right amount to the correct credit card account and that you’re able to deliver the right item to the right address in a timely manner.

Ensuring that these processes actually work is what is known as back-end monitoring—where a business runs software on its own server to test such processes as database updates.

Bhat suggests that back-end monitoring begin before a site is deployed. That’s the route that was taken by PHH Vehicle Management Services, one of Mercury Interactive’s clients.

David Coleman, Director of Distributed Systems for PHH, says his company began using Mercury Interactive tools “so we could do load testing and application testing during the development life cycle.” From there, the testing carried over into the deployment of the site.

“Once the development cycle was over, we could take the final set of scripts and run them against the production site and turn them into monitoring scripts,” Coleman says.

With a large clientele logging onto the interactive site daily to manage fleets of vehicles, Coleman said that Mercury’s monitoring tools allow him to deal with problems before they occur.

“You can set thresholds so that you’re getting the triggers or pages, and you can react before the users hit the unacceptable levels,” Coleman said. “If the acceptance level is eight seconds for a login page, you can set the monitor for six seconds, and you get the alert prior to the user feeling any pain.”

Depending on the nature of the problem, the fix could be anything from tweaking a line of code in a program to investing in another Web server.

In addition to Mercury Interactive, PHH also uses Freshwater’s Sitescope service and a number of other tools to monitor the site’s performance.

“You can’t be dependent on any one tool,” Coleman said. “If you have two things monitoring the same process, and one goes off and one doesn’t, you might have a false positive. But if both go off, you know you have a problem.”

The bottom line is that you need objective data to assess Web site performance. “Without a tool such as Mercury, “you’re just throwing darts at a dartboard around what you think your users are experiencing.”
Have you used performance testing to ensure your Web site is working properly? Has it helped you head off problems before they appear on your site? Tell us about your experience in an e-mail or post a comment below.