MT Expert - IT: How to avoid an online traffic jam

Hostway's Neil Barton on avoiding website overload in the face of high traffic volumes...

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Recent figures from the UK Online Measurement Company (UKOM) revealed that British internet users are spending 65% more time online than they did three years ago. The average surfer now spends 22 hours and 15 minutes on the internet each month and this upward curve is likely to continue. For businesses this trend is good news as it can potentially mean more traffic visiting their websites. But how prepared are today’s websites for this increase in online traffic?

Such is the competition in the online marketplace, it’s now more necessary than ever to find ways to keep your website engaging. We’re now seeing more businesses than ever before using video and audio content on their websites to attract visitors and offer the best user experience possible. While this might make your website look cutting edge, it can also have a negative impact on page loading times, especially if a lot of people are viewing the site at the same time.

One thing the internet age has shown us is that people are impatient. If your website crashes and fails under the pressure of too many hits at the same time, visitors are likely to give up and look elsewhere. This results in lost revenue either directly through a lost sale, or wasted advertising spend.

Shaping your options
In the past, businesses have simply thrown extra servers at the problem or used traditional ‘load balancing’ techniques, where websites are hosted over two or more servers and traffic is spread across them. This approach is quite basic and can become quite costly if a site quickly gains in popularity. However, load balancing is now becoming much more intelligent, which allow website administrators to inspect and route traffic based on the visitor type or by their own pre-chosen criteria.  Imagine a busy motorway where one lane is blocked – with traditional load balancing, drivers automatically manoeuvre their vehicle into other lanes to avoid delay; whereas with intelligent load balancing, there’s a traffic warden guiding cars to the fastest lane according to their size and importance.

By extension, it’s also now feasible for businesses to prioritise traffic using traffic shaping techniques. ‘Traffic shaping’ allows businesses to offer a two-tier experience that users are unaware of, but that will benefit them by helping deal with high volumes of traffic. Using this system, preferential treatment’s given to ‘premium’ visitors. For example, if many visitors try to reach a particular web page at the same time, they can be profiled so existing customers will get a preferential connection before browsing customers.

Seeing the bigger picture
To overcome the issue of slow loading images and videos, businesses should also consider using basic content caching techniques, or Content Delivery Networks (CDN) to reduce the strain on website load-times. CDNs work by caching data on the ‘edge’ of geographically dispersed networks. As the data’s stored closer to the user requesting it, 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 items 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.  
Business websites are in the classic catch 22 position. They’re perfectly placed to benefit from providing the enhanced user experiences expected today, but at the same time too much rich content and a lack of traffic management policy could be the reasons behind poor website performance. In today’s connected world a badly performing website just won’t cut the mustard, therefore businesses need to be able to ensure that it’s not the website that’s to blame for ‘lost sales’. This can help ensure brand integrity and values are protected, making sure website visitors return time after time.

Neil Barton is the director at Hostway

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