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No matter how perfectly crafted and stylish an online storefront is, if it sputters when web pages are loading and forces shoppers to stare at a spinning hourglass for too many seconds, Terry Costa points out that retailers will lose shoppers to the competition

Online shoppers expect fast service – in fact, that’s probably why they’re buying online instead of going to their High Street retailer, said Terry Costa, vice president of marketing for on-demand site search provider SLI Systems.

If more evidence is needed, Costa offered some statistics on how slow page-loading speeds can affect your site’s success:

  • The average online shopper expects webpages to load in two seconds or less, down from four seconds in 2006; after three seconds, up to 40% will abandon a site. (Forrester Research)
  • The conversion rate increases 74% when page load time decreases from 8 to 2 seconds. ( real user monitoring data from 33 major retailers, 3 million page views, search transaction)

"Fast page loads are especially important for site search and navigation pages, which is how shoppers get to your product pages faster," he said. Here, Costa offers the steps needed to take to deliver site search results faster and more efficiently, ensuring a shopper-friendly online experience:

Deploy AJAX

Using AJAX can help visitors download search results more quickly by avoiding the need for a page refresh each time they do a follow-on query, choose a refinement, or click to the next page. Only the data that is needed is requested from the servers so the results appear faster. "Visit the Topps Tiles website to see how this works – as you click on refinements, you can see that new search results don’t require a page refresh," Costa said.

Use content delivery networks

Content delivery networks bring the files that are being delivered on the webpage, such as images, closer to end users. "By caching this data locally, you can speed up the delivery of these files, particularly for site visitors that are physically located far way from your servers," added Costa. "For Boden, we’ve helped them establish multiple server locations so that pages are loaded as quickly as possible."

Only include the basics on web pages

If webpages are cluttered with images and scripts that don’t need to be there, this extra material will reduce page load times. Trimming the excess content from your pages will help them load faster. Costa advised retailers to conduct multivariate A/B tests to figure out the impact of removing these elements.

Use auto complete

As users fill out the search box, auto complete shows the most relevant keywords in a drop down. Users pick from the drop down instead of typing, speeding up the search experience. "You can also deploy partial stock-keeping unit (SKU) data matching to reduce the number of results that are downloaded, or SKU jumps so users can go directly to the right product page," Costa added.

Use rich auto complete

Rich Auto Complete works like Auto Complete, except that relevant search results are shown in a drop down window. By using this feature, retailers present relevant search results with thumbnail images, a product name and maybe a description, without downloading a full search results page. Users click directly on the result that interests them, which will bring them directly to the product page, skipping the full blown search results page altogether, and speeding up the overall search experience.

Optimise mobile sites for search

Mobile device users already have to live with inconsistent data speeds and bad coverage, so Costa said retailers shouldn’t add to their headaches with slow-loading search results. The mobile site and mobile search should only include necessary content. "For instance, the mobile website for Andertons Music does this right, using small and simple images for mobile search," he added.

"Once you’ve done everything possible to optimise page load speeds, test out the site: visit your retail homepage while you’re using a wireless connection at a local café, or while you’re at home (where you likely don’t have a T1 line). If your site loads quickly and doesn’t cause you to tap your feet impatiently, then “Project Speed-up” can be pronounced a success," he concluded.

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