Website performance lessons from the Travel Industry

Date: 10th February 2011
Author: Deri Jones put up some interesting research this week , What do customers want from travel websites? This reflected some of the best practise lessons that came out of a website performance assessment this month.

Some of the findings were surprising, and highlighted that it’s often possible to make quick improvements in your conversion ratios with small technical tweaks, once you have the meaningful data to hand – metrics collating together the small blips and burps on your core Travel users Journeys over time.

Like eConsultancy, the project was asking: Why would people abandon a travel purchase online?   Our remit was to see if the occasional visitor comments about problems in this website’s holiday search and  payment user journeys were due to real,  underlying technical problems in the website or just problems with a visitor’s own PC:  And if so, what percentage of users were being affected and what could be done to resolve the root cause.

The first keynote to take away from the project  – was that images matter more than you realise.  Even more than the marketing department (who do love pretty pictures !) realise.  Additional findings highlighted that letting a 3rd-party cloud supplier handle your images may actually undermine your online brand if it impacts delivery on your website, confidence in your website and brand will surely suffer.

24/7 monitoring of the travel  portal, showed that some of the images, used 3 or 4 pages deep into a Search and Buy journey, were suffering from a regular problem that meant visitors frequently experienced a page with missing images.  It happened 3 out of 7 nights each week, at a regular 11:20 time slot – and was solved by presenting evidence to the 3rd-party hoster of the images!  There was no need to talk deep technical, once the supplier knew that their customer knew, they fixed it quickly…. it was obviously something they were aware of and keeping quiet about.

This dovetailed into the eConsultancy finding, that about 60% of holiday buyers say photos of the destination and accommodation help them to choose a holiday.

The second problem was a shock for the travel portal managers – dynamic user journey monitoring showed that for about 5% of their packages, the price would change before  the visitor’s eyes!  Their simple website availability metrics had of course not revealed this issue.   The first price for a package, would not match the final price configured in the shopping basket.  The price differences were small.  And quickly fixed when the client’s tech team were informed of which specific products suffered the problem.

And last up, our last finding was less of a lost sales problem, than a security problem that meant a potential fraud issue.  Some clever javascript had been used across the site to make a more interactive experience – but in the credit card handling page a bug meant that a malicious user could get their holiday ordered and confirmed past the credit card pages – without needing a valid credit card number at all!  Given the time lapse between a holiday purchase, and it being taken, it was unlikely that any real fraud had taken place to date:  but it did explain a small number of problematic orders where stolen or inactive credit cards had been used and apparently passed the checking stages.

This last problem was fixed quickly, but only by putting the dev team on it urgently, and pushing back some other new feature work.  The software bug had apparently been introduced intentionally some months back – during an in-house website load testing project.  The load testing tool the internal team had used was not up to the task of performing the complex AJAX powered steps that the site was using, so the testers had coded a short-cut, to allow the testing journey to bypass the tricky AJAX step in the Journey.  Subsequently the team forgot to roll back the short-cut.

The moto there was that if the testing tool available to your team is not capable, so much so that your website load testing itself is undermined by the need to recode some of your pages just to make them testable: or that changes made to your code severely impact your website’s robustness if they don’t get rolled back.  Then it’s good practice to code your site permanently to make it testable, but bad if such changes undermine the normal user working of the site, and are thus only planned to be live short term.

Lastly, there was a lot of actionable data about the slowest pages in the whole journey – or rather the one page that was on average no worse than others, but under busy periods it suffered a big slow down.  A bad page slowedown hidden among fast pages can realy lose sales: as the recent Akamai survey reported:

A third of travellers would be less likely to visit a site after experiencing technical problems like slowness or errors on the page. Business travellers are slightly more likely to have a negative reaction

Which reminds me, we’ve seen some very interesting things recently on sites with content hosted by Akamai – load testing Content Distribution Network CDN’s for capacity planning has been interesting.

Why would people abandon a travel purchase online?