Thoughts on Cyber Monday

I thought I knew all of the buzzwords, but this year's cybermonday seems new to me. Cybermonday is (allegedly) the web version of Black Friday, the traditional kick-off to the holiday shopping season, except online.

Some advice, for users and the technology types who will be under siege:

If you're buying...

Keep a copy of notepad or textedit (or whatever editor you happen to like) open while surfing and buying items. If you’ve found something that you have been looking for a long time, copy the URL or product number or even the contents of the page to the open editor window. This is insurance. Insurance against your browser crashing before you complete the transaction. Insurance against the web site crashing before you complete the transaction. Insurance against spending even more time re-searching for the item.

When you are checking out, pay very close attention to the check out pages. Look out for additional marketing offers (which you may or may not truly be interested in) which default to being checked “yes” or “interested” or “please send me even more junk mail”. Look out for additional “features” which have been courteously added to your shopping cart and may be small enough to be misread as tax or shipping charge.

If you’re buying downloadable software, or music, or other content, make and save a copy of the receipt for the content. If there are product keys, print them out, add them to your Yahoo! notepad (or that open editor window, but then save!) or Gmail or elsewhere.

My personal preference for all receipts, or things which are like receipts (automatically generated passwords, product keys, etc.) is to print them to PDF using Adobe Acrobat (or save as PDF for Macintosh users). I set the “Author” field to the URL of the page with the receipt (which frequently encodes information about the shopping cart).

If a web site is slowing down or acting “funky”, stop shopping there. Save the information you’ve captured in your editor and either return later or find an alternate site. There are a million reasons why a site may slow down, none of which are under your control. You can sit and get frustrated, or you can move on to other sites and other tasks.

Don’t shop from work. I write this not out of an ethical, misusing the company’s resources concern, but out of a security and privacy concern. Your work or business network is likely filtered and monitored. This data is captured and logged somewhere. Many commerce sites do not encrypt their transactions until you actually start the checkout process. This means that at a minimum, the URLs of the sites you’re visiting will be logged by the great corporate logger, and possibly the content (if you are using a proxy server, and many times you may not even know that you’re using a proxy server). Once that data is logged, your privacy is dependent on the security of that data. It’s out of your control.

Make sure encrypted connections really are encrypted and make sure you’re using the website you expect to be using. An encrypted URL will start with https://. The resulting page should cause a lock icon to appear somewhere in your browser. If you’re shopping at a site for the first time, inspect the encryption (depending on your browser, you can double-click the lock icon and bring up a dialog box). You can check out the certificate for the site to verify it’s for the business you expect it to be (as far as I know, no known phishing/pharming sites have forged SSL certificates to look exactly as the expected site).

If you're under siege (aka, the webmaster, CTO, etc.)...

It's too late for my first bit of advice: don’t make any technical changes to the site for the month leading up to Cybermonday. Too often the marketing & sales guys want to do a big launch this week. I know you know that is stupid and risky, however just to go on the record, my reasons are:

  • A month is the minimum amount of time to shake out any technology changes, especially if you’re modifying technology which is in the pathway of the consumer executing a transaction. It doesn’t matter what the technology is, you could be updating software, optimizing your database, rearranging the filesystem, or putting up a redesign. You can run performance tests and verify that the site runs to your satisfaction, but you don’t control all the variables. An update to a popular web browser (even worse, an automatic update could quickly change the interaction with your site, and your testing cannot account for that. If your technology is static for several weeks you should have a good sense of how it will perform when you’re under siege.
  • Redesign? You’re thinking did he write “no redesign” for Cybermonday? Yes…I personally believe that you should make sure your design is clean and launched well before you expect to get hit with holiday traffic (or whatever the event may be). It takes time for images to get cached around the web in caching servers, so initially your raw bandwidth will increase. If you launch a significant redesign, users will click around your site trying to find once-familiar pathways into your catalogues. Application use changes when you launch a redesign, more traffic may end up at an application than you expected or tested for. Finding this out when you’re “under load” is too late.
  • If you have a really well run site, your technology team should be bored, but ready to respond. If you’re in the midst of launching new applications or design systems and it’s an extraordinary day, your team won’t have the slack time needed to evaluate and respond to situations and problems with the site.

Have a backup operations plan, a “plan B”. Not a disaster-recovery plan, but an operations strategy you can move to which retains the critical elements of your site (for instance: a commerce engine) but lightens the site (perhaps junking large interactive content, large images for small).

Running a large commercial web site is, unfortunately some times, a 24 hour a day job. Make sure you and your staff are set to provide coverage “off hours”, even if that means being off during a “normal” work day.

Be prepared with all sorts of statistics. Traffic in, out, number of shopping baskets created, items filled, number actually used. Whatever “transactional” activities occur, you should be able to slice & dice the data and present it. This is data you likely already collect and present on some periodic basis. When under “siege”, though, you’re likely to receive frequent demands for updates on traffic from the sales and marketing side of the house. Automate the collection and presentation of the information (ideally, let them interact with it directly, removing you from the path altogether). Furthermore it may have value to you. With the growth of broadband at home it takes people much less time to surf around a site, there’s less of a penalty to loading multiple pages. The result is that you may see more traffic as people browse around, vs. years ago when dialup pretty much limited browsing to variations on specific items.

Posted in Opinion

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