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Web site monitoring: a key policy PDF Print
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Written by Vadim Mazo   
Monday, 28 February 2005 19:00
Depending on the technologies used, a variety of things can happen to your Web site that will cause it to load slowly, update incorrectly, or not load at all.

From highly complex e-commerce sites to small "mom and pop" companies, nearly everyone is using the Web to do business. However, all of this technology can bring up problems ranging from inaccessible and slow loading Web sites to critical Web applications not functioning. If customers and prospects can't access your Web site they will usually give up within a few seconds--and most won't return.

Depending on the technologies used, a variety of things can happen to your Web site that will cause it to load slowly, update incorrectly, or not load at all. If you run an e-commerce site, problems will inevitability cause lost revenue and a degradation in your company's brand image and trust. There can even be legal issues resulting from non-responsive Web sites if, for example, a customer can't complete a financial transaction, which causes them to lose money.

So how do you keep your site up and running? Start by thinking from the end-user's point of view and check your site's accessibility and performance from several geographically diverse locations. You'll also want to check your Web applications, site content, and devices that are connected to the Internet, such as e-mail servers. However, before you can check any of this you'll need to research the most basic Web technology--hosting.

Time to find a host

Many small and medium businesses decide to outsource their Web site's hosting to a hosting provider, while many larger companies own their own Web server and host their Web site within their data center. If you're part of the first group, now is the time you need to start evaluating which host is best to keep your site up and running.

First you want to find a host and then check their specific features. Doing a Web search or browsing the yellow pages is one way to find Web hosting companies. Another way is to check with colleagues that run similar sites to your own. This way, you can get a feel for the hosting company, their technologies, and their customer service before you contact them.

Once you have a host narrowed down, you want to start checking their specific qualifications. Good things to check are the following:

-- Reputation. Look at their testimonials or request references.

-- Internet connection. How are they connected to the Internet and how close are they to the Internet backbone?

-- Power supply. Ensure that they have a redundant power supply in their data center.

-- Support. Choose a host with 24-7 customer support via phone and e-mail.

-- Monitoring. Do they use an independent company to monitor their sites? If so, ask to see the reports.

Accessibility and performance

Once you've made the decision on a hosting provider--or are hosting the site on your own Web server--it's important to check your site's availability and performance on a regular basis. Now this doesn't mean opening your Web browser and loading up your site--it's a little more complex than that.

Many times, checking your site on your internal network doesn't show much at all. The site could be stored on your network, so what you could be seeing is a snapshot of your site, not the live version. To truly test the accessibility of your site, you'll need to check it from different geographic locations via different Internet connections. So how do you do this? Third-party Web site monitors are often your best bet.

Web site monitors make it their business to test your Web site as an end-user, and most have geographically diverse sites that will test your Web site from different locations. In addition, Web site monitors can test if your site is performing up to your expectations. This means that if you expect your site to load in five seconds, the monitoring company will test for this. If your site takes longer than five seconds to load, you'll receive a notification.

Keep your applications running

Your site's accessibility and performance is extremely important. If no one can access your site, or it takes too long to load, you're going to lose users. Just as important, especially for e-commerce companies, is ensuring that your Web applications are running correctly.

Web applications are things like shopping carts, Web forms, and login information. These can be the lifeblood of e-commerce and membership-based sites, and must be up and running at all times. One glitch in Web applications could result in hundreds, if not thousands of dollars of lost sales, especially during prime online shopping times close to major holidays. Monitoring these applications can become especially tricky since many companies outsource these applications to third-party providers.

Many Web site monitoring companies will monitor specific applications on your site. They do this by using a remote server to simulate an end-user experience, such as purchasing a product or entering a username and password. If the process fails at any step, the monitoring company will alert you and provide you with data to track down the problem and fix it. This data is especially helpful if you need a third-party applications provider to fix the problem.

Test that load

As a site becomes more popular, more and more people flock to it. Increased traffic can also occur due to promotions or holiday shopping. It's great if your site's traffic increases, right? Well, not so fast. Just as more users can bring increased revenues, they can also bring problems.

Throughput is the amount of data that your Web site can handle. Many hosting providers include a certain amount of throughput in their packages, and charge you if you exceed that amount. However, if the Web server isn't configured to handle it, too much throughput can cause your site to load slowly and even crash. In addition, too many users attempting to use your Web applications can slow them down and cause them to crash, resulting in dissatisfied customers and lost revenue.

To avoid these problems you should give your site regular load tests that simulate a certain number of simultaneous users on your site. You can do this in one of two ways--either buy an application or hire a third-party to perform the test. Applications can give you an idea of how your site will perform under a certain load, however, since they are running inside your network the results could be skewed. A solution with more reliable results would be hiring a third-party to do the load testing with multiple, geographically diverse servers. Having this peace of mind when it comes to the load your Web site can handle will make all the difference in the world--especially around the busy holidays.

Is your content correct?

One of the most important parts of your Web site is the content. Your site's content tells users who you are, what you're offering, and how to get it. So what happens if that content changes without your knowledge? Users could become confused, lost, and even offended by unplanned or unauthorized changes in your site's content. One way content can change is through an error in the database that's driving the content on your site. Again, this could be a costly error if you use your site to sell products or services. Another way content can change is through the unfortunate incident of a hacker defacing your site. This could not only hurt your sales, but could tarnish your company's image.

To protect against unplanned content changes, you can either go through each and every page of your site or allow a Web site monitor to do it for you. A Web site monitor will check your site for certain keywords. If the keywords you specified don't come up in their search, they store the page and notify you of the problem.

Going beyond your site

If you are running an e-commerce site, you most likely have more devices connected to the Internet than just your Web site. E-mail servers, routers, firewalls, domain name servers (DNS), and other devices play an integral role in your Web business. If one of these devices fails, it could wreak havoc on your operation and hurt your reputation with customers.

A case in point is your e-mail server. For many e-commerce companies e-mail isn't just for doing business--it is their business. They use it to take and verify orders, send receipts, provide customer service, and a variety of other things. If they lose e-mail they lose their business.

Monitoring things like e-mail servers, routers, file transfer servers, and DNS is referred to as network monitoring. Network monitoring providers can monitor these devices similar to how they monitor your Web site. You will provide the sites and required information, and they will connect remotely to the devices and test their availability.

Whether your site represents a Fortune 500 company, or a small business, one thing is for sure--it is often the first and only impression a customer will get. Don't make that impression a bad one. Ensure your site is accessible and performs well by consistent monitoring.

Vadim Mazo is the chief technology officer for Dotcom-Monitor, a Web site monitoring company..

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