Despite indications that the U.S. economy is starting to turn around, low consumer confidence will undoubtedly have an impact on retail sales this holiday season, making every consumer’s online search, browsing and buying experience more critical than ever. The challenge for online retailers is not only to get shoppers to your site, but keep them there and entice them to make a purchase.

Niraj Shah recently gave helpful search marketing tips for the holidays, and Stephan Spencer shared advice on SEO during the upcoming shopping season. Both stress the importance of strategic search engine marketing to help with the first step: driving shoppers to your website. But once they get there, what if your website takes too long to load? The images in your product catalog don’t appear, or your checkout page times out? Delivering a poor end-user experience will leave all your SEM efforts wasted.

Delivering a great user experience when shoppers are on your website is the best weapon that online retailers have to convert holiday visitors into loyal shoppers and customers. Given that consumer expectations on the responsiveness of your web pages and applications have increased drastically, testing web performance in advance can help ensure that every shopper can navigate through the site quickly and successfully.

Here are five suggestions for online retailers to ready their website for the holiday rush.

Measuring, measure, measure. Just as the old saw “location, location, location” means everything in the brick-and-mortar world, measurement is the key to success in the online realm. Proactively measure your web performance to get an understanding of how your web store is performing at all times. Synthetic monitoring tools regularly check website and application performance around the clock.

Continuously monitor store functions, including the home page, site search function, product catalog checkout process, login and order confirmations. Analyze the performance and availability of these website features during peak periods to gain insight into how well your site will perform during high user demand.

Don’t rely on your customers to point out web issues. If customers are calling to tell you there is a problem on the website, it is already too late. Consumers want a seamless web experience, and errors, especially during the checkout process, can cause cart abandonment and lost customers.

Deploy a website performance monitoring strategy that comprehensively checks your site from different locations around the world and generates instant, real-time alerts when page errors or performance issues occur. That way, you can get ahead of the problem and proactively identify a solution before it impacts the end-user experience and store results.

Test the visitor capacity limits of your website. In addition to performance monitoring, load testing is another critical step in preparation.

Performing a load test prior to the start of the holiday shopping season will allow you to test your site’s limits and make the necessary adjustments to support anticipated shopper levels.

If you are preparing for Black Thursday or Friday, introducing new functionality to your website or launching a new advertising or promotional campaign and expecting an increase in traffic, it is imperative to determine how many users your site can handle in advance.

Take time to role play. One of the best ways to gauge your customers’ experience is to experience it for yourself. Look for a web performance monitoring service that lets you simulate user activity at every stage of the online experience. Walk through users’ typical click streams from searching, to shopping cart, to checkout, constantly checking to make sure each element is functioning properly.

For the most value, combine this effort with regular, detailed reporting and monitoring from a variety of locations to ensure total website performance.

Have a back-up plan in place. Even with the most dedicated planning and efforts, unexpected problems can occur. That is why it is a good idea to have a plan in place to handle website errors and downtime. One way to do this is to have a personalized downtime message ready should you need it.

Rather than having an error message appear with language that the majority of consumers will not understand, create a branded message that lets your customers know you are aware of the issue and it is being worked on. You can never go wrong with adding a bit of humor to the message as well.

The holiday season offers a huge opportunity for online retailers to capture sales and new customers, even in a tough economy. Website testing, monitoring, and performance measuring are the keys to unlocking a successful user experience for customers and successful conversion rates for retailers.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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