3 Strategies to Prepare for High Traffic This Holiday Season

October 17, 2017

By: Simon Wistow,
Author Title: 
Co-founder and VP of Product Strategy
, Fastly

There are many reasons a website might go down. Overloading servers with requests during high-traffic events like Black Friday, Cyber Monday, or during viral ads is one of the most common.

Big sales events might make your eCommerce site unresponsive and slow to load, or a successful ad can draw an influx of visitors to your site. Whatever the scenario, if your site isn’t prepared for a sudden increase in demand, you won’t be able to handle the resulting traffic spike. In turn, your customers will have a poor experience, which could end up costing you money.

Fastly’s edge cloud platform powers tens of thousands of eCommerce sites, so we have a unique insight into how shoppers engage online. During the 2016 holiday season, we saw significant traffic spikes—including a 207 percent increase in traffic on Black Friday—as shoppers rushed to take advantage of online deals. Although traffic to eCommerce sites remained higher than usual throughout the week, we saw higher levels of engagement on Cyber Monday than Black Friday. As of 9:00 pm EST on Monday, November 28, traffic was 39 percent higher compared to 9:00 pm EST on Friday, November 25.

Source: Fastly, Inc.

In this post, I’ll offer best practices for preparing your eCommerce site for the coming holiday season.

Get Your eCommerce Site Ready for The Holidays

These moments of engagement during the holidays offer insight into how people interact online, but also show the importance of being prepared for high-traffic events. As an eCommerce site owner, you put a lot of time and resources into creating successful assets to advertise your brand—whether that’s a Super Bowl ad or featuring your brand in a major news publication. Often, the goal is to point visitors to your website, so it’s important to be prepared. Studies have shown that 79 percent of web shoppers who have to wait too long for sites to load say they won’t return. Here are some tips and tricks to prepare your site for the holiday rush.

1. Cache Everything You Can

What kind of content makes up your site? How will traffic be absorbed by your CDN? Legacy CDNs have relegated content to just two types: static and cacheable, and dynamic and uncacheable. We place content across a spectrum:

  • Static Content – This doesn’t change very often (and when it does, it’s predictable). Images, CSS, and JavaScript fall into this category.

  • Event-Driven Content – This changes frequently and unpredictably, and includes things like wiki pages, sports scores, and stock prices.

  • Dynamic Content – This is truly uncacheable. These objects are unique every time and usually consist of heavily personalized content such as user logins and credit card information.

Determining what kind of content makes up your site will help you figure out your caching strategy. The more you can cache, the more you can protect your origin from an influx in traffic and prepare for major successes. The result will save you money while ensuring seamless online experiences.

2. Balance the Load

Look for a load-balancing solution that allows you to move logic to the edge, as close to the user as possible, and preventing superfluous (and costly) requests to your origin. Implementing sophisticated logic at the edge allows you to shift traffic around on a per-request basis. At its simplest, this lets you set up load-balancing between clusters of machines in a data center, removing the need for an expensive hardware Layer 7 load-balancer. Load-balancers can also be nested, so clusters of clusters can be defined for even greater flexibility.

Many of Fastly’s eCommerce customers have implemented clever solutions—from shifting traffic around dynamically to manage load, to providing failover and disaster recovery should something happen to the origin. Load-balancing also allows you to transparently implement a multi-cloud strategy to increase redundancy.

You can also load-balance based on geographic region or device, using the GeoIP information of the client (or any other data in the request including cookies, connection type, or user-agent). You can route a user to different data centers to improve performance or show different versions of your site (i.e., displaying different languages based on location).

3. Offer an Alternative to Error Messaging

Processing orders quickly and reliably is critical to your business. If the experience is too slow—or worse, an error pops up—you’re going to see abandoned shopping carts and lost revenue.

There are two main strategies to address an overloaded order processor: with a CDN, you can implement a “waiting room” feature that detects when the processing server is struggling, either through response times, increased errors, or explicit signaling. Instead of trying to submit the order, it shows an interstitial page that contains a message of your choice, like: “Apologies for the delay.” This page can point to other offers, approximate a wait time, or even show an animated cat picture. Anything is better than showing an error. The page periodically refreshes and, when the order processor becomes less loaded, lets the order through. More sophisticated implementations can allow buckets of users through, or implement priority queues. Either way, the goal is to make the experience as convenient as possible while protecting the processing server from the “thundering herd” of orders.

Another strategy is to implement a “fast lane” system for certain shoppers. Using a load-balancing feature tool to silently reroute high-value customers to specially reserved processing servers (i.e., those with full shopping carts or those who are logged in, or repeat buyers flagged as VIP). These customers, rewarded for their loyalty, can check out quickly.

About Simon Wistow and Fastly

Simon is the co-founder and lead product strategist at Fastly, an edge cloud platform that helps the world’s most popular digital businesses keep pace with their customer expectations by delivering fast, secure, and scalable online experiences. Before helping found Fastly, Simon was Senior Search Engineer at Yahoo! Europe, LiveJournal, SixApart, Scribd, and then at the social help desk company Zendesk. In a past life, he worked on R&D for a leading VFX Company on films including the Harry Potter series, Troy, Kingdom of Heaven, Sunshine, and Wallace and Gromit. At one point he worked as a cowboy in Australia. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Find Simon on Twitter @deflatermouse, and follow Fastly @fastly.