When your site is slow to download, it may not be the server that is causing the delay. Take a careful look at the site itself. Chances are that the problem is internal, i.e., something within the site is causing a backup. In order to construct a fast-loading site that still serves your e-commerce objectives, you'll want to take the following steps.

Test Your Web Site with Different Browsers
Of course, you can't control which browsers people use to access the Web. The best you can do is to make sure that even if they're using the oldest version of the most obscure browser, your site doesn't cause download problems. The only way to do this is through extensive testing, which should be included in your site design process. Don't forget that once your site is up and running, it needs regular checkups. Content changes, servers, and various Internet technologies can all affect initial test results. A recurring slowdown with a particular browser, while not your fault, might be cause for rethinking your site design, especially if that browser is one that your target customer is likely to use.

Control File Size
File size is the single most important factor influencing download times and, fortunately, the one over which you have the most control. Bloated pages can cause any browser and connection configuration, no matter how advanced, to become clogged, a phenomenon known as "fat data, skinny pipe." Efficient site design and clever use of navigation principles can help keep each page "small" (in terms of kilobytes rather than physical appearance) and therefore fast. Perhaps you constructed your site initially with download times in mind. If so, you're ahead of the game. But Web design is an ongoing process, so make sure that with every update you strive to make your pages small.

Optimize Graphics
The issue of graphics on Web sites is an extension of the file size issue discussed above, since graphics are generally much larger files, in kilobytes, than text files. Because graphics can be a compelling (and in the case of e-commerce, almost mandatory) part of site design, chances are that your site contains them. The first strategy in minimizing download jams due to graphics is to eliminate any unnecessary graphics from your pages. You might be pleasantly surprised by the impact of a cleaner, text-dominated page.

Once you've decided which graphics are essential to your site, look for ways to "optimize" those graphics, a process that involves streamlining the files - often by changing the file type, say from a JPEG to a GIF - so that they use fewer kilobytes. This is a surprisingly simple task, and there are numerous tools on the market that can help. Many of these are free and available on the Web, such as the "JPEG Cruncher" and "GIF Cruncher" tools offered by Spinwave.

Use Rich Media Selectively
Obviously, the more complex a file is, the larger it is in terms of kilobytes. Graphics files are larger than text files, and streaming media files such as audio or video are much larger than either text or graphics. For this reason, you need to be very selective in your use of such technology on your site.

Ask yourself if audio or video is really necessary to communicate your message to your typical customer. If so, at what cost? Is it worth possibly losing thousands of potential buyers with slower connections or older browsers (or less patience) to impress the few who are willing to wait for a slow download? If you're selling luxury cars to an audience seeking an interactive tour of the interior features, maybe so. But for most e-commerce sites, the risks of including high-end media files outweigh the gains. To work around this problem, put a link to a back section of the site that houses these features so that visitors can choose to visit them if they are willing to wait or they have the technology to fully appreciate them. For an in-depth look at the pitfalls of overly complex sites, read Web usability guru Jakob Nielsen's design philosophy.

Monitor Third-Party Servers
If your site contains files that are served by third parties, you need to be especially vigilant about monitoring site performance. The most common instance of this is when you use third-party ad servers that host banner ad files (if you participate in a banner ad exchange program). Sometimes, pages that contain banner ads load the ad first, so if the ad loads slowly, the rest of the page must wait until it is completely loaded. If the ad's server is slow to respond, or if the ad itself is a large file and therefore slow to download, the result is the same: Your page is slow. If you rely heavily on advertising revenue, consider implementing policies that require acceptable performance standards of third-party ad servers and that limit the file size of banner ads.

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