It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year...For Ecommerce
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Forecasters have estimated that online holiday shopping will account for almost 25 percent of total ecommerce sales in 2012. That's more than $54 Billion dollars in online transactions. With so much shopping happening online, we thought we'd talk to one of our ecommerce customers to hear what they do to prepare their site for the busiest time of the year.

Luxury Link curates exclusive travel experiences with luxury properties around the world at insider prices. Chris Holland is the Director of Technology at Luxury Link, and has more than 16 years of web development experience. I recently spoke with Chris to learn more about Luxury Link, what he has seen over the years in the ecommerce industry, and what it's like to run an ecommerce site when the holidays hit.

Can you tell me a little about Luxury Link's story and technical background?

Since 1997, luxurylink.com has evolved from an exclusive e-mail list to exclusive online listings. Luxury Link has pioneered the web-based auction model for Luxury Travel. Our audience is extremely savvy, discerning and demanding of the greatest possible value for the most outstanding luxury vacation experiences.

While we used to have the niche to ourselves, the online travel landscape is competitive and so we are constantly working to optimize our website to make sure our visitors get the most out of the experience. Our web property experience includes everything from design to merchandising to site performance to SEO and the conversion funnel, as well as offering valuable insights to travelers while accommodating innovative marketing and product strategies. We, in the Tech Team, have our work cut out for ourselves catering to many business functions.

As the company has grown, how have your technology needs changed?

We've had to evolve beyond merely "selling online." It's no longer sufficient to put up a page clamoring "Here are 12 amazing vacations this week." We've seen travelers increasingly seeking inspiration and guidance. Finding the right vacation is a personalized and, at times, challenging process as many variables need to be juggled. While we've dramatically improved search and categorization on our site, we're just getting started. Solving these problems is less about using a specific search technology like Lucene, SphinX, SLI Systems, or Endeca and more about information architecture and accommodating a critical factor: Human curation. Everything you see on our site is an ever-evolving blend of human and machine curation. While search engines will seek out what you want, we have the added responsibility of helping visitors shape their traveling desires.

What are some tips/tricks you can offer other ecommerce site owners?

These core fundamentals really matter: performance, SEO, business intelligence, merchandising, and seasonal relevance.

For site performance, one of the tools we use is CloudFlare. To audit and monitor site speed, we use a blend of inexpensive resources such as webpagetest.org,Google PageSpeed Insights, and WatchMouse (now Nimsoft Cloud Monitor). I'll defer to your local expert to cover SEO.

We leverage Google Analytics and in-house-built event frameworks and data warehousing for various aspects of business intelligence. I'm a big fan of Tableau Software to crunch data.

For any site, and especially commerce sites, analyzing your marketing channels and respective conversion rates can uncover valuable insights: A/B testing is a very important part of this process. We've found PHP Scenario very helpful and we've integrated it into our A/B testing platform.

You might also consider giving your customers a voice by launching a community around your brand. While we've had a community on our site for some time, participation in it had died down. In 2012 we completely revamped it into "The Luxury Lounge" -- This initiative has brought about renewed interest from our loyal members in sharing their travel experiences. It's a veritable trove of great travel insights. It is positive for SEO, as well.

How has ecommerce changed in the last five years?

Online commerce has had to evolve beyond just listing and selling products, as competition and margins have become fierce. Consumers seek insights and guidance. Commerce sites featuring fresh, relevant and timely content in the form of editorial and consumer insights, tend to do better than sites that don't. In recognition of this, Google's algorithm updates have shaken things up. Incumbent sites that once merely listed products are finding themselves displaced by sites offering relevant content about those products. SEO is an exciting world where quality content is king, and this has had an impact on every commerce site I've worked on.

Do you see an increase in traffic during the holidays?

It is typically all about Q1 for the travel industry. We expect a 50% jump in traffic in January over November. While we do have plenty of capacity, CloudFlare's "always-on" feature is a nice safety net.

What do you do to prepare the site for the holidays?

We ensure our zabbix monitors are well-tuned, stick to best practices when deploying new code, don't stray away from our phones at nights, and generally do everything we can to ensure the site is running fast.

What are the "hot spots" your site visitors are looking into right now?

The top five pages and locations people are looking at include:

Ski and Snow Destinations
Caribbean
Cabo San Lucas
London
Bali
Guided Tours

How has CloudFlare impacted your site?

Our server origin is in downtown Los Angeles. We have seen a big speed difference in the average time it takes to download a dynamic web page weighing 23,000 bytes from Texas:

Without CloudFlare: 569 milliseconds
With CloudFlare: 332 milliseconds

This is for dynamic content. In other words, for this type of request, CloudFlare has to fetch the dynamic content from our system, and then pass it along to the user, every time. Going through CloudFlare for dynamic content delivery is 42 percent faster.

Overall, I believe CloudFlare is the best thing to happen to the Web in recent memory, and by extension, the Internet at large. CloudFlare's infrastructure is staggering and the architecture and pace of innovation are simply impressive. CloudFlare's offerings have an incredibly positive impact on site owners and web visitors.