Designing a global e-commerce platform to overcome network latency

I’ve been working on efficient network latency model for a global e-commerce solution. Having designed a few major global platforms there are a number of factors that need to be considered. Misconceptions around content delivery networks make it easy for an organisation to say we can just apply an Akamai or Amazon webservices to solve the problem often mislead potential customers. Whilst Akamai and Amazon do solve content delivery problems particularly for services that rely on heavy media types they do not solve the problem for transactional websites. For this we need to turn to network design, the positioning of data centres, peering of networks and the routing of traffic through key undersea cables.

Whilst the later can often be something out of your control, by choosing the right data centre partner in the right location will mean you can solve the problem relatively easy.

So what do we need to look out for;-

Geography of the data centre.

Designing the solution to cater for your largest population of users. For example trans oceanic links between Europe and East coast US are very strong and reliable. But equally West Coast US and Tokyo or equally reliable. So if your user populations mainly reside in these two geographies then we can accurately select a good location for the data centre.

Data Centre Routing and Peering

We then need to factor into the equation data centre routing and network peering. This if you are a solution provider is often out of your control however again choosing the right data centre organisation with the appropriate peering and routing arrangements can shorten the amount of hops your traffic will need to take between the server and your user. To do this well we need to look at the financial sector, particular realtime volume trading where big trading centres such as London, Tokyo and New York are paired by many global hosting organisations. All of which will have the links and relationships set up ready for you to choose.

Business Model

Then there’s your plan for global domination. You need to factor your business model into this. There is no point designing the most perfect global hosting platform if you do not have the business case in each market. We all know the safest and efficient global transaction solution is to have servers located in each of your markets, however this is often not viable and doesn’t play to the strengths of the internet. If we are talking billions of pounds/dollars of revenue than there is naturally a business case, but if you are starting out, a well placed set of servers with a good hosting business will serve you adequately well and will leave you with dollars to spend making the shopping experience more rewarding.

And there is a place for CDN

And yes Akamai can still help, but only with your rich product content. It will be useless on a transactional level. But really transaction is often the smallest factor in your overal website design.

And finally there’s Australia

This is something that will challenge every network engineer. But links are getting better.

Identity Driven Templating

We are now entering the Web 3.0 generation, where we will see web technologies start to evolve into semantic technologies through connected intelligences. This area will play out across numerous Internet technology layers including analytics, content management systems and social networks. But the key area where we see it having the biggest impact on our current browsing activity is in the template, navigation and content layers of most websites.

Amaze is investing heavily in technology and intellectual property to join the dots between a users identity, their social graph, their browsing habits and their content consumption. This will give us a deeper understanding of user behaviour and will allow us to morph relevant content and navigation around users through dynamic templating and content delivery.

It may be said, that this is just an advanced form of personalisation but it requires intelligent algorithms that continuously learn from mined data to build evolving profile groupings of user communities. This deeper analytical information can drive content and design in much more granular way compared with what we typically see from analytical products today.

Amaze’s next generation web sites will work with progressively enhanced templates using latest HTML5 thinking to give a rich dynamic experience. However, just underneath the presentation layer we will have a layer of algorithms that connect to the users identity via the social graph or through our profiling engines to source the correct content, navigation structures for that user through a rich and engaging interface.

This approach and thinking gives us a truly next generation approach to website building.

Splinternet Takes Hold

For the past 15 years, websites have been the prevalent digital modus operandi for businesses, however, all of that changed in 2010 with social, mobile and applications becoming mainstream. As these digital technologies continue to fragment, it has become increasingly difficult for brands to manage and monitor their online presence across multiple markets, let alone understand and act upon the opportunities that are available to them.

‘The Splinternet’ is the term we’ve been using to describe this effect where the internet is being segmented into walled gardens; walled gardens that are being created around users, either through subscriber or device driven communities. The two biggest examples are Facebook and new apps that have been created for the mobile community, such as Flipboard and the many gaming apps that come integrated with something like Apple’s Game Centre. The Splinternet is affecting the internet as we know it, creating a number of challenges for agencies and technology players alike who wish to continue to reach users moving forward.

The following top five considerations are underpinning the strategies and decision making process of technologists and agencies like ourselves that are navigating this new world.

1. Awareness

How can you be made aware of what’s going on in this world? How can you watch, protect and react to your own brand and product challenges? We are seeing a lot of paralysis out there, with large organisations understanding the significance of the impact and growing momentum of social media, but with no clear insight on where to start and what to do. The tools now available and the strength and importance of the communities that are in conversation about your brand should not be ignored or underestimated.

The first part of any organisation’s strategy should be to gain an awareness of what’s going on within these communities. This is not necessarily just about listening, it should be focused on trying to make sense of what’s going on and where, and putting the right framework in place to monitor this new world without having to watch it constantly. Creating a model that monitors and makes sense of the Splinternet is the first step towards easing the paralysis, from which a defined strategy to deal with this new world can be created. Once you know how users are responding, you can create a strategy around them to amplify your reach and begin the process of engagement.

2. Governance

Once you have reached this level of awareness, there is temptation to jump right in. However, you need to be careful as social networks are great for building relationships but they can be even better at ending them – it’s like the Wild West out there. If you’re good – or lucky – you can prosper, but it’s essential to create a framework to facilitate your engagement in this world.

To do this, look at how you control your brand’s real estate and keep track of what’s being said. How many Facebook passwords do you have and who has them? What happens if they get lost? Who’s keeping track of what’s being published? Is it effective and how do you monitor it? The list of questions is endless. Now multiply them by every territory or company in your group with all those eager social network engagers and you have a growing nightmare.

Governance is beginning to become a consideration, but it is something that needs to be acted on early before it’s too late. For many businesses, policy is not enough and tools are required to ease the transition into social success. Until recently, however, these tools didn’t exist and so to address the awareness and governance challenges, we developed an innovative infrastructure that overcomes both.

3. Penetration and engagement

How can you reach users within this new world and close the gap between domain based investments, such as .com websites that cost a fortune, and a Facebook page set up in minutes? How do you penetrate these walled gardens and reach the users and communities within?

How do we target our advertising in this space and how do we operate our tools in this space? Take Facebook, its pages are one of the fastest growing areas to have come out of the Splinternet era, but how do we take their potential to a new level by building Facebook apps that integrate with existing content or business systems. Once your awareness and governance tools are in place, this has to be the next stage of your thinking and strategy.

It’s a complex process – pages, apps and content all need to be managed – so to discover that there is a tool being developed that facilitates this will be music to many ears.

4. Connecting intelligence (making sense of it all)

The one thing the Splinternet is enabling us to do is connect intelligence. Even through walled gardens, communities are providing a level of information and human behaviour understanding that so far has not been seen on the web. This is resulting in product and brand strategies informed by the likes and dislikes and content generated by the web 3.0 and 4.0 generations.

Whilst crowd surfing has been long talked about, we are now able to listen and connect the intelligence with the cloud to truly target brand messaging. But to really understand the community, you need to understand who the members are and how they behave, how active they are, what the size of their network is and whether they are mobile. Once we understand this, we can interact with them in the most appropriate ways, such as triggering engagement with an upset or happy customer, either automated or through a real customer services representative.

5. Convergence

The Splinternet is also starting to enable what we call device and application convergence. Whilst desktop and mobile will remain the top targeted devices in business, at home it’s a very different story. Smart televisions (TVs) and tablet devices are big game changers that are forcing the convergence of media. For example, the very latest smart TVs are bringing together smart remotes and mobile apps with the TV experience.

Media channels can also be converged with social, with on demand or live TV programming closely integrated on one screen. This convergence provides the most exciting after-effect of the Splinternet, as it’s the biggest opportunity to date for brands to reach into the world of above-the-line targeting. You can find out who your potential customer is in real-time and connect with them instantly whilst they consume a particular media.

So, whilst the Splinternet effect has changed face of digital once again, freeing and restricting us simultaneously, there are steps that every brand can take to make sense of and interact with those in this new world.

Facebook Predictions

With talk of Facebook IPO in the near future and potential rumours about Facebook community showing signs of plateauing what is the likely predictions around where Facebook’s going with its functionality.  This is our guess…

1) Improved chat with audio in video.  With Microsoft’s purchase of Skype, you can see that there is an increased appetite to push video into social applications.  Facebook’s approach to create a central messaging hub with facebook email and chat integrated into one messaging platform, combined with online presence, naturally asks the question where’s video.  We think it will come and it will be a big hit with users.  The biggest current challenge to video is its ease of use.  But now with most laptops embedded with video capability, smart tv’s and tablet devices will mean that video calling will start to grow.  It is one of the natural steps for facebook to make.  There are already a number of Facebook video conferencing apps in the appstore that show the capabilities of combining video capability with social networking.
2) Music and media.  Closer alignment with Spotify shows that the music and media industries naturally fit with social networking, both can benefit from each other.  Spotify integration with Facebook brings together perfect examples of what a users likes and dislikes with their online presence indicating what they are listening too.  Moving forwards we can start to look at streaming of content such as movies and tv programmes.  Facebook’s unique ability to really tune into users makes it a fantastic media platform for the future. Expand this into the living room through Smart Tv’s combined with social usage will make Facebook a two way social media channel platform.
3) Check-in. Facebook officially launched its check-in service last August.  At the moment it updates your status and brings together people that are in the same location as you. But if you look at the potential behind this service to bring together and to connect people with other people in the same location or to enable businesses to target people in a particular place, in realtime, it brings a whole new dimension to this service.  Both facebook and its development partners are starting to get to grips with this capability so we can expect to see more exciting developments in the near future.
4) Social commerce.  One of the obvious beneficiaries from the 600,000 + community of Facebook users, however Facebook is in a difficult space.  The only advantage they can gain from any social commerce activity is via advertising or providing a platform for payment, analytics, user information and storefront functionality.  However Facebook could provide more intelligence to group or individual buying.  We don’t know what Facebook will do in this area but we know what they can do, its just how it will be perceived by the user community if they go too far.  We can expect to see more tools for businesses to provide apps advertising.
5) Facebook intelligence.  Facebook already employs a tonne of intelligent analytics and algorithms to provide search and relationship suggestions.  The recently launched auto photo tagging service starts to utilise facial recognition but where could facebook go if it really starts to make sense of what’s going on in the community?  As we enter web3.0 and web4.0 generations making sense of the web, the community and the conversations will enable platforms like Facebook to add a new levels of usefulness.  Products and brands can find you rather than you searching for them. Information can find you, communities can find you. Facebook with intelligence could be even more powerful than the network already is.  Then apply the concept to knowledge and learning then the network could aid knowledge expansition of individuals within the community.
Who knows where Facebook will go next.  What we do know is that the platform will continue to grow in significance and usefulness to the user community.  There is no significant challenge to Facebook so it really is their battleground to innovate in, lets just hope that through their partners and their own innovations that any future initial public offerings will not get in the way of this social revolution.

User Experience is what matters

People are starting to expect more engaging and connected experiences from their web browsers, devices, apps and social networks. Connected User Experience is what matters and isolated traditional domain based websites will become outdated and uninviting.

For high end consumer products, we know that user research is a big part of the buying process. Companies need to provide their prospective clients with a connected experience, across multiple channels, that reflects modern social browsing behaviour.

Already Facebook Connect is starting to appear on many sites allowing users to stay linked to their wider community. Access to this community means that experiences can be shared and friendly advice is on tap. We predict that seamless browsing integration with your community and your environment will start to become the norm. The standalone website will not be able to compete.

More engaging user experiences will also become a critical part of the marketing mix. There is a range of techniques that are currently being investigated, ranging from the latest gesture technology, video animation, deep zoom effects, interjectable animations to clever navigation techniques. The best product show cases are set to quickly move beyond the zoom and rotate that we have seen for the last ten years.

The internet is moving on and we need to think beyond the device and the website. We now work in a multi channelled, socially connected ecosystem. Your digital strategy should account for the opportunities provided within this ecosystem by the application of rich digital content and the exploration and interaction of that content.