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Mar 29, 2021

Real-Time Website Personalization: Client Side vs. Server Side

A slow-loading web page bleeds money. In a study from Unbounce, 70 percent of consumers said that a website’s loading time affects their purchasing decision, with more than half claiming that they give a page three seconds to fully load – max – before moving on. This aligns with research from Google finding that mobile sites loading in two seconds or less have a 15.3 percent higher conversion rate.

Speed, though, is just half the battle. The other half is presenting a customer with personalized content in that very small window, which for at least one Redpoint customer is an 18-millisecond SLA. As customers increasingly move to digital-first customer journeys, real-time website personalization is becoming an essential engagement tool. Brands that do it successfully have an edge; by delighting a customer or prospect with a hyper-relevant message, offer or content, a brand demonstrates that it values the customer beyond a transactional basis. In a recent Dynata study commissioned by Redpoint, 70 percent of customers said that they will only shop with brands that demonstrate a personal understanding. Real-time website personalization is a great way to start.

Limitations of A Real Time Client-Side Approach

A key question pertaining to website personalization is whether to adopt a client side or server-side approach. Until recently, real time client-side personalization has been more prevalent because of its relatively low entry cost and simple integrations with an array of personalization tools, each with its own niche functionality that, combined, take shape as what a website visitor will perceive as personalization.

The trade-off for the adoption of basic personalization through a client-side approach, however, is that third-party tools often have a difficult time keeping up with the traffic, making it hard to scale particularly when there is a high volume – holidays, cyber-Monday, etc. A typical request workflow when a visitor lands on a site is for the browser to request content. As part of the loading process, a call goes to the personalization services that will then retrieve the content and send it back while the browser is rendering the content. It’s a lot of action – especially with millisecond response time SLAs. There is also an issue of the various personalization tools having to work together. A small change on a page may affect something else that happens on the site, thus impacting every tool. If it gets to be too unruly, JavaScript may timeout and render a blank or take too long and result in a dreaded or flash of original content.

In both situations – the slowly loading page or a timeout issue – the bigger problem is a customer on the other end who has just been presented with a poor customer experience.

In addition to the performance issue, security – or lack thereof – is the second strike against client-side website personalization compared with the alternative. Client-side website personalization requires customer data to be stored in the web browser, with the drawback that it’s not possible to completely mask the network traffic when a request is made for content. When you have JavaScript running on pages, in theory any bad actor with sufficient knowledge of website technology can view the traffic and make a substitute request, forge consent or use bots for the same purpose. With the phasing out of third-party cookies, adtech companies will grow more desperate to secure opt-in consent, and we will likely see more consent bots – or code thrown onto the site to force consent. The potential for malfeasance will rise if for some reason an organization decides to store PII in a visitor profile – which for obvious reasons should be a non-starter. With ample opportunity for lawlessness, brands may be exposed to legal fights over responsibility for inappropriate use of data. To mitigate this, the best practice is to rip out as much JavaScript as possible from the front of the site and use server-side personalization.

Server-Side Delivers the Goods

Server-side website personalization, by contrast, offers greater control and security. With API integrations directly into a content management system (CMS), marketers essentially have a unified platform to direct decisioning with a consistent definition of customers, rules and audiences. Because everything is managed from one place and there are no multiple network hops to retrieve content, the timeout/flash of original content issues are non-factors.

As for the security issue, the traffic visibility drawback in client-side personalization is negated completely; the CMS makes a request to a server on the same subnet and retrieves and injects the content as part of the response to the browser request. Every action on the server is completely masked from a visitor.

Additional performance gains can be had with a server-side implementation when data needs to be retrieved from an internal data store. Unlike traditional client-side implementations, which by nature must be publicly facing, a server-side approach does not require a proxy to communicate to the databases behind a firewall.

Rather than make a network hop to a public server that may have to make a network hop to a proxy that will then query a database, return and inject the content, etc., Redpoint’s real-time web services can connect directly to the databases – without having to go through another service in a server-side deployment.

Website Personalization is Worth Doing Well

With greater security and better performance, more and more organizations are foregoing the low-hanging fruit of client-side website personalization for server-side implementations that deliver the real deal – real-time, hyper-relevant personalization that customers respond to with more conversions and repeat business. In a Harris Poll commissioned by Redpoint that delves into the customer experience gap, 33 percent of customers say they are “very frustrated” when a company sends irrelevant offers – and 37 percent say they will stop doing business with a company that fails to offer a personalized experience.

Real-time website personalization meets customer demands for a personalized omnichannel experience, with a server-side approach mitigating performance and security issues that have a potential to introduce friction into a customer journey.

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