Chapter 2: Election Day Challenges and Opportunities for Digital News Publishers
It will be all about optimizing for Scale, Performance, and Efficiency while maintaining their security posture ...
If 2014 was anything to go by for us at Akamai supporting digital publishers, 2019 is going to be an even bigger moment in India's internet history. The first chapter of the blog, listed a few trends on the role of the internet and behavior of the new age millennial voter, indicating an uptake in online content consumption during the elections this year compared to elections in previous years.
What do these trends mean for digital news publishers in India? Definitely, more visitors to the website and mobile apps on the election day. More eyeballs who can be engaged with interesting and interactive content and ultimately more opportunities to monetize the audience as they spend more time on digital channels. But with every significant opportunity comes an element of risk. Risk from an ever-evolving plethora of online security and cyber threats intending to deface publishing houses, leak user and other sensitive information, or bring down services entirely in return for a ransom or other political motivations.
Let's now look at scale and performance challenges in some more detail. To begin with, here are a few incidents in India and other countries around elections:
3 lakh hits per second Crashes EC website
A day before results of the Lok Sabha polls 2009 were to be announced, the Election Commission unveiled a new website with real-time election results. By 5.30 pm on the results day, real-time results stopped updating. Explaining, the Deputy Election commissioner said, NIC had budgeted for 80.64 billion hits in 8 hours on the basis of 2,800 hits per second but with 3 lakh hits per second, the website received 8.64 trillion hits.
The news might seem dated since it happened 10 years ago; however, even with a lot of technological advancements to web technologies since then, the problem of scaling up web architectures to manage massive traffic volumes still persists. During the mid-term election results in August 2018, the official website of Dane County, Wisconsin in the United States of America crashed due to a large number of users trying to access the website and a large amount of information uploads.
Large number of primary races, candidates led to election night crash of Dane County website
"Large number of races and candidates leading to large data loads was the main reason the site had issues" Jon Hatley, Dane County interim applications manager. "High traffic volume exacerbated the problem."
In both cases, the issue that the digital publisher faced was related to scaling up the infrastructure to support the massive traffic load. Scaling up is important to ensure a consistent user experience across website and applications irrespective of the spike in traffic. If the website loads in under 2 seconds with 500,000 visitors concurrently, then it should still load under 2 seconds even when the concurrency reaches 5 million visitors. The user experience cannot be impacted by a sudden surge in traffic.
The other important parameter for website and mobile application performance is load time. Load time is a major contributor to page and app abandonment. Additionally, page load time is also an important factor for search engine rankings. Here are some interesting facts related to page load time and website performance:
- Sites that load in 5 seconds (compared to those that load in 19) see 70% longer average sessions
- A 100-millisecond delay in load time can cause conversion rates to drop by 7%
- Pages loading within 2 seconds have an average bounce rate of 9%, while those with >5 seconds, 38%
- 73% of mobile users have encountered mobile websites that take too long to load
Planning for scale and anticipating peak load in advance during popular events like Election Results, Viral Campaigns, games etc. with real-user monitoring tools, server-side analytics and load testing would help in delivering a seamless user experience. Here is a 3-step process that can help handle a large concurrency specially during events:
The Security Challenge for Digital Publishers
Digital platforms have fast become the primary source of information for a vast majority of users who expect their favorite platforms to be available and accessible 24/7. The internet has facilitated lightning fast content distribution, with consumers expecting immediate delivery of breaking news and alerts, creating content that can go viral within a matter of seconds. That makes news-led content attractive for users, hacktivists, and bots alike. There are two specific use cases around online security that digital publishers should be aware about:
Attack from Hacktivists: Today, digital publishers face new cyber exposures and can often be targets for hacktivist groups wanting to deface publishing houses through targeted web attacks, leaking user and other sensitive information, or bringing down services entirely through DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attacks in return for a ransom or other political motivations.
Attack from Bots: As digital-centric media organizations, many digital publishers rely on their unique and compelling content to attract visitors and monetize these eyeballs by selling advertisements and sponsorship opportunities. In many instances, having this content freely available online eases discoverability and improves organic search rankings. However, it also makes it easier for unaffiliated third-parties to scrape and repurpose that same content on their sites using automated bots. This diverts visitors and threatens publishers' advertising revenue.
Hackers May Have Been Behind Election Night Website Crash in Tennessee
During this incident on 30th April 2018, a preliminary review by the county IT department found extremely heavy and abnormal network traffic originating from numerous IP addresses from varied locations, both inside and outside of the U.S, highly suggestive of a DDoS attack.
Blocking Bots to stop unaffiliated 3rd parties to scrape and repurpose content
A major business objective for U.S. News and World Report was to safeguard revenue by detecting and preventing 3rd parties from scraping its website and repurposing its rankings data elsewhere. Other objectives included, reducing overhead and origin load with greater bot visibility to drive an effective bot management strategy.
So, what can digital news publishers do for the scale, performance and security challenges?
The first part of this blog series testified to the fact that the 2019 general elections will generate a lot of digital traction, which means it is crucial to understand the challenges digital publishers face as well as the appropriate remedial actions. As we get closer to the 2019 General Election, it's important to understand these challenges and plan for necessary remediation strategies:
- Scale up infrastructure to ensure a consistent user experience across digital properties and assets irrespective of traffic load
- Ensure optimal page load time to keep page abandonment and search engine rankings under control and to attract more eyeballs while also increasing average time spent on the platform
- Adopt the suggested 3-step process to manage scale and performance challenges - Engaging early in event preparations, estimating audiences accurately; and optimizing the viewing experience.
- Strengthen the overall security posture specifically around two specific use cases, attack from hacktivists and attack from Bots.
In the last chapter of this blog series, we will examine the best practices adopted by publishers in other parts of the world with respect to innovative content types and other trends. The chapter will also present a readiness checklist that will help digital news publishers identify variables, use cases, and mitigating scenarios to help them deliver a successful 2019 general elections. So, stay tuned ...