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Web application monitoring: What to measure and how

Performance issues in web apps are common—but even minor ones can impact your conversions, revenue and customer satisfaction. Fortunately, web application monitoring tools help you identify issues early and maintain a great user experience. Read on to discover which monitoring tools and metrics are right for you.

What is web application monitoring?

Web application monitoring means using software tools to check how your web application is performing. The goal is to ensure your app is error-free and works optimally to deliver a great user experience.

While it’s possible to check web applications manually, monitoring tools automate the process and notify you instantly when there’s an issue. The upshot is that you get alerted to issues sooner and can rectify them before customers notice anything happened.

Application monitoring ultimately helps you:

  • Reduce downtime

  • Protect the user experience

  • Improve search engine rankings

  • Prevent security vulnerabilities from developing

What metrics do web application monitoring tools look at?

Web application monitoring tools are capable of running checks hundreds of times per day.

They monitor various indicators of your app’s performance, including:

  • Network analytics

  • Application uptime

  • Hardware utilization

  • Software performance

  • Errors and crashes

  • Internal links

We’ll explore some of the most important metrics later in the blog—but first, do you really need to do all this?

Why monitoring your application is essential

Monitoring your application is important because even the most well-developed web apps will inevitably experience performance issues. Not only are apps complex and ever-changing, but they also interact with apps from other third parties.

These third-party apps are totally outside of your control, and when they have updates (or bugs), it can have a knock-on effect on your app.

And here’s the kicker—even a small change in app performance can affect how your users engage with you. For example:

It’s clear that users are very sensitive to changes in performance. But that’s not all…

App performance also impacts how Google ranks your site in search results

When generating search results, Google wants to direct users to the websites that will be most helpful to them.

Because of this, Google assesses the user experience your website delivers by looking at performance metrics. It calls these metrics Core Web Vitals (CWVs), and they include things like:

  • Loading: How long it takes for the initial elements of your website to appear

  • Interactivity: How long it takes before users can perform key interactions (like clicking a menu item)

  • Visual stability: How much your page elements move and resize as the page loads (which is bad for user experience)

While they’re not the only thing it looks at, Core Web Vitals play an important role in how Google ranks your site. The worse your CWVs are, the more likely Google will penalize you in the search results. According to Google, “Optimizing for quality of user experience is key to the long-term success of any site on the web. Whether you're a business owner, marketer, or developer, Web Vitals can help you quantify the experience of your site and identify opportunities to improve.

Tools landscape: How you can measure web application performance

There are dozens of tools available for monitoring web applications. For the purpose of this blog, we’ll look at four types—ranging from no-frills free tools to advanced digital experience intelligence (DXI) platforms.

1. Free web application monitor tools

  • Pingdom tests your site and “grades” specific elements affecting its speed.

  • Uptrends provides continuous site monitoring with a free (if basic) plan available.

  • Montastic monitors your site for free and emails you if it goes down.

2. Purpose-built web application monitoring

While it’s useful to know if your app goes down, this won’t help you prevent it from happening. Accordingly, you may want to invest in a more sophisticated tool that spots warning signs earlier.

There are dozens of web application monitoring tools out there, but these are our top picks:

3. Enterprise application performance monitoring (APM) platforms

APM platforms provide a comprehensive toolset for monitoring and measuring the performance of any application, including web applications. Some APM businesses refer to their products as observability platforms due to their focus on proactive problem-finding.

  • Dynatrace is an observability platform designed for complex cloud setups in large organizations.

  • Logic Monitor is an infrastructure monitoring tool for websites, networks, servers, databases and more.

  • IBM Instana is an observability platform for complex, modern, cloud-native applications, offering a range of monitoring tools.

4. Digital experience intelligence (DXI) platforms

DXI platforms like Glassbox provide application monitoring and performance analytics for web or mobile apps.

But what’s really helpful about DXI tools is two advanced features they provide:

  • Real user monitoring (RUM) collects data on what real users do, then uses it to assess service-level quality delivered to them. RUM can give you many of the insights you need to deliver stand-out digital experiences. However, RUM alone is not enough to protect your revenue and reputation. A digital experience intelligence platform can help you see a complete picture of the customer journey so you can deliver a fast and effortless customer experience.

  • Synthetic monitoring automatically tests the paths users take through your app. It simulates user behavior—for example, by filling in your credit card application form just like a user would, while checking for errors at each step.

These features help technical teams see not just what’s going wrong, but why— and how it impacts the business.

Understanding web application performance data: what data will you have available?

Application performance monitoring tools are sophisticated, and most will give you an avalanche of information. Expect to see some combination of the following datasets:

  • Uptime means the amount of time your website is up and running (i.e. accessible to users).

  • Core Web Vitals track the loading speed and stability of your website or app according to Google’s standards.

  • Error reporting helps you track crashes, issues and errors and identify the causes behind them.

  • RED is a monitoring method that focuses on checking the health of your application itself (rather than the infrastructure supporting it). For each of the services in your architecture, it measures
    • Rate: The number of requests the service handles per second

    • Errors: The number of failed requests each second

    • Duration: How long each request takes

  • USE focuses on the health of your overall infrastructure, rather than your application. It looks at three main metrics:
    • Utilization: The amount of resources your system uses to work

    • Saturation: The amount of work that the resource isn’t able to service

    • Errors: The amount of error events occurring

  • Website performance metrics can include Google’s Core Web Vitals relating to page load speed, along with other technical metrics like DNS load time, error rate and hardware utilization.

  • Anomaly detection identifies rare items, events or observations that can indicate a problem—like hacking or infrastructure errors. Generally speaking, only advanced product analytics platforms have this capability.

Setting your web application performance KPIs

Because the amount of data that web performance monitoring tools provide can be daunting, it’s best to focus on a small range of relevant KPIs. When you’re starting out, pay attention to the following:

  • Core Web Vitals. If you want to rank well in Google, it’s vital to monitor metrics that affect your page load time. Track CWV metrics such as Largest Contentful Paint and First Input Delay, and regularly check how any site changes affect them.

  • Key transactions or workflows. Set your tool to test each step in business-critical workflows, then monitor the results. For example, if you’re an insurance company, you might have a “get a quote” tool on your website. Synthetic monitoring tools can test the quote process, just like a person would, to check for errors.

  • Progress against historical pain points. If you’ve had repeated issues with specific metrics in the past—for example, error rates in your application—track them to see your progress over time.

  • Benchmark comparisons. Where industry standards are available, benchmark your website against them to monitor how you stack up against competitors. This could include performance metrics, like page load speed, or campaign-focused metrics like conversions.

The right monitoring tools help you understand the link between app performance and user experience

If your business serves users through a web application, monitoring its performance isn’t just helpful: it’s a sink-or-swim activity. Performance issues are inevitable, and you have to spot them early to prevent security risks, reputation damage and user frustration.

However, the more complex your app—and the more you rely on it for revenue generation—the more you need advanced tools. When app performance is mission-critical, simple uptime monitoring is not enough. Only by using a tool that reveals how your performance KPIs affect users can you deliver an outstanding digital experience to them.

Go beyond web application monitoring with digital experience intelligence

Web application monitoring and real user monitoring help you find out what’s going wrong—but it doesn’t help you find solutions. By combining your monitoring data with experience insights in Glassbox, you can learn:

  • What’s causing the issues

  • How issues affect users, customers and your business overall

  • Which projects you need to reserve technical resources for

Find out how Glassbox can help you today.