Saturday, January 7, 2012

Bid Latency at Penny Auctions

This post about bid latency at penny auctions like Quibids is a guest post by one of my readers. Thanks a lot Jay for sharing this with my readers. I am sure they will find value in this.

Latency creates conditions from which penny auction sites like Quibids benefit, and players lose. The site benefits because players are making bids later than they think they are, so either 1) their bid could get to the server too late or, more likely, 2) Multiple players bid with a very low number of seconds left because they don't see the updates reflecting other bidders bids that were made a couple of seconds earlier. From the reading I have done online, people are blaming Quibids (for example), and while the site's servers can certainly be a part of the puzzle, there are other sources of this issue which are beyond their (and possibly the players') control.

The effect can be observed, by watching a number of bids -- just watch, and observe how many go down to 1 second and just sit there, and then all of a sudden things start up again, with one or more bids received - perhaps even with the clock starting below the current interval. I have seen latency approaching 10 seconds or more this way on rare occasions, usually at nite. Also, if the site has an indicator of the quality of your network connection on it, watch that and see if and how it varies.

In at least one case where I was bidding under a "waiting game" strategy I lost because while the time on my screen said 1 second, it had received its timer update late due to Quibids/Internet/ISP network latency. My bid arrived at the server too late to count because I had, from the perspective of the server, made the bid *after* the auction had already closed.

Also, because the "bid history" list from Quibids is updated independently of the auction status, it can cause the kind of discrepancy between the two that I noted when I read one of your blog articles.

There are several places where this latency can originate -- and at least two of them I know are occurring (numbers 3 and 4).

1. In the javascript that the browser runs to display bid activity - by intentionally delaying requests for updates. I have not seen any evidence of this, and in fact one can observe multiple updates to different bids on the same page, and updates that occur within a second or two, which lead me to believe this is not occurring.

2. In one's own PC or network. On one's own PC, one should run the leanest fastest browser possible - being sure that this speed includes the javascript implementation (at least for Quibids, because their bid pages rely on it). If one is using an HTTP proxy, perhaps bypass the proxy for the penny auction site to reduce latency.

3. In the ISP (e.g. Charter, AT&T, TDS, Comcast et. al.). This is almost certainly a biggy. It will increase in the evenings as people watch streaming content, during major sporting events, etc. It includes not only network speeds, but the time it takes to resolve a DNS name (like www.quibids.com) to its Internet IP address.

4. In the Internet between you and the penny auction site. (Used to be one could use traceroute to get an idea of what the network topology might be, but traceroute is pretty universally blocked these days).

5. On the penny auction site's server and network infrastructure.

Strategies:

a. Understand that if you are employing the waiting game strategy, then waiting until literally 1 second can be really risky. (I have seen blogs that implore bidders to absolutely wait until 1 second. Not advice I would give). As an alternative, you can afford to wait 1 second more than your largest network latency.

b. Consider using the site's bid automation (bid-o-matic, for example). This clock is on the server, independent of your machine, and is thus unaffected by network latency.

c. Run the fastest browser you can on the fastest machine you can.

d. Stay away from times when ISPs, the Internet and Quibids are more busy, at least until you have a firm grip on what your latency situation looks like.

e. Find a way to measure the latency of the response from the penny auction site so that you know what it is for your environment at a given time of day. (The Quibids site actually tries to help with a little indicator at the bottom of their page. It would be an interesting experiment to see how much delay affects it. In fact, I just noticed a period as I wrote this where it thought the connection was completely unavailable).

f. Consider that when Quibids shows you only some of the auctions that are actually going on, this may actually be a GOOD thing, because one thing they may be trying to do is keep their bid server farm response time even and fair (at least, I would if I were in their shoes). In fact, were I them, I would regionalize it / arrange it by Internet topology so that bidders that had connections which took fewer hops to get to the server didn't have an unfair advantage over bidders that had more complicated routes to the servers. In so doing, I'd also keep my network charges down.

g. Beware of using a wireless connection.

h. Do not put your browser window in the background, even for a second, unless you have the site's bid automation (e.g. bid-o-matic) running.

Author: Jay Jaeger

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