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More Internet Retailer Web Design Conference tips to improve your ecommerce store

It took me a bit longer than a week to finish my list of IRWD action items, didn’t it? Hopefully no one was holding their breath. In this second part I’ll be expanding on the first part of the action items list with two sections, one on Design improvements for ecommerce stores and the other on Customer Communication, which is less of a technical category, but one I think is worth covering.


Search Engine Optimization

There is a lot of SEO content at the IRWD, but the session I get the most value out of is Stephen Spencer and John Tawadros. Both of these guys are very knowledgeable and always insightful. There are plenty of SEO tips they give that a lot of you will already know, and I won’t repeat those here – but there were two tips that I thought were both relevant to me, and have a realistic chance of making a big difference.

The first was that meta keywords are dead – apparently they no longer (and have not for some time) been of any benefit to your Google ranking on certain keywords. There advice was not to bother, the only person who benefits from your declaration of keyword targets is your competitors. That’s one less thing to worry about when passing over a site to ‘SEO’ it – which means I can spend more time on other things like the second SEO tip.

The second simple tip was to make sure your H1 always focuses on the keywords you are going after. In itself that’s probably not a very useful tip, but the advice that came with it was what interested me – make that focus the low hanging fruit. It’s a terrible cliche, but there is a great deal of value in it.

To use an example, at World Wide Access we export a New Zealand brand of cloth diapers to the United States called Real Nappies. The main keyword to focus on for these products is ‘cloth diaper’, but competition on this keyword is fierce. To start with our focus needs to be on a more attainable keyword first page such as the more specific ‘pre-fold cloth diaper’ which is the specific type of cloth diaper Real Nappies uses. (learning about cloth diapers and SEO, lucky you).

Category Page Design

Category pages are a little like product pages, they should become organic landing pages – but to do that they’re going to need more than a list of products – they need useful content. I think there are already plenty of stores on the internet who know they need content on their categories, but they take some canned text from a product description, or manufacturer blurb and drop it into the gap above the grid of products, hoping Google will consider that useful content – I’m not convinced that was, or still is effective.

From our point of view each category page needs to have information about the category, what groups the products together and what would lead a customer to a) know they are in the right category and b) invite them to inspect further sub categories.

Another interesting technique that I noted was the use of faux categories – not the usual physical break down of products but a more keyword targeted division that might appeal to specific users. For example in the case of the Merino Kids sleep sacks that we import into the US – the usual categories would be Toddler and Baby sized, Winter and Summer weight. These are physical characteristics, that lend themselves to categories.

What I want to try is categories such as ‘Sensitive Skin’ that appeal to specific users, where the grouping of products isn’t by size, color or fabric thickness – but by suitability for a baby with sensitive skin – this means the copy I mentioned above can have a real purpose in explaining the products and how they will help – hopefully something that both the customer, and Google, will appreciate.

Make the Footer a happening part of the site

This is probably a no-brainer for a lot of the arty types out there, certainly all the cool kids are doing this already. The footer real estate is often overlooked as a dumping ground for those fine-print style links you have to have somewhere but don’t want to put them in your main navigation.

The trend I noticed was a move to thick, content heavy footers that had all the usual customer service privacy information but also included feeds from Blogs, Twitter, Trusts marks, and in some cases even mini-contact forms.

We already use blogs and twitter for a number of our sites – so the aggregation of that information into the Magento footer should be relatively straight forward. A mini contact form would be a nice feature to add too, because any time we get a chance to interact with a customer, we increase the conversion rate dramatically.

Homepage Introduction

This one might be a bit obvious to some of you, but I thought there were some good points here, that largely echo the words of Steve Krugg. The whole homepage needs to be like a billboard – the logo, the tagline and that little tiny must-have message you want customers to see all have to be prominent and really punchy, as if the customer is whizzing by at 60mph. PS: The book itself is a real gem, old now, but still very relevant.

User Interface Tweaks

This section is a bit of a dumping ground for several trivial little things that I am planning to try based on feedback and examples seen at IRWD.

  • Try bigger add to cart buttons – this could be tried through Google website optimizer, though my experience has shown you need a lot of traffic to really notice any patterns.
  • Try different (read: bolder) colors for important buttons such as add to cart and checkout.
  • Make the account and cart links bigger- and attract more attention to them, both are in effective important calls to action.
  • Show a hovering mini-cart when the user mouses over the cart/checkout links – let them see what is in the cart and how much the total is. A large percentage of the stores showcased were doing this and I think it’s a great feature, which we should be able to add within Magento quite easily.
  • Bigger search box – enough said (though it follows that if you are trying to get more people to search, the results should be useful)


This section is a little unlike the others in that it is not so much to do with ecommerce development or design, but rather more human tips to do with customer interaction.

Focus groups

We have a technology focus at World Wide Access, although we primarily sell things on the internet, we consider ourselves a software company. This means we are notoriously out of touch with the mothers buying cloth diapers and merino sleep sacks from New Zealand.

We have people in marketing that know and understand our customers, but given we are implementing usability features, I think a simple focus group would be a great idea. It goes something like this.

  1. Get half a dozen friends/friends of friends together who are in the target market, but not associated with the project in anyway.
  2. One by one sit the half a dozen people down and ask them to perform several important tasks on the website, such as contact customer service, add a few items to cart to check prices, and right through to actually buying something (optionally with a hefty discount code).
  3. Ask them to narrate the experience while you observe them – watch their screen and observe and areas of confusion or frustration.

That’s really it, you’ll probably need to bribe your participants with something, a bottle of wine perhaps a free product – be creative. The point of all this is that for the relatively low cost and effort of doing this you may get to see trends in site usage, usability flaws and confusing navigation that you would otherwise not notice because you are to close to the problem.

Customer Contact

The main initiative I want to get going in this area is the use of auto-responders. I’d like to routinely follow up with customers (who have opted-in of course) to get reviews and feedback from them about the product, and delivery timeframes they experienced (say 1-2 weeks after shipping). The incentive would be a single use auto-generated discount voucher specific to the customer. This would require some development within Magento, both to initiate the auto-responder (which would be suitably customized to the purchase) and to create the discounts being offered.

Invite Phonecalls

We try to automate pretty much everything with our stores, so having customer service reps answer phones is a notoriously manual process (and it should be Vodafone!). We have for that reason tended to stay away from the highly visible, inviting 1800 number. I want to try it though, as a trust building mechanism, but also as a chance to make a sale that might otherwise go begging. Not to mention a lot of our customers may not be that web savvy – a phone number might really appeal because it is familiar.

Closing remarks

This has been a long winded two part article, for sure (part 1 is here). I have listed the key points from my time at the IRWD conference that struck me as actionable design and development tasks. Where possible I have tried to justify the reasons for our pursuit of these tasks.

My goal from the outset was to document our 2010 design and development objectives from a high level, and put them out here for questions and critique, so I’d invite your feedback, the one or two of you that actually read all the way to here. I’ll continue to refer back to this list as I document our progress through the list over the next 12 months, so stay tuned.