Perusing the Patagonia site

Oct 01, 2008 9:30 PM  By

Outdoor gear and apparel merchant Patagonia is renowned for its handsome, rugged products and the adventure photography in its catalogs. But how is its site at selling products and handling search?

Critiquers Amy Africa, president of Helena, VT-based Web consultancy Eight by Eight, and Brian R. Brown, lead consultant/natural search marketing strategist with Madison, WI-based SEO agency Netconcepts, gave Patagonia.com a thorough workover. Africa scrutinized the site’s content and functionality, and Brown tested its search capability. Here’s what they had to say.

AMY AFRICA


I love to surf. There’s something magical about riding the waves that words simply can’t express. Nature reminds us how small we are in the big scheme of things. Surfing goes a step further in that, no matter how good you are, at the end, you always fall. It’s a humbling experience.

Kind of like the Patagonia Website.

Here’s the thing. I have a closet full of Patagonia clothes. I like the company’s product. I just don’t like its Website.

First things first: The initial entry page on the Patagonia site is a “choose your country” welcome page? Good Lord. How 2001 is that? There is dirt-cheap software that pulls your location with about 98% accuracy. The site should use it. Period.

To add an insult to injury, the next page is another honking large photo with very limited navigation. What does it say to your users when your first page asks them something you should already know, and the second has a search function in the hot spot, a big picture and a couple of other random choices? If navigation accounts for over half of your success online, what does it say when you don’t give your site users any?

Navigation is a self-fulfilling prophecy: You get what I give you. If I don’t give you a choice on my Website, you don’t have it. It’s as simple as that. How much do I, as a company, care about your order when I don’t show you anything to buy or give you easy access to your shopping cart?

If you work at Patagonia you’d probably say (and yes, I asked) that Environmentalism and Blog (two of the four items in the navigation) are just as important as Clothing & Gear and Shop by Sport, or that My Gear really is an adequate name for a perpetual shopping cart.

I’d beg to differ.

Users, no matter how loyal they are to your brand, need clear directions on how to use your Website. They need solid navigation — at the bare minimum, that’s a good top action bar that tells them what they are supposed to do at the Website, and a comprehensive, easy-to-maneuver index of your store on the left. Users don’t want to work hard to find something.

In lieu of solid navigation, Patagonia pushes its text search. Not a great idea, especially when you have a very weak search like this. (Searching for woman’s rashguard yields exactly zero products and two topics.)

The Clothing & Gear category page allows you to select which type of item you’re interested in by men, women’s, kids and travel gear. Unfortunately, the comprehensive list that it gives you in the action-bar rollover disappears — and those are your only choices.

The Shop by Sport category page has a lot of potential but the content far outweighs the commerce, and there’s nothing to buy in the first view. Both pages are alienating to someone who isn’t a sophisticated online shopper. Content can be a fantastic addition to a site, but it needs to be properly balanced with the commerce. Patagonia’s is not.

Patagonia is sneaky in that the site uses a lot of text. Search engines love text. The footers are longer than War and Peace and packed with keywords, so from an organics perspective, it’s kinda-sorta great. From a user perspective? Not so much.

People see things in pictures, not in text, so the bottom 50%+ part of the entry page is wasted. Sure, the site probably gets some clicks from the diehards, but are those people browsers or buyers?

More important, if they were originally coming to buy and get lost in the jungle of articles, what happens to them then? (Bizarrely enough, Patagonia carries its lengthy footers throughout the checkout — the worst possible place to distract people.)

The merchant’s photos are high quality and well executed. It does an excellent job using multiple visuals, and an equally horrendous job with its color, size and quantity presentation. I’m sure Olallaberry and Chanterelle are perfectly acceptable name choices for colors on one of the planets, but if you’re going to use them on this one, you really should make it more apparent (meaning not in light gray text and with smackier, easier-to-use drop-down boxes).

The add-to-gear buttons are sized for a mouse — and even worse, there is only one per page. If you have long pages, as Patagonia does, and especially if you are using reader reviews, you really need to have add-to-cart or buy-now buttons on every view. (So every time the user scrolls to “see a new page” he or she should be presented with the opportunity to buy.)

Several of the forms pages need help. The catalog-request page doesn’t have a picture of the current catalog. The e-mail sign-up page has a lengthy statement about personal information. The thank-you pages both are dead-ends — no visuals and nothing to entice you back into the site. Just a “thanks, you’ll be hearing from us soon.”

Clicking on the blog brings you to www.thecleanestline.com and takes you completely off the site. Granted, there is a link in the upper-left-hand corner sandwiched in the blog description. But it’s buried and, frankly, quite unacceptable. If you want to have a blog, so be it, but please don’t make it difficult for potential customers to get back to your site once they’ve visited it.

BRIAN R. BROWN


Patagonia’s site has fairly clean, Web-standards-based code, and it isn’t using tables for layout purposes. This means that the pages aren’t bloated with excess code and it should be fairly quick and easy for search engine spiders to crawl the pages — at least when they can get to them. It also means that it shouldn’t be hard to modify the page templates to make improvements to the pages.

HTML headings (h1, h2, etc.) are in use, but there are multiple h1s on pages, and where used, aren’t unique or important for the pages. The use of other heading tags is haphazard and doesn’t follow true hierarchical standards.

Even more important than headings are the title tags, which are okay. Apart from the home pages, I’d move “Patagonia” to the end of the title tag. On category pages, consider changing the order of the copy used. (For instance, put “pants featuring organic cotton” before “men’s outdoor gear and apparel.”)

The site should seriously consider simplifying the URL structure, as the URLs are parameter-filled and obnoxiously long. This might explain why indexation at the subcategory and product detail page level is not very strong.

If you haven’t visited Patagonia.com before, you’ll see that the site is initially challenging to spiders because the home page is an international gateway.

Search for “patagonia.com” in Google and view the cached results. You’ll be presented with a beautiful photo and a dropdown to select your country. On subsequent visits though, a cookie will route you directly into the site based on this selection. But search engine spiders may be at a loss, without the ability to select a country or accept the cookies. So the search engines are stuck looking at a nearly empty page.

The Patagonia logo is there as an image — sadly named “logo.gif,” and there are no alt attributes even (though this is not the case on interior pages). The main image is actually a CSS-based background image, so no alt text is available anyway, even though it would be of limited SEO value. There is, of course, a long, keyword-rich title tag trying to make up for the lack of — hold on, what’s this?

On the right-hand side, down a ways below the photo, in light-colored gray text on a white background, we just barely catch the words “Search Index Page Description.” While it looks like the entire page is within the browser window, the vertical scrollbar only seems to be representing about a third of the page.

Scroll down a ways and find a whole bunch of other text (at least medium-light-gray this time, with a bit more contrast) that starts out: “Welcome to the Web site for Patagonia, a designer of outdoor clothing, outdoor gear, footwear, and luggage. Patagonia specifically makes hard shells, soft shells, rain jackets, ski jackets, ski pants, organic cotton clothing, sportswear…”

Start hovering over it and we discover that there are a number of links within this text, 45 actually, even though they aren’t underlined or colored differently. While it isn’t entirely a spam-dump of keywords and links, even the average visitor can quickly tell that these 338 words probably aren’t meant for them — assuming the “Search Index Page Description” didn’t tip them off to begin with.

How should Patagonia improve its SEO? First, I’d rewrite this text with users in mind, making it more friendly and human-readable. I’d keep some of the keyword-rich links to interior pages, but I’d probably cut back on the quantity. I’d make sure they are good for users — not just search engines — and make them stand out as links.

Next, I’d quit labeling this as “Search Index Page Description” and stop burying it at the bottom of the page. On the country selector home page, I’d put it below the photo. Anyone new to Patagonia will certainly find a little description about the site, products and company helpful, so don’t hide it.

On the category, subcategory and product detail pages, I’d suggest making this text more user friendly and integrating it more into the product area. Getting this keyword-rich descriptive text higher up into the page copy, instead of in the footer and tail end of the HTML code, will more likely bring about the desired impact within search engines — without carrying the risk of being seen as or reported as Web spam as it might now.