Website critique: Polishing a pewter merchant’s site

Apr 01, 2011 9:30 PM  By

Amos Pewter designs, makes and sells pewter gifts and keepsakes. But is its website a shining example? Or could it use a buffing up? Our critiquers — Amy Africa, president of web consultancy Eight by Eight, and Brian R. Brown, senior manager, SEO of search agency Covario — gave AmosPewter.com some serious scrutiny. Africa looked at content and functionality, and Brown tested search capability. Here’s what they had to say.

AMY AFRICA

Where should Amos Pewter start in im-proving its website? Here are nine things the merchant should tweak — you might want to consider them too.

  1. Carousels are an amazing tool if they’re used effectively. If not, they can be the kiss of death for your site.

    In a perfect world, your carousel will fit on one view of your site. The key to the best performing carousels is to make sure that every frame has an action directive — shop now, click here now, add to cart, buy now — whatever the user should do next!

    Stunning visuals and provocative headlines are good, but if you want to be great, you need to use your carousel to get people to drill deeper into your site. Otherwise, it’s just a bunch of noise.

  2. Navigation accounts for over half your success online. If you can’t find it, you can’t buy it.

    Amos Pewter’s top navigation is okay (the site would be much stronger with more robust left-hand navigation), but it puts way too much emphasis on its text search, which is weak at best. If you want people to use your text search, put it in the upper right-hand corner.

    Should you put it there? Not likely. Yes, statistically people who use your text search will be more likely to buy than almost anyone else on your site.

    But if your text search sucks, the traffic won’t buy and they will leave. (Either on the search results page or one of the three subsequent search pages after it, successful or not.) Chances are, you don’t want that.

  3. Having a solid cart/checkout, like navigation, will be a big part of your success online. One of the biggest secrets to cart/checkout success? In-your-face action directives that tell users exactly what they’re supposed to do next.

    This starts with the very first page (for some, it’s a “view cart” page, for others it might be a pop-up cart). Amos Pewter’s shopping bag is long, and the checkout button is small and somewhat insignificant. That’s an issue.

    From a user perspective, the best checkouts have alternative ways to order (read: BIG phone numbers), safety and security icons, a temperature bar (allows users to know how far along they are in the process), and speed (you’ve got to be seamlessly quick and without a lot of drama).

    What does that last part mean? It means that the checkouts with the absolute highest conversions all have one thing in common: they only ask questions that are relevant to the order.

    Getting people to make complex email sign-up choices for one of your bazillion newsletters, or asking them to register with your site before they hit checkout, are not the best ideas. In fact, they’re often the worst.

  4. Email is your silent weapon. One of the best things about email (especially trigger emails) is that it makes up for all your other weaknesses online. To have a solid email program, you’ve got to capture as many email addresses as you can.

    Amos Pewter does a nice job with its “Sign-Up to Receive E-Mail Promotions” handlebar — it’s big and bold, but, unfortunately, it’s buried in the second view.

    The site also has an email sign-up box in the bottom navigation. Yes, people will scroll on your site, but don’t take the chance — when something is important, ask for it on every view of your site. (One view is approximately the size of your average user’s first screen.)

    If it’s super important to you (like capturing an email address or getting an order), you’ll likely want to include it in other places as well, perhaps in your top bar navigation, near your shopping cart, or maybe even in a pop-up or a midi.

  5. Trigger email programs are key for any size ecommerce business, especially small ones. There are all sorts of trigger emails you can choose from: abandoned cart, abandoned search, abandoned site, EBOPPs (emails based on past purchases), EBOSIs (emails based on selected interest), thank you for ordering, thank you for signing up for our free newsletter, and so on.

    The key with triggers is to make them look like one-to-one communications — from me to you. Unlike thrust emails, big, fancy graphics aren’t going to make the difference in your triggers, so you’ll want to keep them simple and action-oriented.

    For example, if you send a thank you after a catalog request, you may want to send a trigger that suggests items that users might want to look at/buy online while they’re waiting for their catalog.

  6. Category pages are often more important than your main entry page, so use them wisely. Amos Pewter has set up its site in such a way that there’s a lot of pressure on the category pages. Unfortunately, the site’s category pages are just a bunch of nice pictures, which never quite cuts it.

    What’s important for a category page? Good question. You want to show users your breadth of product line in such an aggressive way that they know what they’re supposed to do: purchase.

    Amos Pewter does a good job with its subcategory pages (Our Favorite Gifts, for example), but the Gifts and Occasions category page leaves a lot to be desired.

    Can’t fix your category pages? Consider enhancing your navigation and getting rid of them altogether.

  7. Know where your traffic is coming from, as well as the best way to sell them. Amos Pewter offers a catalog — we know this because it has a “Request a Catalogue” box.

    So, it’s only reasonable to expect that Amos Pewter should have an “Ordering from a Catalog” quick order form, right? Unfortunately, it doesn’t. This should be a must-do on its list.

    By the way, if your quick order isn’t converting at over 82%, there’s something wrong with it. (And if you’ve done it in the past and it didn’t work, that was 100% your problem, not your users.)

  8. Use your social sharing icons wisely. If you are advertising on Twitter/Facebook (which is not right for everyone), bring them to your page, not to a “create an account” page or a “sign in and share” page. Also, if you are not using these tools consistently — as in once or more per day — it’s often best not to promote them.

  9. Check your site speed regularly. Things like Flash, guided navigation and search, heavily scripted forms, unwieldy carousels, and poorly optimized images can all have a huge impact on your site performance.

    Just because your main entry page loads quickly does not mean that your users won’t experience a slowdown in your checkout. Be diligent about your site load/performance and your email deliverability.

BRIAN R. BROWN

Amos Pewter is one of those specialty retailers that can capitalize on the power of search to connect with customers everywhere. Having a website doesn’t necessarily make a market for products any greater, but it can expose a retailer to more of that market. When dealing within a niche, such as “all-things-pewter,” retailers really want to be performing as well as they possibly can within the search engines to capture as many of the relatively limited searches for the niche as they can.

Fortunately, Amos Pewter has a leg up on some of the frequent technical and architectural challenges that often plague ecommerce sites. Let’s look at a few wins:

  • Site is canonicalized on the “www” version
  • Mostly keyword-based URLs
  • Has a robots.txt file and XML sitemap
  • Dropdown navigation is powered by JavaScript, but is accessible to search engine bots
  • Category and subcategory pages feature body copy text

But there are still areas that fail, and even some of the wins are only partial. Starting off then, we’ll look at the timeless classic that is the “title tag.”

And while title tags are being updated, manually or programmatically, I’d be sure to update the meta descriptions. While these won’t carry a lot of weight with regard to ranking, they may grab a searcher’s attention and help drive click through. Retaining the default “X-Cart” meta descriptions, which some have, won’t do much of anything, however.

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The site no doubt mostly uses programmatic title tag creation, especially when drilling down into the deeper subcategory layers. Unfortunately, the formula is backwards, with nearly all title tags starting off with “Pewter Gifts and Collectibles by Amos Pewter,” followed by each section level. Ironically, the homepage’s title itself doesn’t feature the company name at all.

At a bare minimum, I’d suggest these be reversed, so the most relevant, and unique, portion of the page’s title is at the beginning. This becomes hugely powerful at the product level, where today, all the product title tags only become more unique further into the title, rather than starting out unique.

In many cases, the most unique part that might relate to what is being searched for may not even be visible in the search results listing.

Programmatic title tags aren’t a bad thing, but they should still follow the basic principle that the most important, unique keywords are featured at the start of the title tag — and generally any element. Hopefully, the merchant also has the ability to manually control title tags so that the most important, top-level category and subcategory title tags can be overwritten based on insights gained from keyword research.

And while title tags are being updated, manually or programmatically, I’d be sure to update the meta descriptions. While these won’t carry a lot of weight with regard to ranking, they may grab a searcher’s attention and help drive click through. Retaining the default “X-Cart” meta descriptions, which some have, won’t do much of anything, however.

As stated, Amos Pewter has canonicalized to the “www” subdomain using 301 redirects. Excellent! But for some reason, it switches over to “https” from the categories on down.

Again, the site has 301 redirected from “http” to the secure protocol; however, this isn’t really necessary until purchase, where sensitive data may be submitted. No sense taking the extra hit on page-load through the bulk of the site, though.

While it is great to see the site has a robots.txt file and XML sitemap in place, these need a little attention as well. The major search engines are not likely having any issue, but being a stickler, I’d eliminate the blank line between the “User-agent” line and the first “Disallow.”

While we’re at it, I’d recommend not blocking CSS or images directories. The former because the search engines may be less trusting, concerned that CSS files may be blocked because spammy and/or sneaky tactics are being used, and the latter because these images may drive some additional traffic via image search results.

I’d also like to see an auto-discovery line for the XML sitemap added. While we’re on the topic of XML sitemaps, seeing “2008” dates tells me that a little updating is in order.

Body copy is often a big challenge for ecommerce sites. I was happy to see that Amos Pewter has made an effort to incorporate some body copy into the site.

Ironically, however, the homepage, quite possibly the most important page of any site, is almost entirely without body copy. Best way to tell? View the text-only version of a cached result from Google and you’ll quickly understand what the search engines see.

I’d like to see even more body copy added to the category and subcategory pages — especially at the highest top-level categories, which are almost entirely image-based. Fortunately, the subcategories are on their way with a little more keyword-rich body copy.

It’s a fine line, but I might want to incorporate “pewter” into more of the body copy, the headings, and at least page titles. We aren’t just looking at “Collectible Ornaments” or “Earrings,” but “Pewter Collectible Ornaments” and “Pewter Earrings.” But we don’t want to go overboard and toss “pewter” in front of everything.

Finally, while URLs and structure aren’t presenting too many obstacles to search engines crawling the site, there are opportunities for improvements. However, these might be limited to the capabilities of the shopping cart or the ability for further development.

First, I’d try to avoid getting super deep in directories. Rather than appending every subcategory layer, perhaps limit URL to the current subcategory within the overall category, limiting depth to two to three levels.

Second, exclude the category and referring page number in the product URLs. Dropping the keyword-rich URL for a product number parameter-based URL doesn’t concern me much for these primarily longtail type pages, but creating URL bloat and duplication due to multiple URLs for the same product is something to avoid.

Need these additional parameters for breadcrumbs or navigation? Then send them wrapped up in a cookie or behind the scenes some other way. That’s a gift that even Google-bot would enjoy!