Website Critique: Ward’s Scientific Site Review

Apr 01, 2007 9:30 PM  By

Ward’s Natural Science (www.wardsci.com) has been a source for chemistry education products for 144 years, selling items ranging from maps and molecular models to beakers and butterfly nets. While the Rochester, NY-based merchant has clearly embraced the Internet as a selling tool, is its site the creation of mad scientists or the work of Web marketing geniuses? Critiquers Amy Africa, president of Helena, VT-based Web consultancy Eight by Eight, and Stephan Spencer, founder/president of Madison, WI-based SEO-specialist agency Netconcepts, put the Ward’s Website under a microscope, with Africa examining the site’s content and functionality, and Spencer testing its search capability. Here’s what they learned.

Amy Africa

Ward’s Natural Science has long been one of my favorite business-to-business sites. I don’t shop there, as I really have no need whatsoever for science supplies (contrary to popular belief, I gave up trying to make my own bombs long ago), but I like the site anyway. It’s clean, it’s simple, and for a company operating on a limited budget, it does a lot of things right.

Ward’s primary market is high-school and college teachers. The company sells products for biology, chemistry, earth science, forensics, and physical science. It has a very extensive product line online and a professional offline business to back it up. Ward’s has been around since 1862, so it must be doing something right.

As a b-to-b company driving a lot of catalog traffic online, Ward’s need only concentrate on a few specific things to make the site work, which is what it does. If you visit Ward’s and are expecting lots of bells and whistles, you are going to be sorely disappointed. The site has none. No fancy animation, no dynamic content, no automated lists of things you should buy or look at, no recommendations from your peers, just a good, old-fashioned site with solid (albeit limited) navigation and a pretty decent (although not perfect) checkout.

Navigational matters

Three elements are critical for creating navigation that’s spectacular for the user: top navigation, bottom navigation, and left-hand navigation. Navigation accounts for 40%-60% of your success online at minimum, so clearly the better your navigation is, the better your conversion will be. Period.

The top navigation is the “action bar” navigation: It’s there to tell the users what they are supposed to do on your site, be it inquire or order. The most-successful top navigation usually employs three layers — tabs, an order bar (where you give the users their marching orders), and a problem/solution level.

Currently Ward’s employs the top two levels, and unfortunately they are reversed. The tabs, also known as the top bar, should be the product categories — the eight or so most important areas that you want people to look at — and the second level should be the things that you want them to do. Ward’s action bar, which appears above the tabs, is weak in that it doesn’t have many actions. “Web Specials” is perfect (although the page itself is dismal at best), but “Support” and “My Account” are too passive. In a perfect world, the site would include an e-mail sign-up in this section.

The left-hand navigation is easy to understand and navigate. It would certainly benefit from a bit more art direction — it is rather plain and could use a bit more delineation between the e-mail sign-up box and the text search box — but it’s comprehensive and in a logical (alphabetical) order that users like and are accustomed to.

The left-hand navigation does a nice job of calling out the site highlights, although you should never have more than five highlights; three works best, and Ward’s has seven. And if one of your descriptions takes up more than one line (as does “Professional Development” on the Ward’s site), you should indent the second line so that the users know it’s a continuation of the first.

Ward’s has a solid customer support area near the bottom of the left-hand column, although it would be better if it could be condensed a bit. Below that area, the column tends to lose it — the area is filled with stuff that doesn’t look clickable. Considering that the bottom of the left-hand column is just as important as the top, Ward’s would be better served if it put its “Refer a Friend” link there and added some aggressive banners to get people to click through.

Ward’s bottom navigation is nonexistent. Solid bottom navigation is basically a repeat of the top navigation along with links to “contact us,” your privacy statement, your customer bill of rights, and such. In a site where the main focus is to get an order, you should also put a perpetual shopping cart at the bottom. In fact, the sites with the highest conversion tend to have a cart at the bottom and in the right-hand column as well.

Turning right

There’s no such thing as right-hand navigation; generally speaking, users can’t “navigate” from the right-hand side of the page. With that said, the right-hand column serves an important purpose, which is to “save” the user from exiting, as it’s the last place they look before they leave your site.

Ward’s uses a series of plugs (nonanimated banners) down the right-hand side of its home page. These could definitely use some oomph! When you design a self-banner, your sole goal is to get people interested in something — anything — so that they drill deeper into your site. A good banner might ask a provocative question, make a controversial statement, or create all-around urgency. Ward’s banners don’t really do any of those things.

One of the things Ward’s does well is include a list of its top 10 sellers in its right-hand column. The company also includes a “click here” link on all its plugs, which is another good thing.

The laws of online orders


When a company like Ward’s has a large catalog/direct sales business and is driving a lot of offline sales online, “catalog quick shop” is an area it must focus on.

The area on wardsci.com has one thing going for it: It’s named appropriately. “Catalog Quick Shop” is a much better and less esoteric name than, say, “Easy Order.” It’s also highlighted appropriately in the navigation, has pictures of its catalogs once you get to the page (a plus from a user perspective), and the buttons are BIG, RED, and AGGRESSIVE.

But it’s lacking many vital elements. First, it is missing alternate contact information (phone, fax, e-mail contact info) in the right-hand column. People always ask, “Why would you push people to the phone?” It’s a good question and easily answered: Item numbers, especially large and complicated ones such as Ward’s uses, are easy to screw up. Ward’s has added a couple of lines of directions, but they are confusing at best for a typical user.

And if you do mistype anything on the site, you are going to get an error message that says, “This item does not exist.” Ward’s should do much better at sniffing, sensing, and suggesting item numbers that are in close proximity to what the user typed in.

Ward’s does a cool thing in that it’s added the cart to the bottom of the quick-order page once an item has been added. The cart could — and should — be a lot more aggressive, but the fact that Ward’s included it is a breakthrough.

Checking out


Ward’s shopping cart is solid. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than most. The checkout process is broken down into five quick and easy steps.

First is the sign-in step. It’s clearly broken down into two distinct sections — one for existing customers and one for new users. Each area asks for the user’s e-mail address. This is an excellent technique as it allows Ward’s to send follow-up e-mails to users who abandon their cart before completing checkout.

The second page is the bill-to, a perfect choice because it asks for information that the users know and can fill out quickly. The third is the ship-to, also the right thing to do at this point. Ward’s obviously knows that the further along that users get in the process, the more likely they are to complete it.

The “Review and Complete Your Order” page is by far the worst step of the checkout process. To improve it, Ward’s should add credit-card icons, eliminate as much of the small “disclaimer” verbiage as possible, align the fields, put the comments box underneath the payment information instead of to the side of it, and most important, not break the page into two columns. The more a cart looks the same throughout the process, the more comfortable the user will be in finishing it.

Two of the major weaknesses in Ward’s checkout are that the company doesn’t address privacy and security enough. E-commerce companies must address both issues in every view of their cart and checkout.

Second, Ward’s should use the right-hand column of the checkout to show a picture of a person — a friendly, helpful face that encourages you to keep going while making you feel safe and secure.

The company should also make a much bigger deal of its offline contact information. This is important for all e-commerce companies, as a typical merchant will get about a quarter of its sales from online via an offline channel, such as the phone or the fax. You will never get everyone in your user base to feel comfortable shopping online. Therefore, if you get them to the cart but they decide to abandon, you should provide them with an option for calling or faxing in their order.

Ward’s does use a temperature bar throughout its cart so that users can know at a glance where they are in the checkout process. The bar could use more sex appeal — it is drab and doesn’t even feature the traditional shopping-cart icon — but it is functional.

Ward’s uses a perpetual cart throughout the site. The perpetual cart is properly featured in the upper right-hand corner and has options for viewing and printing. It should have e-mailing and saving as options as well.

Overall, wardsci.com has good esthetics. The designers obviously know a thing or two about online eye paths and user-specific simplicity. The site is a three-column site and the columns are appropriate in size and length. The colors are simple, and the designers are careful to not use too much yellow (often associated with fear or caution.) The red is very effective.

The photos appear to be taken from Ward’s offline materials, specifically the catalog. They are small and leave a lot to be desired. In Ward’s case, like most others, multiple image views on some (not all) of the products would be helpful.

Other things that Ward’s does well are its red BUY NOW buttons (although they should be bigger); in-stock messaging, especially in the cart; and good content sprinkled throughout.

Stephan Spencer


Ward’s appears to have done some search engine optimization (SEO), and it was a good start, but I discovered costly mistakes and much opportunity yet untapped. Currently its site is not present in the first five pages of Google for key terms such as “lab equipment” and “lab supplies” or for category names such as “microscopes” and “chemicals.”

The costliest SEO mistake I found was the duplicate site Ward’s has in Google, due to the lack of a permanent redirect from wardsci.com to www.wardsci.com. Some sites link to the former URL; others link to the latter. Because all the links on the site are relative rather than absolute, when a spider starts crawling the site from wardsci.com (without the “www”), it is able to spider an index of an entire copy of the site at the alternate URL. By combining the duplicate sites, Ward’s would aggregate the Google PageRank scores of the two sites into one.

For example, the www.wardsci.com home page has a PageRank of 6, as does that of wardsci.com. Once aggregated, the resulting home page could end up with a 7 (which is markedly higher than a 6, due to the logarithmic nature of PageRank). You can confirm that these two URLs are seen as unique pages by Google by searching for “cache:wardsci.com” and “cache:www.wardsci.com” — each has a different “retrieved on” date.

Stop those characters!


Ward’s rewrote its category and product URLs to eliminate “stop characters” — question marks, ampersands, and equal signs. But the approach it used is not ideal.

For one thing, variables are separated by underscores, and underscores are not word separators in the eyes of Google. Consider the URL “http://www.wardsci.com/category.asp_Q_c_E_1447_A_Electrochemistry.” The word “electrochemistry” is not seen by Google or counted as a keyword. There also appear to be some superfluous characters in these rewritten URLs (“_Q_c_E_” perhaps). Many of the product URLs have exceedingly long file names (e.g. “http://www.wardsci.com/product.asp_Q_pn_E_IG0006937_A_Fully+Extracted+Sheep+Brain+with+Dura+Mater+Preserved+Specimen”), which may not seem very palatable to a spider (not that a sheep brain could be very palatable under the best of circumstances!).

The product category links in the top navigation and the sidebar are all text, so extra bonus points for that. All the major search engines associate those underlined words with the page being linked to.

The HTML code could be tightened up quite a lot. The HTML includes a number of comments, and tables are being used for layout, which is not very efficient coding practice. By tightening up the code in the various category page and product page templates, the relevant product-related copy could be brought higher up on the page. Also some intro copy should be added to the category pages, as there is nothing there to reinforce the page’s keyword theme.

From the category pages, there are links to view all products in that category; those point, however, to a search results page with six parameters in the URL — a complex, search-unfriendly URL structure. Those definitely need to be rewritten. Each product on the category page is linked to three times: from the product photo, from the product name, and from a “More Info” button. It would be best to add “rel=nofollow” to the photo and button links so that they are no longer counted as “votes” by the search engines. That focuses the search engines on the remaining product link, which just so happens to be a text link containing relevant keywords.

Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) should be used to reorder the flow of the HTML in the templates so that the keyword-rich body copy appears higher up in the page, above the navigation. Heading tags (H1, H2, etc.) should emphasize text important to the search engines; then CSS can style that text appropriately on the screen. On category pages, the category name should be an H1 tag. CSS code is currently included “inline”; instead it should be placed in an external .css file.

Product pages should link to related products, thus adding more “votes” for those products. Links to internal search results on related keywords would be nice too, particularly if those pages were search engine optimized.

Ward’s product and category pages include breadcrumb navigation links. Normally this is a good thing, because these are keyword-rich text links. But Ward’s breadcrumb navigation has been implemented incorrectly: The category and product URLs in the breadcrumb are not rewritten, thus providing the spiders with another version of these pages to index and more duplicate content.

Curiously, while surfing around the catalog I found that the top featured product in the “Forces and Motion” category had a breadcrumb containing “404 Page Not Found” and a message at the bottom of the page that this item is no longer available. Clicking on that “404 Page Not Found” link in the breadcrumb led me to an “Oops! Sorry…” page that doesn’t actually return a 404 status code but a 200 instead — thus this “Oops” page can get indexed and displayed in search results.

The title tags aren’t too bad. The category pages include the category name in the title; product pages include the product name. I’d recommend dropping “Ward’s Natural Science” from the title tags to help tighten the focus.

Spending its juice


The site has strong backlinks, many from relevant science-related sites, and good link neighborhoods. Being part of the VWR family of catalogs, Ward’s has a fantastic opportunity to acquire links from sister sites. The “.edu” and “.gov” backlinks (for instance, “www.csh.rit.edu/projects” and “cms.llnl.gov/sourcecl.html”) are like gold due to the pristine link neighborhoods they are in and the authority status bestowed on many of them; such links cannot be bartered, bought, or stolen. Ward’s problem lies in how it “spends” the link juice given to them.

I would advise blocking all the “quick order” product pages from being indexed, because they really are not good pages for SEO — or searchers — to land on. These pages have very little keyword-rich copy, no intro text, no product copy, just some product names. From an SEO perspective, Ward’s would be better off “spending” its internal PageRank on more keyword-rich product and category pages.

More important, the page number links should be text links rather than a pull-down list. The pull-down is not search-engine friendly; spiders can not fill out forms. There is a “Next>>” link at least, but it is crucial to have a better path into Ward’s rich supply of products besides following page after page of “Next>>” links. By the time the spider gets to page 50, all the PageRank will have dissipated.

Ward’s has a good-size product catalog, so once its SEO is in order, the company should be able to capture a lot of “long tail” search traffic as well as a number of head terms related to the categories it sells.

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