Digging in to Michigan Bulb

Ah springtime, when a young man’s thoughts turn to gardening — or something like that. And when you think gardening, venerable seed and plant catalogers — and their respective Websites — come to mind. Lawrenceburg, IN-based Michigan Bulb Co. sells horticultural delights ranging from fruit plants and hedges to roses and perennials and, of course, bulbs. Our critiquers gave the merchant’s site a thorough review, with Amy Africa, president of Helena, VT-based Web consultancy Eight by Eight, examining the site’s content and functionality, and Brian R. Brown, a natural search consultant with Madison, WI-based SEO agency Netconcepts, testing its search capability. Is the site an online Garden of Eden or a thorny briar patch? Read one to find out.


No dictionary? No thesaurus? Good Lord. For a gardening site where it’s easy to misspell over half the products? You’ve got to be kidding.

A few weeks ago, Michigan Bulb’s featured product was Lenten Roses, commonly known as Hellebores. Hellabores and Lenton Roses, both common misspellings, yield 0 results. Helleborus and Helleborus Orientalis both get you one. Did I mention this product is a front door (entry page) feature? Yowza.

If that’s not bad enough, hedge plants gets you 0 results. Hedges, one of the top tabs, gets you two pages’ worth, however. The site has 20 pages of perennials but no sun perennials and no shade perennials? Interesting. Where else would you grow them?

Search the site on Endless Bloom Perennial Garden. Chances are you won’t find it. (You’ll get a vanilla message that says “There are currently no products in this category.”) On the off chance that you stumble upon it somewhere else, though, make sure you have a cryptologist standing by to help you decipher how to order.

Assuming you can find what you’re looking for, there’s a nice line drawing of what the garden would look like and gorgeous photos of all the products that make up the assortment. But after that it goes downhill with a long list of teensy, sized-for-a-mouse copy and huge, purple “item detail” and “buy item” buttons.

The problem isn’t that the buttons are too big — they’re actually a good size — or the copy too small (it is way too tiny a font). Rather, everything is just one big jumble. And when users are in the middle of the list, they may not know if they should be clicking on the buttons that are below or above the copy as everything is just, well, so smushed.

Plus, if you click on any of the individual items that make up the collection, you lose the collection itself, and there aren’t always references to the collection at the individual item level.

The Plant Digger feature is nothing short of a train wreck. The concept is good, but in practice it’s almost impossible to use. First, you choose the category (such as roses, bulbs, trees, shrubs), then the color, next the sun exposure and, finally, your zone. If you aren’t a master horticulturist, you’re more than likely to get that lovely blank no-finds page.

(Hint: If you can’t find what your user wants, at least show them five products that they might be interested in. Something is way better than nothing.)

Don’t know what your gardening zone is? Click on “Find Your Grow Zone” (hidden at the bottom of the Plant Digger box). A pop-up appears that asks you to type in your zip code so it can tell you what zone you should be shopping in.

After that, though, when you’re sorting products, you have to figure out whether you’re in a “high zone” or a “low zone.” What’s zone 5? High? Low?

Ordering from a mailing? There’s a nifty box for that in the right-hand column too. Unfortunately, if you make a mistake while typing in your code, you will get “error ‘80020009’ Exception Occurred. /prg_offer_login_rightnav.asp, line 84.” I’m not sure what kind of discount that implies, but it doesn’t look all that promising.

There’s a sign up for the FREE e-mail specials in the right-hand plug. (A plug is a non-animated banner.) You’ll get a thank-you-for-signing-up message and then the box reverts back to what it once was. Was my sign-up lost? Do I need to do it again?

And even if that was clear — which it isn’t — what a colossal waste of space in one of the site’s big hot spots. You already have my address? Show me something new and different.

This site is full of nifty functions. It’s obvious that someone put a lot of time and effort into thinking about them. If only they worked.

Take the “Quick Order” function in the right-hand column, for instance. If you type in an item number incorrectly (dropping the first zero from item #02690, for example), you’ll receive a message that says “pricing for item 2690 does not exist. You may have entered a quantity below the minimum quantity required for this product.” Good golly Miss Molly, what does that mean? Error messages should be clear.

If the product doesn’t exist, tell me it wasn’t found, but don’t confuse the issue by saying something about quantities and pricing. Shopping on the Web is complicated enough — which is why so many people make so many mistakes. You need to make it quick, easy and painless.

Michigan Bulb offers a Garden Solutions Club savings card for only $14.95 a year, which entitles you to 10% off, among other benefits. The merchant handles the messaging in the cart incredibly well — “if you were a Garden Solutions Club Member you’d save $3.27, click here.”

The site could improve it, and make it much easier for the users, if it didn’t force you to go to another page, scroll down and add the item to your cart, instead just allowing you to enter it in at the View Cart level. (You’d still want to have a link to the page for people who wanted more detail.)

The site also does an excellent job of putting your recently viewed items in the right-hand column along with “other items you’ll enjoy.” Both of these are fantastic additions to most any site. Unfortunately, Michigan Bulb has them listed in the same box as its Hot Sellers, so they get lost.

It would be much more effective if the site could break them out. “Your recently viewed” items should have its own unique presentation, as it’s one of the most beneficial things you can add to a site. It takes away a lot of the pressure users put on text search when they’re trying to find something they just looked at.

There are a lot of other things that Michigan Bulb could do to improve the site, but the biggest impact would most likely come from fixing the shopping cart. Take the billing information page, for example. At first glance, it looks completely harmless. Contact info on the left (usually better if it’s on the right, but at least it’s there), nice vertical questionnaire going down the middle with only one item per line — great presentation.

But then you look at the bottom and it gets all confusing on you — you have to figure out where the order is shipped, which is okay, but then you have to register, too — passwords, hints, oh my! To top it off, in the right-hand column there’s a thing for returning customers and “have a catalog” customers. It’s all so overwhelming.

Plus, there’s no temperature bar, so you don’t really have an idea of how much left you have to do. Not to mention the fact that there are links in the upper left-hand side to get you to become an affiliate? Perhaps Michigan Bulb should try to get the order first.


Michigan Bulb faces many challenges typical of online retailers when it comes to search engine optimization. Some should be quite simple and painless to resolve; others will require a bit more effort.

I was excited to see that an attempt at canonicalizing the domain had been made. Canonicalization refers to the concept of “one true source,” which in this case simply means when I entered http://www.michiganbulb.com into my browser, I found myself automatically redirected to http://michiganbulb.com — well, sort of. Actually, I found myself at http://michiganbulb.com/Default.asp?.

Couple things wrong here. First and most obvious, the redirection for the domain is to a specific page, “Default.asp?” rather than the root domain “michiganbulb.com.” Either the www or non-www version is perfectly fine, just as long as everything redirects to one or the other.

The second issue can be seen by checking the server HTTP response header. Entering www.michiganbulb.com using the HTTP Viewer at Rex Swain (http://www.rexswain.com/httpview.html) shows us that a temporary (302) redirect was used, rather than a permanent (301) redirect.

Temporary redirects don’t pass PageRank and link popularity. Consolidating PageRank makes that page stronger, which may lead to deeper crawling by spiders.

When Michigan Bulb goes in and changes that redirect to a 301, the company should also make sure that the destination is changed to http://michiganbulb.com/ without the “Default.asp?” at the end.

Since spiders see these as two different versions, without canonicalizing, they could potentially see twice as many pages on the site based on www and non-www versions. And no, this doesn’t mean that the site has increased the chances to rank or its importance in the eyes of the search engines. Instead, efforts are divided due to duplicate content.

Digging down into the site, past the category pages down to the product pages, I found that the redirects are not in place, or at least not working at that level. This should be a relatively easy fix.

Using the site:michiganbulb.com advanced query in the three leading search engines, we see that Google is reporting 3,460 pages indexed, Yahoo reports 9,893 pages, and MSN reports 4,810 pages. Which one is correct? Actually, all of them in one way or another — and all are having some issues.

MSN might actually be doing a better job indexing the various paginated category pages. Almost too good, though, as there seem to be URLs for pages that no longer exist and a number of different variations of URLs to the same pages, perpetuating even more duplicate content.

Google is hit and miss on the paginated pages, which isn’t surprising as 20 pages with nearly the same URL (http://michiganbulb.com/category.asp?start=190&c=2&Perennials=, http://michiganbulb.com/category.asp?start=210&c=2, etc.) and the same title tag and meta description might lead anyone to think they are duplications.

Yahoo isn’t without issue either as there are several session ID pages in its index, which might explain why Yahoo is reporting far more than the others. Checking indexation on just this domain (non-www version) in Yahoo’s Site Explorer reveals the page count drops down to 7,256. Canonicalization might eliminate 2,000 duplicate pages right there.

Michigan Bulb needs to clean up the URLs and remove as much duplication as possible. There are a variety of URL formats, some appending product titles or keywords to the URL, pagination, etc. While injecting a few relevant keywords into URLs would be a good thing, maybe not in this case. Michigan Bulb has long, cryptic URLs to begin with and appending keywords to them just makes them even longer. In fact, Google has indexed the non-keyword URL in many instances (e.g., indexed: http://michiganbulb.com/product.asp_Q_pn_E_15073, but not this one http://michiganbulb.com/product.asp_Q_pn_E_15073_A_Lilac+Hedge_E_).

Of course, I’d much rather see a URL like this: michiganbulb.com/hedges/lilac-hedge. Not only is that tasty for spiders, it looks more appealing to humans as well.

Duplicate content is often created due to URL issues like these, bloating indexation and decreasing crawling efficiency of the spiders — they may crawl the same “content” on several different URLs. In the end, these pages just cannibalize one another and dilute PageRank.

Some duplication is also created on the category pages from the filtering feature, which allows products to be displayed with or without pictures or descriptions. While this might be nice for human users, it would be better to limit the spiders to just the page with the images and the descriptions by using rel=nofollow on the other filtering links, robots meta tags on those filtered pages, or a robots.txt file.

This will again improve crawl equity and reduce potential duplication, while assuring the most complete pages get served up in the engines during searches.

Michigan Bulb’s title tags are pretty good, focusing on the primary keywords first. The meta descriptions, though, could use some TLC. While meta descriptions won’t affect search ranking, a good, call-to-action meta description can be the difference that gets one listing clicked on vs. another.

I’d also like to see heading tags used on the pages; I couldn’t even find any H1 tags. Heading tags reinforce the signals to the search engines about the topic of a page. It was great that much of the navigation is text-based, rather than images, providing a stronger signal to search engines as well.

Michigan Bulb is off to a good start with a little descriptive text on the category and product pages. The “Help & Info” section has links to various topics under the Planting and Care area. The merchant should consider adding more links to these pages throughout the site.

Writing great how-to and helpful information based on what people are searching for is an easy way to create attractive link bait. These keyword-rich pages will be of interest to the target audience, and may draw more searchers through longtail searches, thereby connecting Michigan Bulb to new and returning customers.

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