Electronic Catalog: Judging a Site by Its Home Page

Swift and harsh judgments of appearances aren’t limited to high school hallways and model casting calls. The impression that your Website makes on a visitor in the first seven seconds can turn off a prospect for good.

In fact, “seven seconds is probably generous for most people,” says Peter H. Ripley, Webmaster for New York-based catalog and Website design firm AGA. “The initial amount of time [in which users will evaluate a site] drops as their expectations of sites becomes more fine-tuned.” With this in mind, you should reevaluate your Website’s home page.

“Just as when you meet someone for the first time, it’s human nature for customers to visually evaluate a Website the first time they visit it,” says Shari Connealy, president of Reston, VA-based Web design firm Maggpie.com. “Remember that the Internet is mainly a visual experience. Until bandwidth increases and the Internet is more sound- and voice-enabled, customers are going to form their opinions based on what they see.”

San Francisco-based beauty products manufacturer/marketer BeneFit made sure that visitors to the Website saw a home page that resembled the company’s print catalog. “Our biggest goal when designing our home page was to maintain our brand and appeal to our buyers online just as we would with the catalog,” says spokesperson Yvette Jirau. To that end, the company launched its site in February 2000 with most of the same graphics, fonts, and copy as the catalog.

Focus on the big three

When designing a home page — or a site in general — catalogers should focus on three core principles, Ripley says: understanding, interest, and trust.

“Understanding” simply means that visitors should know right off the bat how your site works and what to expect from it. “Expectations of Websites have grown up around functionality and form. Ignore these expectations at your peril,” Ripley says. Basic functions should include search options, easy-loading graphics, and readable typefaces.

User testing — formal or not — is a great way to check that expectations are being met. “Sit a customer down at a computer and watch where he looks and clicks, and interview him afterward,” Ripley suggests.

As for keeping the site relevant to the interests of your customers, “the site should have a time and date stamp, or similar information, to indicate that it is active and alive,” Ripley says. “Reference to seasonal events and seasonal merchandise is another way to do this. Never let stale content sit on your home page.”

In addition to keeping the content fresh, keep it focused on your target audience. “Don’t try to be all things to all people,” Ripley warns. “Your site is the answer to a set of questions that customers might have about your product. Ask yourself what those questions are and frame your site to address those questions clearly up front.” For example, a gardening cataloger might have information on its home page about when customers should plant bulbs vs. when they should plant seeds.

Finally, you have to win the trust of site visitors. “On the Internet, many of our real-world context cues drop away,” Ripley says. “When we get a catalog in the mail, the page count and the quality of the paper and printing establish credibility. On the Web, these elements are unavailable.”

Nonetheless, you can establish legitimacy by being certain to avoid broken links, typos, and “coming soon” pages. Prominently posting your privacy and service policies can create a sense of validity and trustworthiness as well.

Applying these principles to your Website’s home page might seem easier said than done, however. According to Hollis Chin, president of Alamdeda, CA-based Web design firm Hollis Chin Consulting, there is a fine line between too much and too little information on a Website’s home page.

“Typically, you do not want to require a visitor to have to make a second click to find the information he’s looking for. It should all be available on the home page,” Chin says. “But by the same token, that can make for a very busy page with too many graphics and too much text.”

Maggpie’s Connealy goes so far as to recommend that most, if not all, of a home page’s content should appear “above the fold,” or on the first screen a visitor sees. “The majority of people won’t scroll down to look at something if it’s below the fold,” Connealy says.

Using thumbnail photos, small graphics, and options for visitors to “click here” for additional information might alleviate some home page clutter. “And keep it simple!” Connealy adds. “Don’t put too much flash or gimmicky animation on your site. That’s like putting potholes in front of your customers.” Many customers’ computers still have relatively slow 33.6K modems, and too much animation slows down page load times.

“And you should never make visitors search for a shopping or contact icon — that’s a sin,” Connealy says. Those icons should always be clearly visible near the top of the page.

Above all, “get your message out early,” says AGA’s Ripley. “If what sets you apart from your competition is your guarantee, don’t bury your guarantee on the site. If it’s your customer service, show your CSRs’ smiling faces up front.”

Four Tips to Keep ’Em Coming Back

To increase retention among site visitors, Peter H. Ripley, Webmaster for catalog and Website design firm AGA, suggests the following:

  • Avoid setting cookies on the home page for first-time visitors. This is an issue of trust. Lots of security-minded consumers have set their browsers to alert them whenever a cookie is about to be set. Cookies on the home page means that the site is asking for information from the user before it tells the user anything about itself — not the best way to start a relationship.
  • Skip plug-ins when possible. There’s always some portion of your desired audience that does not have rich-media plug-ins and has no inclination to download them.
  • Use animation sparingly. Rule of thumb: Never have more than one piece of animation per page. More than that can slow page load time, and it can also be an unwanted distraction.
  • Offer a finished product. Everything on your Website must work. Your site should never contain broken links, “coming soon” pages, images that don’t load, or typos.

Don’t miss the first-ever Power Forum on Tuesday, June 5, at the Annual Catalog Conference in Boston.

Industry leaders such as Black Box CEO Fred Young, Fingerhut Cos. president Michael Sherman, and Newport News president/CEO George Ittner will discuss how catalogers can survive and thrive in these rocky economic times. Catalog Age editorial director Sherry Chiger and W.A. Dean & Associates’ Bill Dean will moderate.

For more information about the Power Forum or the Annual Catalog Conference, call 212-790-1500 or visit www.catalogconference.com.

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