Tooling around on PTS

Shopping for industrial tools online can be a major production — especially if a site is not up to snuff. Production Tool Supply sells such complex items as precision measuring instruments, carbide inserts, hand and power tools, workholding devices, safety supplies, fasteners, machinery, and accessories. We decided to see if the Warren, MI-based mailer markets with precision online. Critiquers Amy Africa, president of Helena, VT-based Web consultancy Eight by Eight, and Stephan Spencer, founder/president of Madison, WI-based SEO agency Netconcepts, gave a thorough review of the PTS site, with Africa examining the site’s content and functionality, and Spencer testing its search capability. Does Production Tool Supply’s site hit the nail on the head, or does it get a hammering from our experts? Read on to see.

AMY AFRICA

As I state in almost every article, navigation accounts for 40% to 60% of a site’s success at a minimum — emphasis on at a minimum.

Navigation is a self-fulfilling prophecy. You get what I give you. If I give you a lot of choices, you get a lot of choices to choose from. If I give you nothing, you get nothing.

Production Tool Supply has limited navigation. It just doesn’t offer much in terms of choices. Period. If you know what catalog item number you’re looking for, there’s a chance you’ll find it. But if you want to shop or browse at PTS, or as its tagline says, at “America’s Tool Crib,” well, pray for miracles because it’s not exactly possible without divine intervention.

The action bar — the list at the top of the site of the things that a visitor must do or see — showcases Home, Products, Customer Service, About PTS, Specials, and Browse Catalog. Under Products, the company offers Line Card, MSDS, Hardinge Machinery, and Hazard Codes. The entry page for product boasts that it has more than 235,000 PTS products, plus many hard-to-find items.

I guess the operative words are “hard to find,” because if you click on any one of the choices underneath (including abrasives, hand tools, plant and safety, and so on), all you get — and I mean all you get — is an alphabetical list of manufacturers, with one or two clickable links.

And that’s not even the best part. The best part is that when you click those links, you go to that particular manufacturer’s Website. Hello? What year is this — 1998?

There’s no other way to say it: That just plain stinks.

(Yeah, I wanted to say, That just plain sucks. But in my last critique I postulated that a well-known and well-respected Website sucked. To say I got a lot of feedback would be an understatement. Whether they agreed or disagreed that the site sucked, it seems that direct marketers take offense at the word suck.)

It’s bad enough that the site’s Browse Catalog section is one of the world’s most unusable formats — framed PDFs — but driving people to other sites? Granted, PTS does have nifty page and part number finders (helpful if you have a catalog at your side), but neither of those things are enough to make the site shoppable.

The “Specials,” which the site promotes all over, and should be commended for, are colorful ads, offline sales fliers, if you will. But they are not clickable. So if you find something you are interested in or want to learn more about, you’ll need a connection to Dionne Warwick or one of her psychic friends for help determining the part number.

With the Specials sections, PTS is so close, yet so far. If the users could interact with the site, it would be the perfect reason to visit the site on a frequent basis. It’s clear that PTS has everything if you need the sort of stuff it sells, but what good is it if you can’t interact with it? Can’t find it? Can’t buy it?

Granted, navigation is often a difficult thing for companies to improve overnight. It takes time, effort, and a lot of studying of your data (however sparse it may be) to do it right. So what can PTS do to improve its site in the meantime?

First, the merchant should work on its home page. Production Tool Supply’s home page is dismal at best, and not just because of the lack of C-navigation, either. (C-navigation is top, bottom, and left-hand navigation.) The benefit of the page — its simplicity — is also its biggest weakness. If your goal is to sell, you need to show things to buy. PTS does an excellent job of promoting credit card logos, but unless it sells MC, Visa, Discover and AmEx, it’s a waste of space.

What it needs to do is to showcase several (preferably 12 or so) of its most popular items on the entry page. For each product, this would include a picture of the item, a headline and possibly one to two lines about the product and more information, and buy now/add to cart buttons.

PTS should also include a perpetual cart (a shopping cart that stays with you at all times) in the upper right-hand corner. The site could even include a cart in the right column and at the bottom column as well.

If it has the resources, the company could also use its entry page to feature the current specials it offers each week. From a graphical and selling perspective, PTS does a good job with the fliers, and it wouldn’t take a lot to make them into entry pages. It would be good if the site made the products look more discounty (showing the amount of savings). And if PTS employs this type of strategy, it should also make sure to include a deadline.

One of the many benefits of using special offers on the Web is that they create urgency and they cause people to focus. Highlighting that the user has just a few days to take advantage of the offer would be an excellent strategy for PTS.

As stated earlier, PTS boasts it accepts MasterCard, Visa, Discover, and American Express, and that it is VeriSign secured. It offers you options to order with and without registering. Click on “order without registering” and you get four choices — current flier specials, machinery solutions, featured vendors, and introducing NortonSG Blaze. What does clicking on any one of those things get you? More framed PDFs!

PTS desperately needs to find another way to present its products. A PDF is a great format for white papers and such, but it’s definitely not the best for encouraging users to engage in purchasing a product. PTS needs to work on changing this, along with accommodating catalog quick orders and orders from other non-direct/no-referrer channels.

What are the site’s redeeming qualities? Well, for starters it doesn’t have a text search, which is probably a good thing for the merchant. Text search, especially on this number of products, would most likely be the kiss of death, unless PTS invested in a package like Endeca or Mercardo.

The site includes lots of good customer service information — a comprehensive list of frequently asked questions, a complete list of store locations, and links to sales and product support to name a few. But most of its customer service pages are what a user would consider a “dead end.” What is a dead end? It’s a page without pictures.

The thing is, users see things in pictures. Search engines see things in text, but it’s been empirically proven over and over that users will stay longer and/or drill deeper/click more when there’s something (read: a graphic) for them to look at. PTS has a lot of the typical forms on their site — free catalog sign-ups, support requests — and none of them have any associated graphics.

Additionally, PTS should make its “submit” buttons bigger, red in color, and more in-your-face. The site should also make sure that it includes its phone and fax numbers on each form. It’s important to have contact information on every form on your site as those are printed out the most often.

And when someone fills out a request, they should get a thank you confirmation page that sets their expectations. How long will it take to get the catalog? What can I do if I want to order in the meantime? And so on and so forth. This friendly “good dog” page should also give the user five products that they may want to look at in the meantime.

If you are carefully watching your analytics, you should see that you get about a quarter of the people to drill back into the site. If you are not getting that many, you may want to look at and tweak which products you are featuring because it does make all the difference.

A follow-up e-mail thanking customers for whatever it is that they did (e.g., requested a catalog, asked a question) should also be sent. If you can get the e-mail into the user’s inbox within a couple minutes, it will perform best, as the user may still be online even if he or she is not still at your site.

STEPHAN SPENCER

When it comes to search engine optimization, the Production Tool Supply Website is in a terrible state. Despite the company’s extensive catalog, which is 235,000 items strong, PTS makes none of that content available to the search engines.

Only 20 pages exist in Google of the site PTS-Tools.com (according to a search for “site: pts-tools.com”), and of those 20, only one has a title or snippet with it. A lack of title and snippet in a Google listing indicates that the page content has not been indexed; Googlebot knows of that page’s URL through links, but for whatever reason has decided not to spider and index that page.

PTS fares even worse in Yahoo, with only one page indexed. What of the hundreds of thousands of product pages, you may ask? Unfortunately, the online catalog is comprised of print catalog pages converted into PDF documents. Thus, there are no product pages available in HTML.

Making matters worse, the PDFs are displayed within frames, which are notoriously spider unfriendly, and then cookies are required to access the PDFs through PTS’s navigation. Since spiders don’t support cookies, the sessions will always be expired or never started.

PTS visitors with expired sessions are greeted with: “You have been disconnected! If your computer was left unattended for over 20 minutes, you have been automatically disconnected. To sign-on again, close this window and LOGIN.” Trying to access the PDF catalog with cookies turned off yields an “Error 500” message and then a blank screen.

As long as the online catalog content is locked up within PDFs in a framed, cookies-requiring viewer, there’s little point in me critiquing the HTML templates, design, CSS, or other SEO elements. Without content, these are a moot point. People looking for the kinds of products that PTS carries won’t find them in the search engines.

For example, “countersinks” is a category for PTS (as one can see on page 123 of the PDF-based catalog), yet this mildly competitive search term does not present PTS anywhere in the results. Even if the PDF of page 123 were in Google’s index, it wouldn’t rank highly. That’s because it does not have the same capacity to convey contextual clues to the engines that HTML does through semantic markup (e.g., through H1 tags).

It’s even hard to find PTS by name in Google. A Google query for “production tool supply” yields a confusing array of results in the top five, above the fold — all of which have the title of “production tool supply.”

It’s hard to know which is the official site. Turns out the first two listings lead to the home page of the official site, the next two listings lead to other companies. Why is the PTS home page repeated in the first two listings?

Google has a duplicate copy of the PTS site — under the ptsxpress.com domain — because of the lack of a permanent (301) redirect from ptsxpress.com to pts-tools.com. Only eight pages of ptsxpress.com exist in Google, and all of them have snippetless and titleless listings.

Speaking of redirects, requests for www.pts-tools.com receive a temporary (302) redirect to https://www.pts-tools.com/home/home.asp. That is the wrong kind of redirect, as a 302 redirect does not pass PageRank. Also, it’s not a good idea to host your entire public Website under a secure (HTTPS) URL. Instead save HTTPS for your checkout process and for your customer extranet.

Looking at the home page, from a search engine optimization standpoint it is practically content-free. There’s nothing for the spiders to sink their teeth into. The home page text consists of fewer than 30 words, none of which are important keywords.

The major categories of the PTS catalog (abrasives, carbide, fluids, cutting tools, hand tools, etc.) are not represented, either as text or as links, and ideally they should be both. The title tag on the home page doesn’t contain any keywords either, only the company name. It was a shame to waste these prime opportunities. In the eyes of the search engines, the title tag is the most important element on the page, and the home page is the most important page of the site.

The PTS site is also weak on inbound links. Also known as “back links” or “inlinks,” these play a pivotal role in search engine rankings. Without a healthy amount of high quality, relevant, important (highly PageRank endowed) links, a Website will wallow at the bottom of the search results.

Yahoo’s Site Explorer tool reveals 218 inlinks to pts-tools.com (http://siteexplorer.search.yahoo.com/advsearch?p=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.pts-tools.com&bwm=i&bwmo=d&bwmf=s) and 51 inlinks to ptsxpress.com (http://siteexplorer.search.yahoo.com/advsearch?p=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.ptsxpress.com&bwm=i&bwmo=d&bwmf=s).

Competitors far outperformed PTS with regards to inbound links: MSC Direct had 5,564 inlinks (http://siteexplorer.search.yahoo.com/advsearch?p=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.mscdirect.com&bwm=i&bwmo=d&bwmf=s), J&L Industrial had 2,697 inlinks (http://siteexplorer.search.yahoo.com/advsearch?p=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.jlindustrial.com&bwm=i&bwmo=d&bwmf=s), and IDG had 534 inlinks (http://siteexplorer.search.yahoo.com/advsearch?p=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.idglink.com&bwm=i&bwmo=d&bwmf=s). PTS needs to engage in some serious link building to catch up.

This would need to go well beyond directory submissions and into blog marketing, “link baiting” (developing content that is irresistible for bloggers to link to) and “social media marketing” (creating viral marketing campaigns and seeding those campaigns into social networks such as Digg, del.icio.us, Netscape.com, and YouTube).

Putting the 301 redirect in place from ptsxpress.com to pts-tools.com will also help, by aggregating the link popularity that is spread across the two domains.

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