The Red Envelope, please

In Chinese society, “red envelope” refers to a monetary gift placed in a red packet because the color symbolizes good luck. That’s where Red Envelope got its name. Was the San Francisco-based gifts merchant lucky with the results of its Website critique? Well, while 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, tried to handle Red Envelope’s site with care, they both found areas that need serious improvement. Africa reviewed the site’s content and functionality, and Spencer tested its search capability. Here’s what they had to say.


I love Red Envelope. The catalog breaks many traditional direct marketing rules, which is one of my pet peeves, yet I still think it’s fantastic.

I like the products. Red Envelope has a great selection of unique gifts for weddings, new arrivals, anniversaries, birthdays, thank yous, and especially holidays. Its merchants pick quality items that are often accompanied by excellent visual representation, good stories, and topnotch packaging.

The company has great online and offline customer service. Its phone reps are consistently friendly and helpful, and its LivePerson-hosted chat is probably one of the best and most efficient around.

And I think Red Envelope’s Website sucks.

Granted, it does a lot of things right. But for a company its size and with a reputation as one of the best places to find a present, RedEnvelope should be doing a lot of things better. A lot better, in fact.

Let’s start by reviewing the site’s search and navigation.

In recent months, Red Envelope has made major improvements in the site’s navigation. It is now using at-a-glance, left-hand navigation (albeit inconsistently) on the entry page to help you find gifts faster.

You can find gifts by occasion, recipient, and shops (what’s new, favorites, home and garden, and so on.) It also has links to business gifts, gift certificates, last-minute gifts, and the sale shop. Hopefully, you’ll be able to find what you’re looking for, because the text search function leaves so much to be desired it’s almost humorous.

A quick search for “food” yields Murano heart bracelets, baby milestone photo frames, and a grilling set — among other things. Is that the best example I can come up with? Probably not. A search for “cigar” gets you a crocodile-embossed wallet. “Bar” yields a golfer’s shoe carrier. “Sale” finds 35 items, 10% of which don’t even have special pricing. “Kids” gets you therapeutic spa slippers — and if you buy them, Acorn (the company that makes them) will donate to Earth-care concerns or a children’s charity. “Business associate” yields exactly zero results, which is interesting because it’s one of their navigational drop-downs.

This list goes on and on, and I haven’t even begun to mention the particularly amusing things — like when you search for “wedding,” you get 26 items, one of which is a personal compass.

The search refinement function — which is a must-have for any site — has good choices. You can sort by favorites, new items, catalog items (kind of odd), and price high to low and price low to high. Copious testing shows that it’s not always consistent, but at least it’s a good start.

Another thing that’s missing from a navigational perspective is a recently viewed items listing. The site does employ breadcrumbs, just not a listing of items you’ve looked at. So if you find something that you want, you’d better put it in your “shopping bag” because if you don’t, you have to find it again, which isn’t always easy.

When it comes to asking for the order, I hear it all the time: “When you’re a hoity-toity, chi-chi-la-la site, you don’t feel like you should be too aggressive.” But it’s been empirically proven — over and over — that the more you ask for the order, the more customers think you want it. The little, red “add to bag” with the mini, mouse-sized font on the second view doesn’t really show much interest on Red Envelope’s part.

Web designers will design things as one page, but users see things differently. They see every view as a different page. If they have to scroll down, it’s “another page.” So if you don’t have a request-for-the-order on the page they are looking at, you’re not going to get as much conversion as you would if you have it on say, every view, like Collectibles Today ( does.

Of course, the big difference between a gift site like Collectibles Today (a division of Bradford Exchange) is that it asks for the order on every view and reminds you how much it wants the sale by showing you a perpetual cart, actually three of them, throughout the site. (A PC, perpetual cart, is a cart that stays with you at all times. Collectibles Today uses one at the top, the right-hand, and the bottom of their navigation.)

Asking for the order on every view, adding perpetual carts, allowing people to buy an item when they see it (for example, on category and gate pages), are all little things that go a long way to making viewers feel that you are interested in their purchase.

The Red Envelope shopping bag/cart/U-Haul truck needs work. It’s functional if you order one gift, but if you order two or more to be shipped to different addresses, you’d better have a Ph.D. and a heck of a lot of patience. Here’s why:

Say I want to buy two gifts, one for my friend Barbara and another one for my friend/client Linda. I go through the site and pick out a gift for each of them.

That part is simple — it has a nice and easy to use “select name from this list or add your own” feature so, on the product page, I can assign the individual’s name to the gift. Barbara has a sweet tooth so she gets Dancing Deer Chewy Brownies, and Linda has done a huge favor for me so she gets the brownies and a random “office-munchies”-type food collection in a spiffy green box.

At the product level, you can decide whether or not you want to pay $4.95 for their signature red gift box and you can read the story that’s going to go along with your present. “Every gift has a story.”

When you get to the checkout, it’s a train wreck. The bill-to section is fine, but the shipping address section? It’s just a flipping number! The first part says “shipping address” with a list of required fields and optional gift message. The second part? Well, that says shipping address too! You have four choices: 1) you remember how you added things to your cart; 2) you guess how you added things to your cart; 3) you go back to the view cart page and see what you order ed and then type them in accordingly; or for the best (and most likely!) choice of all; YOU ABANDON. I mean really.

If you’ve ordered from Red Envelope before (as I have, under many different names and various addresses) and have someone in your address book, it will say “Barbara Shipping and Gift Message.” Not that it matters though: The name pops up but the address doesn’t. I’m not exactly sure what good it is to have an address book that doesn’t keep addresses.

The order summary allows you to change anything you’d like to change about the address. With that said, removing an item is impossible unless you go back to the beginning and start all over from the view page.

On top of the pressing payment information, it asks “how did you hear about us?” There’s a handy drop-down with choices (in no apparent order) and the field is not required, but this is not exactly the place for it. Emphasis on not exactly.

One of the benefits of the Red Envelope shopping bag is that after you submit your order, you can set up a gift reminder where “each year, they’ll remind you 14 and 4 days before the occasion.”

Because subtlety is Red Envelope’s middle name, it doesn’t upsell at all at the view shopping bag level or in the checkout. Harry & David, another seller of gifts, has a nice feature: If you order something for someone else, you are given an incentive to order something for yourself.

Red Envelope misses out on several other opportunities. It waits until the 11th hour to address security — still an important issue for many folks. It also doesn’t have a traditional temperature bar (a proven technique to guide the user through the process) or ways to easily print your cart, view your cart, save your cart, or e-mail your cart to yourself.

The latter is a big issue because the site appears to delete abandoned carts at a moment’s notice so if you’re shopping during the day when you’re not supposed to be (read: at work), you may or may not have your cart when you come back.

Red Envelope also does not allow you to choose when your item is going to be shipped — it allows you to choose standard, next day, and second day delivery options, but if I want to order my Christmas presents right after Thanksgiving, I can’t instruct the site to wait until almost Christmas to send them. ( does an excellent job at this.)

As I mentioned earlier, Red Envelope has excellent merchandising It has great photography — the pictures are nicely done, and in several of the products it uses multiple visuals. The copy is okay, not perfect but definitely not the world’s worst either.

So, how can the site “suck”?

The thing is that navigation is 40% to 60% of a site’s success, at a minimum, and its navigation, although much improved, is still weak at best. That, and its somewhat dismal shopping bag, leave a site that’s far from perfect and definitely not as good as it should be.

It doesn’t matter who you are: You can’t ignore the stuff that’s important.


Red Envelope’s Website is powered by BroadVision, a sophisticated e-commerce platform when it comes to functionality — but not when it comes to search engine optimization (SEO). The home page redirects to a very search engine-unfriendly URL with seven parameters in the query string. That is way too many for the tastes of any of the three major search engines.

What’s worse, one of those parameters is a session ID. Session IDs are anathema to search engines, as they create an infinite number of URLs that point to the same content. Also, the URL is three directories deep. Category and subcollection page URLs are similarly unfriendly to spiders, with three directories deep and up to nine parameters (in other words: eight ampersands).

Google reveals in its cached copy of the home page (i.e., search Google for “”) links containing session IDs. Furthermore, a Google search for “inurl:BV_SessionID” confirms that session ID-containing URLs are making it into Google’s index, which is bad news because a URL with a session ID will obtain only a minimal number of links.

The category and subcollection pages are not making it into the search engines at all — not because of their spider unfriendly URLs, but because they are being specifically blocked through “disallow” directives in the site’s robots.txt file. Robots.txt is the place where you can give commands to Googlebot and the other spiders, such as “stay away from this directory” or “stay away from this file type.”

Looking at the site’s robots.txt file, I see that category pages, sub-collection pages and product information pages are all being disallowed. You might wonder why this is the case. Wouldn’t Red Envelope want these pages indexed and ranked, despite any inherent search engine unfriendliness? Well, in this case, the answer is no.

That’s because Red Envelope has alternate pages for the spiders to index, using a technology called SearchDex. SearchDex autogenerates thousands (more precisely, 2,250, according to Google search results) of sitemap pages. These doorway pages (such as the one at are built specifically to lead spiders to product-level content pages.

These SearchDex “Ccat” pages may appear to be full of meaty, keyword-rich content, but upon closer examination of the content, it is quite apparent that the content was not written by a human. For example, consider this fine prose in the second sentence of the first paragraph on the aforementioned Ccat10095.jsp: “Our men’s accessories range from men’s fashion accessories to men’s leather accessories, which are reasonably priced and unique to” Yuck!

Or consider the lead sentences on “Great Christmas presents make holidays magic. Unique Christmas presents from our collection of our newest gifts this Christmas season will bring good cheer.”

It’s throwaway copy from the reader’s perspective, but certainly dense with keywords: 10 occurrences of “accessories” and “men’s” in the first paragraph of the former example, seven occurrences of either “Christmas presents” or “Christmas present” in the second example.

There are names for this black hat SEO tactic, none of which are complimentary: “keyword stuffing,” “spamglish,” and “doorway page” are just three that come to mind. This is a search engine ban waiting to happen.

Also in the aforementioned paragraph on Ccat10629.jsp, the words “my Christmas presents” are actually wrapped within heading tags, yet that fact is hidden from the user. The headings are given the exact same font, style, and treatment as the rest of the paragraph copy, so they are indistinguishable from the surrounding text and buried within the paragraph.

Links within the paragraph copy are hidden in the same way. Clearly, this was done only for search engines and not for humans. This is definitely the sort of thing that Google’s automated algorithms seek to detect and penalize.

The title tags are similarly keyword-stuffed. A good rule of thumb with title tags is not to repeat a word three times and not to repeat more than two words. In the title tag of the aforementioned page (Ccat10629.jsp), “Christmas presents” is repeated twice, “gifts” is repeated three times, and then “gift.” Furthermore, the title spans 17 words — too long. I would go for a dozen words or less.

Looking again at the cached version of the home page (the one that Googlebot was given), I see that the majority of links on that page are wasted, because they link to category and subcollection pages that are being disallowed. Where are the links to the SearchDex pages?

There’s only one SearchDex link — to the top page of the SearchDex sitemap. And that’s quietly tucked away in the copyright line at the bottom of the page, since the linked page is not really meant for human consumption, only for spiders. There are no graphics on this sitemap page; it is a page chock-full of text links to various SearchDex Ccat pages.

Links contained on the home page along with their anchor text count heavily toward SEO. For instance, the “jewelry” text link would, in normal circumstances, help the linked page rank well for jewelry-related searches. That’s because the search engines associate the anchor text with the page being linked to. Not so here; these navigation links are of no value because of the disallow.

If the “jewelry” category page weren’t disallowed, it would be unlikely to rank well due to the lack of text content on the page. Contained on this page, however, are text links to search results pages. Search results pages can make for good search engine fodder, but fewer than 100 of these search results pages are making it into Google’s index. And nearly all of those are in the supplemental index — an indicator that they are unlikely to rank well in all but obscure queries.

The logo in the top left on all the pages across the site (with the exception of the SearchDex pages) links to the home page — but using the spider unfriendly URL complete with session ID, rather than Thus these links pass PageRank to a different version of the home page rather than reinforcing the PageRank of the true home page.

Although you wouldn’t be able to tell this from the Google toolbar (due to the unique session ID-containing URL you will have been redirected to upon visiting), has a respectable home page PageRank. By using the “PageRank Lookup” tool from, I was able to determine that the home page scores a 6 out of 10.

But since PageRank is on a logarithmic scale, 6 is not as good as you may think — a 7 or an 8 would be much better. SEOChat’s “PageRank Search” tool reveals something rather alarming: The majority of the SearchDex auto-generated pages score 0 out of 10, particularly at the product level. A number of Ccat pages have a PageRank 2 or 3, and only a few have a PageRank 4.

Yahoo Site Explorer ( reveals quite a healthy set of inlinks — from blogs, shopping sites, news articles, directories, and so on. Yahoo counts nearly 20,000 inlinks (excluding internal links). With some re-architecting of the site, this “link juice” could really be much more effectively leveraged across Red Envelope’s site. That — along with rewriting the URLs to eliminate session IDs and “stop characters” (ampersands, equal signs, question marks) from the URLs; discontinuing the questionable SEO tactics of doorway pages and hidden links; and adding meaty content — should have a profound impact on Red Envelope’s rankings and search traffic.

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