The better designed your site, the better your chances of making the sale.
Research has long shown that the leading factor in persuading shoppers to buy from an e-commerce Web site is ease of navigation findings that were supported in a recent survey by Jupiter Research (which is also owned by the publisher of this Web site.) In other words, customers are saying "make your site easy-to-use, and you'll earn our sale."
If usability is the key to a better bottom line, then what specifically will improve your site's ease of use?
For that, we turn to the preeminent figure in the field of user-friendly online design Dr. Jakob Nielsen, whom The New York Times called "the guru of Web page usability." He holds 73 U.S. patents, most for making the Net easier to use.
Nielsen speaks in serious professorial tones, but his advice is more than academic: Companies pay him bundles of cash to teach them how to improve their site's sales.
First Things First
Before changing anything, Nielsen recommends that e-tailers take a simple step to examine their site's current level of usability: Run a user test. Find one willing test shopper not an employee and plop them down in front of your site to get immediate, real-person feedback.
"It's still interesting how many e-commerce sites have never done this just sat down with users one at a time and watched them shop on their site," Nielsen says. The best way to do this is to grab as many guinea pigs as possible and record trends as they develop, he says.
Don't use a focus group, or a group of any kind, he adds. You want to see how people shop as if they were at home.
You should be on the lookout for potential problems in several key areas. In Nielsen's view, e-commerce sites lose sales for three major reasons which he calls "the laws of wanna-be e-commerce." Namely, that's poor merchandizing, providing information ineptly and not appearing credible to shoppers.
If They Can't Find It, They Can't Buy It
Everything should be easy to find yet many sites still fail to follow this simple rule, according to Nielsen. The problem is often a case of poor product categorization, he says.
"Things need to be where people expect to look for them often, businesses use very odd categories that make no sense to the average consumer," Nielsen says.
Another way to stave off customer confusion is by allowing product winnowing. A site must let customers quickly narrow down its list of product to the desired item. A site with a sprawling product catalog can satisfy a broad range of customers however, he says, it can also be confusing if that list can't be easily narrowed by searching shoppers.
"Don't offer people too many choices or you're just going to stun them, and they'll go away without buying," he says. Instead, if a customer can easily find those size-ten shoes in summer styles, your sales will improve.
Assuming shoppers can narrow down large product lists to locate the products in which they're interested, site designers must overcome a second hurdle.
"Assuming I can find it, do I have enough information about it to make me feel comfortable this is actually what I want?" Nielsen says.
Two classic mistakes in product descriptions are created by, in Nielsen's words, "the overly eager marketing person or the overly geeky tech person."
The tech person will write 100 basic facts down, "but not in a way that the consumer who's not highly educated can understand them," Nielsen says. And the marketing person "will write in florid language about how wonderful it is, without ever getting to the specifics."
Rather, descriptions must be written in the middle ground between these two. First, describe the product in comprehensible specifics. Then, offer the ability to delve into more specific product details for those who want it.
"Don't throw everything at people all at once you'll just overwhelm them," he says. "But do have it available if someone asks for more."
And that thumbnail product photo that people are supposed to be able to enlarge by clicking? Unfortunately, too many sites offer "enlarged" product photos only a mere 20 percent or so greater, Nielsen says.
"That's not worth it 'make it bigger' means I want a really big photo," he says. "So fill up my screen, preferably from a few different angles."
Extensive product description, after all, is an area in which Web sites have a major advantage over printed collateral's page limitations so e-tailers should use the advantage for all its worth and not skimp on providing information.
The Credibility Factor
Shoppers look at your site and ask, "'I'm going to give you my money what are you going to give me?'" Nielsen says. Are you going to give me the product? If it doesn't work can I get it returned? Are you going to spam me forever? Are you going to sell my name to all kinds of porn sites?
"We have so many videotapes of people saying 'I don't want to give my e-mail to these people because I don't know what they're going to do to me," Nielsen says adding that the comment referred to major, well-known e-commerce stores, rather than unknowns. Consequently, mom-and-pop sites have an even greater obstacle to overcome in establishing their credibility with shoppers.
One way they can prevail is by posting a concise, clear statement on their site: We will never give out your e-mail address for any reason.
For small e-tailers working to establish trust, Nielsen recommends emphasizing your physical presence. Let people know "you're not a Nigerian scam artist," he says. "Have your mailing address on the site. Have some photographs on your About section so people can see the CEO. Have a photo of your building or warehouse."
Nielsen says he once undertook a study for a coffee Web site, and found that the company's photo of their coffee roasting machine made a big difference to shoppers.
"If you want to be logical, you could say it doesn't prove a thing they could have somebody else's coffee roaster," he says. "But still, it enhances your feeling that they're really in this business."
While you're rethinking your photos, get rid of any stock photos with stereotypical, smiling businesspeople, Nielsen recommended. Photos of real people do more to boost your image, "even if they don't look as good," he says.
Ask Questions Later
In addition to avoiding the three common e-commerce blunders, Nielsen criticizes another mistake he says he sees too often among online sellers. Namely, it makes little sense to force customers who are ready to buy to first answer questionnaires before payment. Yet it's a common practice online, Nielsen says.
"The analogy is if you had a physical store, and someone walked up to the register and says 'I'd like to buy this red sweater,' and you says 'I'm sorry sir, I first need to register you as a member of our frequent shopper club,'" he says. "If people are standing there with money in their hand, take their money."
This is not just a money grubbing practice, he notes, but a critical usability strategy. Once a merchant has the first order, that second sale is a quantum leap easier. That first sale is the essential moment in building that all-important trust.
"That first order is gold it's much more important than getting a few extra things about that person into your database so you can spam them with more marketing," he says, adding, "every extra step is a loss of customers."
Relate Your Interface to Your Product
Amazon.com might be a mega-seller, but its interface doesn't work perfectly for every product it promotes. The lesson here is to gear your site and design for the products in which you specialize, and don't bother trying to emulate the e-commerce leaders.
For example, sales of classical music CDs don't add much to Amazon's bottom line, so the e-tailing powerhouse's site isn't optimized for selling Mozart concertos.
But, "if you had a classical music site, you could have an interface that is significantly different from Amazon's, and among classical music lovers, you'd have a considerably higher sales rate," Nielsen says.
"There are all sorts of [sales strategies] that are really specific to the product you're selling or the types of customers you're addressing," he adds.
Moral of the story: Your site's interface has to he specifically focused on your goods.
Internal Ads Use With Care
It takes some bucks to set up, but serving ads along with the results of your internal search engine is highly effective. It works like this: "People ask for something and you feed them eight ads for what they're searching for," Nielsen says. "People are very likely to click on those ads, and they're very likely to buy what they click on."
On the other hand, if you run a promotion on your site for one of your products, don't make it look like an advertisement.
"Users are getting so used to not looking at banners on the Web," Nielsen notes. Many companies make the mistake of bombarding their shoppers with supposedly eye-catching ads. "They make a big animated, spinning, look-at-me kind of thing exactly what makes people not look."
Such promotions are best presented in a simple manner, mainly with text, perhaps with a straightforward photo if needed. "Make it look like content not like an advertisement."
And don't use pop-ups. "It's like placing a luxury department store in the red-light district," Nielsen says. Pop-ups "give you a dirty feeling."
Before e-commerce can truly become mainstream, merchants have some basic work to finish, in Nielsen's view. As he defines them, the basics of effective e-commerce are a clearly designed site with no obvious flaws; logical navigation; a fast checkout process; and concise, persuasive product descriptions all areas where merchants are coming up short.
"We're losing so much business because of these basic factors," he says.
When that's completed, the next step the real future challenge will be helping people find the things they don't know they want, he says.
The e-commerce segment most affected by this is gift giving. The problem is that little has been developed in terms of software or site tools that answers the questions people often have when they shop for others in real life.
Improving search engines will help, but shoppers still don't know what keywords to enter to find a gift for a certain relative.
Nielsen suggests that solving this issue will require in-home studies of consumer behavior to go deeper into shopper psyche than ever before then incorporating this research into online stores.
In the meantime, online sellers might take a clue from toy sites, Nielsen said. While their approach isn't perfect, some toy sites are able to help shoppers find gifts for others by enabling them to narrow down products by age group and gender.
Since most sites have their biggest sales in the holidays, "the sites that can crack that particular nut will multiply their holiday sales dramatically," Nielsen says.
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