February 26, 2009, 12:00 AM

Moderate Makeovers

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During one such session, Jennifer Bailey, usability services manager for ForeSee Results, which measures consumer satisfaction with web sites, emphasized that a retailer’s home page is prime real estate that should feature the most compelling content. Commenting on a site that has an About Us tab in the top navigation bar, Bailey said that’s not content that will drive sales, and should go elsewhere.

Similarly, security certification logos may not be the best use of home page space, and may raise safety concerns in the consumer’s mind, Bailey and co-presenter Scott Kincaid, vice president of Usability Sciences Corp., agreed. Those logos are more important on the checkout page, observed design expert Ethan Giffin of Groove Commerce in a later site-review session.

Attendees also volunteered their sites for review by two experts in search engine optimization-Marion Sharkey, vice president of business development at PM Digital, and Stephan Spencer, president of Netconcepts-who offered tips on how to move up in search engine rankings.

They explained the importance of every page having a title, which appears in the user’s browser frame and is used by search engines to determine the focus of a page. The title should contain keywords that can help a page move up in search engine rankings for those terms, Sharkey said. They also advised against putting a long block of text at the bottom of the page with many keywords in an effort to raise search engine rankings; the search engines view that as “keyword stuffing” and may penalize a site for the practice, they said.

Plan ahead

Several conference sessions dealt with when and how to spiff up e-commerce sites with images and interactive features.

Compelling photography is increasingly important, but photographing more than 2,500 products each year, as children’s apparel retailer CWD Kids does, can be costly if not properly organized. To minimize costs, the retailer creates a tracking sheet that shows how many views it will need for every product, and, for photos involving models, the size of the clothing, required props and setting. The improved planning allows CWD Kids to shoot 65 to 80 products per day, up from 40 to 45 in the past, creative director Kelly Sullivan said in her presentation.

While there were many ideas for small changes, sometimes a retailer has to completely redesign a site, or create a new one, as Borders Books and Music had to do last year after it decided to discontinue selling through Amazon.com.

Kevin Ertell, who was the vice president of e-business at Borders while it created the new Borders.com, showed off some of the features of the new web site. That included the Magic Shelf on the home page that Borders fills with personalized recommendations, and which a visitor can move horizontally or vertically, mimicking the experience of browsing in a Borders bookstore.

But he also emphasized how the new web site ties into Borders stores in a way that improves the customer’s overall experience. “We think of it as one plus one equals three,” he said.

Because Borders’ overall inventory is 10 times that of its biggest store, it now has kiosks in stores that allow customers to order online for delivery to their homes, offices or, for free, to a nearby store. Ertell says more than 25,000 customers use that ship-to-store feature each week, and 35% buy additional items when they come to pick up the original item.

Borders is also working to engage store personnel in the web site. A manager can add a personal message to her store’s page in the store locator section of the site, and the site now includes reviews from store employees, as well as from customers. “We have 30,000 booksellers and we’re harnessing their expertise on the site,” Ertell said. (Ertell left Borders last month in a management shakeup.)

Retailers contemplating a redesign often turn to agencies that specialize in web design. Forrester analyst Bruce Temkin advised attendees to insist on working with an agency’s top personnel and to design the contract so that the agency’s compensation depends on the retailer achieving its goals.

But more important than picking a good agency is the retailer being clear on what it wants to achieve and assigning a strong manager to lead the effort. “There’s almost nothing more valuable than a really strong project manager on your side interfacing with the agency,” Temkin said.

He also noted that only about 3% of sites presented by design agencies for Forrester’s evaluation get a passing grade. “That means there’s a lot of opportunity to get better,” he said. “Those of you who can do something extraordinary can actually outpace your peers quite substantially.”

Extraordinary redesigns may not be the order of the day until the economy improves. But the Internet Retailer Web Design ’09 conference showed there are plenty of inexpensive steps retailers can take that can make a difference.

don@verticalwebmedia.com

Full audio and visual presentations by the 45 expert speakers at Web Design `09 are now available on multi-media CD-ROM. Click Here for more details.

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