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Whether a web site is successful depends on the definition of success—and then a retailer’s ability to measure to that definition.
Among the advice that consultants are freely dispensing to retail clients these days: Deliver shoppers from search results directly to a product page. Don’t make your customers who are looking for a particular product do another search for it when they arrive at your site.
Extremely good advice, but sometimes more difficult to put in place than a retail operations or marketing chief might suspect. The problem comes when retailers take steps to create a personalized shopping experience.
But managers at a fairly large e-commerce site, with a few hundred products, recently learned the hard way that focusing on personalization was hindering their ability to attract customers. Upon close examination of their operation, they discovered that session IDs, cookies and the content management system that so perfectly served visitors once they got to their web site were actually obstacles when it came to the web site being indexed by the leading search engines. They had learned the hard way that those investments often can have a counter-intuitive effect on a web site’s profitability.
Tripped by scalability
The problem stems from the explosive growth of the web and the consequent demand for qualified search results that have forced search engine technology to scale dramatically.
Search engine spiders crawl the web gathering HTML and following links, retrieving and storing information in a database to be analyzed later. But session IDs, cookies and content management systems are challenges for search engine spiders. Spiders have a hard time indexing dynamic URLs that contain session IDs for fear of indexing duplicate content.
Here’s how the problems develop: Retailers want to identify customers as they move through a site or when they return to a site. Thus, their content management systems, or in some cases, their web servers, generate session IDs that are transferred to an end user via a cookie. Once the cookie is deposited with the user, the retailer’s system will recognize this specific user when he returns to the site. This is beneficial for personalizing the end user experience and for the retailer to learn about customers’ shopping habits and patterns. But if the end user’s computer will not accept cookies, the session is tracked by a session ID that is encoded within the URL string. However, return sessions cannot be recorded when using session IDs because the individual receives a new session ID each time he returns to the site.
When the system detects a spider, it can both disable cookies and prevent the session ID from being injected into the URL. Some content management systems have that functionality built in; all it takes is a change in programming to activate it. Others don’t, and that will require re-writing code to include that functionality.
Know the whys