March 31, 2011, 12:00 AM

Lessons learned

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Josh Levine illustrated how photography can reinforce the message a retailer is trying to convey, or do the opposite. He showed the results of an eye-tracking study of two web pages, one in which a photo of a baby looking straight ahead was placed next to a block of text and another in which the baby appeared to be looking at the text. In the first case, testers' eyes focused on the baby's face; in the second, more of them looked at the text.

He also warned against cramming too much content into a web page, which confuses shoppers. That's a common problem on retail web sites, he said, because the merchandising team invariably wants to fill every inch of a web page with product information and promotions. Stand fast against that pressure, Levine urged site designers, adding, "Embrace white space and kill clutter."

Don't spend more than necessary

Every click on the web can be tracked, and there are sophisticated, and pricey, analytics tools to help e-retailers make sense of all that data. But there are also lots of inexpensive tools available to those who know where to find them.

Two Internet Retailer Web Design & Usability speakers presented 45 such low-cost or no-cost tools in a rapid-fire presentation. "Clever people have learned how to use data in clever ways," observed Shawn Purtell, web analytics and optimization specialist at search marketing firm ROI Revolution Inc., who spoke alongside Joe Schmidt, co-founder of e-retailer, which was recently purchased by CaféPress, an online retailer of customized goods.

Purtell described how a new, and free, Google call-tracking feature works: A retailer puts a different phone number in each version of a pay-per-click ad, and consumers' calls are routed through Google to the retailer's call center, enabling Google to tell the retailer which ad performed best.

A Yahoo tool called YSlow suggests ways to improve the performance of a web page. Schmidt says the tool showed him how he could reduce the size of product images by 25% without impairing quality.

He also pointed to a free analytics tool called Clicky that provides something Google Analytics does not: real-time data. In fact, recognizing how busy I.T. staffers often are, Schmidt suggested e-commerce staffers might want to employ free tools like Clicky so they can quickly obtain information that the I.T. team might be too busy to extract from more sophisticated analytics software.

"These are great supplemental tools you can run on the sly," he said. "Sometimes it's hard to get the data you need as fast as you want it when you want it. You can use these on the down-low so that you can get what you need."

Prioritize performance

Meir Tsinman, president of, was dissatisfied with the conversion rate on his e-commerce site, but didn't know what the problem was or what to do about it until he put his site through an intensive six-month review with the aid of NetSuite Inc., which provides his e-commerce software.

The review revealed that the site's pages were loading slowly, largely as a result of the many requests for data from outside companies providing services such as customer reviews and product-comparison tools. In fact, for the home page to load, Tsinman explained, it had to make 80 requests from 16 outside companies.

"We had third-party tools that took a second each to load," Tsinman said. "We had to ask: 'Are those really important enough to have my customers wait to have the page load?'"

To answer that question, Tsinman took the radical step of removing all the outside scripts. Then, working with NetSuite, he replaced each outside service and measured its impact on performance.

In some cases, the e-retailer was able to work with vendors to minimize the impact of a service. For instance, web analytics vendor Celebros was able to reduce the load time for one of its scripts from 984 to 250 milli-seconds, Tsinman said. But in other cases, decided to do without the outside service, reducing the vendor scripts on its site from 16 to 7.

Tsinman said the improved performance is showing up in dramatically better results: page views up 20%, time on site up 50% and conversion rate up 50%.

The lesson he learned is that fast site performance is crucial. If a site loads slowly, he said, "you can have all the beautiful features you want, but no one will use it."

Follow the money

Sometimes it makes sense for a retailer not to do everything possible to speed up a consumer's online shopping trip, explained Imad Mouline, chief technology officer at Gomez, the web performance division of Compuware Corp.

How can that be? Mouline's co-presenter at the design conference, web developer Tony Elmquist of online and catalog retailer L.L. Bean Inc., gave an example of when this might be the case.

Elmquist described two typical types of visitors to One knows the shirt she wants from seeing it in Bean's catalog. She wants to navigate rapidly to a product page, select the shirt and check out. Another shopper looking for a fishing reel may want to gather information about the various reels L.L. Bean offers, watch videos of fishermen using the reels, ask questions of Bean specialists, and consider several products before making a selection.

The second shopper will make use of the more complex, interactive features of the site, many of which use JavaScript code, for instance to compare the features of several reels. L.L. Bean could take steps that would help the fisherman complete his task more quickly. But to do that, the retailer would have to add JavaScript code to pages the first shopper sees, adding functionality she doesn't need and making it harder for her to get to checkout quickly.

The customer bent on getting to checkout is more important, Elmquist said, and thus the retailer would not make the changes that would speed up the site for the customer doing research.

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