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Webmaster by Chuck Musciano

Are you ready for e-commerce?

Poorly constructed commerce sites are worse than none at all. How can you build a better virtual store?

October  1998
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Everyone wants to do business on the Web, but few sites do it well. This month, Chuck takes a look at the common pitfalls of e-commerce sites. Unless you get it right, you may be alienating more customers than you are serving. (2,000 words)

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I like to shop on the Internet. Increasingly, I find myself turning to the Web first to purchase things, instead of traveling to my local stores. In the past year, I've purchased contact lenses, CDs, computer hardware and software, concert tickets, Beanie Babies, toys, and a refill for my DayTimer, among other things. It used to be an unusual event when I made a purchase on the Web; now it's becoming so commonplace that I have a hard time remembering everything I've bought.

Honestly, I'd like to buy much more on the Internet, but many sites make it so difficult that I just give up. I'm constantly amazed by sites that put so many obstacles in front of potential customers. How many people are sitting at home, credit card clutched in their hot little hand, trying desperately to give someone some money? How many sites are ignoring this vast crowd of customers for lack of a little common sense in designing their site? This month, let's look at some important design issues for any Web commerce site, no matter what your product.

Provide good search engines
Web shopping differs from traditional shopping in many ways, but one of the most important differences is the Web shoppers' inability to browse a virtual store for merchandise. In a real store, you can quickly walk through, looking for the general area containing your merchandise before homing in on the exact product you want to buy. Of course, a diligent shopper could visit all the pages on your site, but this is impractical for most people.

Instead, online shoppers turn to search tools to locate products. Ideally, you type in a word or phrase and get back a list of products meeting your needs -- roughly akin to cornering a sales clerk in a store. A good sales clerk takes you right to the thing you need; a bad one wastes your time without ever delivering the product you want.

Regrettably, many sites I've visited have search engines that are roughly equivalent to sales clerks who speak some exotic foreign language. These engines insist on exact and correct spelling, they can't extrapolate from a simple phrase, and often they come up with bizarre products that are no where near what I am looking for.

Take the time to staff your virtual store with good sales help: an effective search engine. If nothing else, watch someone use your engine and try to appreciate his or her frustration. Have your engine log all the requests it gets in a day, and see what sorts of things your customers are looking for. You may find patterns of requests that you can handle easily, making your customers happier.

Create effective shopping baskets
Most shopping sites implement some sort of "shopping basket": a virtual collection of items you plan to purchase. As you browse the store, you add items to your basket. At checkout time, you total things up and close the transaction.

Real shopping baskets, of course, are easy to use. If you want to know what you're buying, you look in it. But, most online sites make shopping baskets difficult to manage. If nothing else, reviewing the contents of your basket is a major operation, one that distracts you from the task at hand, spending money.

Why can't a site provide one frame containing the products you're hoping to buy, and another frame with the current contents and status of your shopping basket? Everywhere I shop, checking your basket is either a prelude to checking out, or requires visiting separate pages that don't return you to where you came from. By the time I've figured out what's in my basket, I've forgotten what I wanted to buy. Often, I worry that the act of checking the basket either empties it or completes the purchase.

In the best scenario, your basket is always visible, dynamically tracking your purchases, showing your total, computing shipping, and other helpful things. A really good basket might create links to related products, encouraging impulse purchases. If all this can't be made visible continuously (and I'd like to know why not!), your basket should be a single click away, with a single click that returns you to the place you were.

If real stores used the basket model employed by many virtual stores, your shopping basket would be bolted to the floor next to the cash register. You'd have to walk over to add something to the basket, check the contents, or check out. This would be incredibly annoying in a real store and is just as frustrating in a virtual one.

Make changes easy
Most online stores are built around a shopping process that goes something like this:

Real shopping looks something like this: Does your commerce site support this kind of circular, repetitive shopping? How hard is it to put something in your basket, add other things, and then remove an earlier item?

At many sites, simply removing an item from the basket is not obvious. Thinking like programmers, many site designers expect customers to set an item quantity to zero to remove it from the basket. People don't usually deal in zero units of anything; and few people in a grocery store consciously consider buying zero cans of soup this week. Make it easy to return an item to the virtual shelf: provide a big, easily visible button to do just that.

Allow order checking and cancellation
At most commerce sites, taking payment is viewed as the end of the customer relationship. We all know that in the real world this is never true. People change their mind, items get lost in the mail, and checks bounce. Your commerce site must provide a way for people to communicate with you after the sale.

My biggest gripe is order-status tracking. I want to be able to go to a site, type in an order number or customer number, and see the status of my order. Is it being held up? Is an item out of stock? Did it ship? If so, what is the shipper tracking number? When did my credit card get charged? These are all simple questions to answer, as far as the customer is concerned. They aren't always easy to answer, however.

Many sites punt on this kind of service and simply provide an 800 number to call for further information. At this point, a person picks up the ball, with varying degrees of success. I've called before to track an order and been told that all my items were back-ordered even though the site promised me next-day delivery and charged me accordingly. This kind of disconnect between the automatic and the manual sides of your operation ruins customer confidence and will cost you repeat business.

Keep in mind that accurate order-tracking requires fairly good back- office operations, with some sort of connectivity between your accounting system, your order-entry system, and your fulfillment system. If you can't easily track orders within your company, you don't have a prayer of delivering that kind of service to your customers. Well-built companies with good business infrastructure can deploy better, easier-to-use sites, which will steal business from those who are less prepared.

Make navigation easy
Simple navigation may seem patently obvious, but it's often overlooked in any site design, not just commerce sites. Many site designers presuppose the path visitors will take in their site, and only provide navigation tools that support that route. In reality, people wander all over the place, and usually enter your site through some page that's buried deep within your site. If someone arrived at a random product page on your site, could they find the home page, the check out page, or the customer registration page?

A cardinal sin among commerce sites is to use dynamically created pages in which URLs are generated on the fly. When I visit a site and wind up on a page with a URL that has nothing but a string of random characters, I get nervous. How can I get back to this page? Does that random string work every time, or is it only good for the current session? Should I even bother to create a bookmark for this page?

Make it easy for people to use your site. Make every page addressable by a permanent, reusable URL. If nothing else, this lets search engines accurately walk your site, indexing all of your products so that people can jump directly to a product and buy it. Of course, that only happens if every product page has good links to pages that close the sale.

Another frustration has to do with sites in which the products and the checkout pages are completely unrelated. I've seen many sites with a checkout page that begins: "If you don't know what you want to buy, please return to the previous pages, write down the product numbers, and enter them in the form below." What? If you can't create a site that passes product selection data from a product page to a checkout page, you don't deserve my business. The computer, not the customer, is supposed to do the tedious stuff.

In short, think like a customer when designing your commerce site. Expect the unexpected, support traditional shopping patterns, and provide good service every step of the way. Your customers, and eventually your accountants, will thank you.

I'm somewhat saddened to announce that this will be my last Webmaster column. For the past three years, I've been covering almost every aspect of Web site management, and had the great fortune to be doing it for one of the first magazines that made the successful transition from print to electronic media. I'm very thankful for the many readers who took the time to read this column over the years, and I've appreciated the comments, suggestions, and well-deserved criticisms.

The original goal of this column was to provide hands-on advice for the Webmaster. When I started it, I was a hands-on Webmaster. In the intervening years, my career has taken me away from day-to-day site administration, and the column has drifted to more strategic and less tactical topics. Next month, a real Webmaster will once again take over, and you can count on a fresh stream of advice and suggestions.

Again, thanks for your time and support. I know we'll all meet again, somewhere on the Web.

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About the author
Chuck Musciano has been running various Web sites, including the HTML Guru Home Page, since early 1994 -- serving up HTML tips and tricks to hundreds of thousands of visitors each month. He's been a beta tester and contributor to the NCSA httpd project and speaks regularly on the Internet, World Wide Web, and related topics. Chuck is currently CIO at the American Kennel Club. Reach Chuck at

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