Sample site review

A part of my job at Headscape is to provide site reviews for clients. These range from short overview reports to detailed studies on particular aspects of a site. I recently completed a review for a small ecommerce site called TrapAWasp and felt that it neatly tidied together a number of different issues I had been discussing in this blog. The client has been kind enough to allow me to publish it here so hopefully it will be of some use to others. Please bear in mind that this is only a condensed site overview and doesn’t tackle issues in much depth.

Summary

As with all ecommerce sites there are two key factors that dictate its success or failure. These are the number of visitors that are driven to the site and the number of those visitors who are then converted into customers. It is these two factors that Headscape uses to assess the effectiveness of an ecommerce site.

Without looking at the web logs of a site it is hard to tell just how successful the site is at converting users. However, the initial indications for TrapAWasp are good. The site is generally well designed, has few significant usability problems, and addresses most of the major questions raised by users considering purchasing online.

A more important problem exists with regard to driving traffic to the site in the first place. Although good use is being made of Google Adwords the organic listing on search engines (in particular Google) is very poor. We believe there is significant opportunity here as a cursory analysis of the competition makes us believe it would not take much to push TrapAWasp to the top of Google’s ranking.

Visitor conversion

In many ways TrapAWasp is an example of good design. It is clean, simple and focused on enabling users to complete a purchase in the minimum number of steps. However, as with all sites there is always room for improvement and so below we outline several issues which should be addressed.

Design

The site has a strong visual identity. It is well branded: the site name, use of imagery and introduction leaves the user in no doubt as to what the site is about. However, two issues are of concern and should be addressed.

Screen resolution

28% of users are still viewing their computers at 800×600. Unfortunately TrapAWasp has not been optimised for this resolution and therefore requires limited horizontal scrolling in order to be able to read the product descriptions. This also creates problems with the number of products the user initially sees on page load. At 800×600 it appears TrapAWasp only offers 2 products while at 1024×768 the site offers only 4 products. Although users will scroll they tend to make judgements on whether a site has what they want without scrolling down a page. Jakob Neilsen a leading usability expert suggests that key content and products should be visible without the need for the user to scroll. One possibility would be to move the "view details" link to below the description so compressing the amount of space required for each product. Although this wouldn’t make all of the products visible it would help the situation as well as correcting the visual imbalance of white space next to the last two products.

Click here for more on scrolling and screen resolution

Browser compatibility

Although well over 80% of users’ access the World Wide Web using Internet explorer it is a mistake to ignore other browsers. Due to numerous security scares more and more users are turning to alternative browsers such as Firefox. Firefox has now captured well over 8% of the marketplace and is continuing to grow rapidly. Although not serious, http://www.trapawasp.co.uk/ does have some problems displaying in non-IE browsers. Some examples of the problems encountered include text being rendered with the wrong font and images being incorrectly positioned. Although it could be argued these problems do not affect the usability of the site it can knock consumer confidence leading to the belief that the site is in some way unprofessional.

Usability

Usability is an extremely important area of ecommerce design. If a user finds a site hard to use they will often choose to turn to the competition rather than struggle to overcome the obstacles they are facing. Generally the usability on this site is excellent. However, three issues should be addressed.

Delivery address

One minor but very frustrating issue with the checkout form is the need to enter address information twice. Even if you do not check the box marked "Check if you require goods dispatched to an alternative address" you are still required to enter the delivery address. Small problems like this can prove incredibly frustrating and should be avoided if possible.

Deteracat

Another potential cause of confusion is the sudden appearance of a link back to Deteracat on both the checkout and credit card pages. We have no problem in principle to the advert for Deteracat on the right hand side of these pages as cross selling is a good idea and one that should be encouraged. Our concern rather, revolves around the "continue shopping at Deteracat" button in the main body of the page. This immediately generates doubt in the minds of users at a critical stage in the buying process. The user is left wondering if they have selected the right products or whether they have been transferred to another site. We understand the motivation for this approach and the ability it gives the user to purchase products from both sites at the same time however we believe that the confusion this causes outweighs the benefits.

Addressing user concerns

One final issue with regard to usability is the "how to buy" section. It is good practice to have a section that addresses many of the frequently asked questions users have regarding online purchases, but we feel that there is still room for improvement. More information needs to be provided within this section with regard to security. Users are hesitant to give credit card and personal details unless they know it is secure. Although you do provide this information on the credit card page this is late on in the process and after the user has already given you significant amounts of information. On a similar vein it would also be wise to provide some form of privacy statement here. Again we are aware that this information is available from the footer but we do not believe this gives the information the prominence it deserves. Finally we believe that the how to buy section should include information on delivery times as this is another common question and a significant number of users will be unable to view the flash animation on the homepage. In short there needs to be greater emphasis placed on answering users queries and that this section may need a name change to accommodate this kind of information.

Accessibility

It is easy to dismiss accessibility as being an issue solely about the disabled however the truth is that it is a much broader issue than that. Accessibility refers to ensuring a web site is accessible to the widest possible audience including disabled users, those with poor vision or motor skills such as the elderly, and those working within various technological constraints.

Disabled users

Disabled users in the UK have a spending power of £50 billion annually according to the Disability Rights Commission. What is more this figure does not include the elderly who have poor vision or motor skills. Catering to this audience provides a unique way to separate you from your competition. That is not to say that you ignore your abled-bodied users. Rather, we recommend that you make some modifications to your site to make it more disabled-user friendly. There is not time in this report to catalogue every problem disabled users might encounter with this site, but we can say that the site fails to meet even the most basic level of international standards on
accessibility (WAI Level A or Priority 1).

Click here for more on accessibility and business

Technological barriers

As well as creating barriers to the disabled a site can also create technological barriers which force users to turn to the competition. One example of this is in the use of JavaScript. JavaScript has been used in order to carry out the validation of the checkout form. These scripts check that each field has been correctly completed and informs the user of any potential errors. The problem is that 5% of users do not have JavaScript available so these users simply cannot purchase from the site. This is the equivalent of turning away one in twenty customers who try to enter a shop.

Another technological barrier is download time. Although broadband has exploded over the last year still over 50% of users still access using dial up. http://www.trapawasp.co.uk/ takes approximately 17 seconds to download on a 56k modem compared with say http://www.waspbane.com/ which takes only 7 seconds to download over the same connection. With a 10-second difference per page and a 6-page purchase process that is a minute of unnecessary waiting. It may not sound like a lot but website users are incredibly fickle.

Driving traffic

You can have the best website in the world but if nobody is aware of its existence then it means nothing. Unfortunately TrapAWasp does not have the online profile it should have and this will be having a direct impact on the number of sales being made. The problem is the most pronounced on Google where TrapAWasp does not feature within the top 100 results on valuable keywords such as "wasp traps" (results on google.co.uk were slightly more positive but not by much).

Not that things are entirely doom and gloom. TrapAWasp does appear to be supported by a very effective Google Adwords campaign that goes a long way to redressing the balance of poor organic listings. It also has better ratings on sites such as MSN search (listed 7 th) and Yahoo (listed 8 th). However with Google owning 69% of the British search market it is vital that TrapAWasp receives a good listing there. Pay per click campaigns can prove very effective but they also dramatically reduce profit margins and so should only be seen as a stopgap or compliment to organic listings.

After comparing TrapAWasp against other sites listed under rated keywords it became obvious that the problem laid in the sites link popularity.

Google uses a complex algorithm to calculate your position in the ranking. However, two factors dominate that placement. One is keyword density and the other is link popularity.

Keyword density refers to the number of times a particular keyword/key phrase appears in the content of the site. For example the phrase wasp traps appears 17 times in your homepage giving it a keyword density of about 11%. After comparing this to other web sites we discovered that TrapAWasp is on a par with the competition. It is therefore fair to say that this is not the factor that is limiting your rating. That leaves the factor of link popularity.

Link popularity refers to the number of sites who link to TrapAWasp and the perceived popularity of those sites. The more sites that link to you and that you in turn link back to, the higher your ranking. However, it is not just about numbers. It is also about the perceived quality of the site that links to you as well. For example a link from the BBC website would be worth a lot more than a link from an unknown name. Another important factor is the words used in the link to you. The words "wasp trap specialist" will rank you better on the words "wasp trap" than a link using the words "The Jones family business". Currently not a single site listed on Google link to you and this explains your poor ranking.

There is, however, good news. Even the sites ranked in the top positions on Google have very little in the way of sites linking to them. It would not take many good quality links to move TrapAWasp to the top of Google’s organic listing.

Click here for more on link popularity

Below I outline a few techniques that would significantly help your placement on Google:

Look for link partners

Firstly look for as many sites that will link to you as possible and get them to add your site. One way of doing this is to search on Google for the words "add url" and a related keyword phrase such as "wasp traps". Doing so led me to this site: http://www.backyardgardener.com/ph/gardenproblem/gardenproblem.htm which actually has listed a wasp trap that is no long available! There is an add url link at the bottom of the left hand navigation that will allow you to add your site.

Copy the competition

Go to Google and search on a key phrase that is related to your site. Copy the url of the site listed number one in the list and then search again using the following search phrase "links: <url of competition>". This will show you all of the sites that link to that url. Contact each of those sites in turn and ask them if they will also link to you. Once you have done this return to Google and repeat the process all over again but this time with the next site down on the list.

Message Board seeding

Another very effective approach is to take part in message boards on related subjects such as gardening. When posting on these boards you can add a link back to your site and so improve your link popularity. However, a word of warning on this approach. If you just post adverts on peoples forums they will remove them and probably ban you for good. A more successful approach is to contribute to the forum providing useful advice and insights. Almost all forums allow you to add a signature to your post and it is in this signature that you include a link to your site.

Increasing keywords

Although this approach is not related to link popularity it is a vital component of increasing the traffic levels to your site.

One of the problems with securing high ranking is that short keyword phrases such as "wasp traps" are highly competitive. However, users often use much long search terms and it is sometimes easier to target these. The best way of targeting them is to include a lot of copy on your site that is related to the subject matter. This is normally achieved by adding an articles section on your site. This can prove very effective
. Take for example the Headscape site. Web design is a highly competitive sector and competition for the keyword "web design" is immense. However because we have an extensive archive of articles we gain a lot of traffic through longer phrases. Search on "how do I become number one on search engines" and you will see what we mean.

We would recommend that an article section relating to wasps is added to the site. This could build on the existing content which talks about how to find a wasps nest and general information about wasps.

Conclusions

This review has outlined a number of areas in which TrapAWasp could be improved. However, our recommendation is that increasing the levels of traffic should be the number one priority. Poor ranking on Google is significantly damaging the levels of traffic and with a minimum amount of work we are confident that the site’s ranking could be dramatically improved.

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