Ecommerce Usability Showdown: Affiliate VS. Merchants
According to Google, affiliates provide such a road-rage-awful experience that they deserved to be kicked out of AdWords en masse. My experience shopping for a new laptop for my dad during Boxing Week more than proved that status as an affiliate site hardly determines usability, and that merchants sin liberally against the commandments of user experience.
I began my search at Shopping.com, the big affiliate datafeed aggregator and comparison shopping site. Following that, I typed “laptops” into Google to shop some Canadian laptop sites, assuming correctly that I’d get mostly big Canadian retail names. I ended up browsing the following sites.
|Site||Type of Site||Why I Shopped There|
|Shopping.com||Large, Branded Affiliate||Past experience|
|FutureShop.ca||Big Brand Retailer||My dad liked a model in their flyer; they also ranked on Google.ca|
|TigerDirect.ca||Big Brand Retailer||Recommendation from a friend|
|LaptopCloseout.ca||Small Canadian retailer||Rankings|
|MDG.ca||(a large Canadian retailer)||Rankings|
How did I evaluate each of these sites?
I rated some of the sites on all the following usability metrics, while blitzing through a few because I was running low on patience by the end of this comparison.
- Onsite search quality: The relevance of onsite search results.
- Filters: The variety of filters available, their usefulness and whether they’re cumulative (e.g. can be used together) or exclusive (only one filter allowed at a time).
- Message matching: Whether the site’s claims on one page are fulfilled when you click through to the next. I don’t score this since it’s just a negative goodwill factor—it’s expected, not a “bonus” for customers.
- Other “goodwill” factors: Steve Krug’s “goodwill tank” paradigm says that visitors have a measure of goodwill that can be increased or depleted. Once depleted, visitors leave.
- Selection: How accurately needs are met—is it a “least worst” option or exactly right?
The metrics are listed in the order they affected my research and my perception of how others prioritize them, too. I’ve bolded factors that stood out.
Onsite search: 2/10. Terrible. Searching for a laptop model-name yielded car parts, and looking for a “16′ HP laptop,” or “16 inch HP laptop” yielded mainly accessories.
Filters: 10/10. Excellent. Shopping.com provided me with useful options to filter by specs (screen size, hard drive space, price etc.) and the filters can be used together (e.g. 16 inch and 250 GB+ hard drive).
Additionally, these filters drive the site’s title tags, URLs and page heading, all of which boost SEO and message match.
Note: Having great refinement options does not replace quality search results because many visitors just want to search, not click.
Message matching: Shopping.com delivers on its promises. ‘Nuf said.
Other goodwill factors: 7/10. The site features reviews, and the calls-to-action are easily found when I’m ready to buy. However, it doesn’t show whether the merchant has it in stock, which data you’d hope a mega-affiliate like this would have access to.
Selection: 10/10. Even after drilling down through multiple refinement options, Shopping.com showed me dozens of products.
Onsite search: 0/10. The same three queries as above returned no results. This is despite having the model listed on the site (it was the one my dad wanted) and a selection of 16 inch laptops.
Filters: 5/10. You can filter laptops by screen size, refurbished origin, or “tablet/specialty.” Those are useful options, albeit limited in variety. Additionally, the filters aren’t cumulative, so you can see either 16 inch laptops or refurbished laptops… but not refurbished 16 inchers.
Message matching: Covered.
Other goodwill factors: 6/10 In-stock vs. sold-out status: FutureShop.ca handles this poorly (they get a 6 instead of a 7 because they have direct access to inventory data, unlike affiliates). Category pages display out-of-stock products without telling you they’re out of stock, so you waste time going to detail pages where the information doesn’t stand out. Because it doesn’t stand out, you waste time looking for the info or for the “add to cart” button if you assume that the product is in stock.
On the other hand, FutureShop does feature breadcrumb navigation that helps you make sure you’re in the right place, and for in-stock products, the calls to action are prominent.
Selection: 7/10. If you’re content with browsing according to limited refinement options, FutureShop has a fair depth of laptops within the various sizes available. On the other hand, their refurbished and tablet laptop selection is negligible.
Onsite search: 11/10. TigerDirect takes extra steps to go the mile! Not only are their search results relevant, they also offer you filter links above the results that match popular filtering options such as brand and price. The only drawback is that the results are below the fold due to a large site-wide banner.
Filters: 10/10. The retailer offers a deep variety of useful filters, and they are cumulative.
Message match: If I scored this, I’d dock (just) a couple of points from TigerDirect for making me scroll to see my search results. Other users might not know where they are. The refinement options are above the fold, so it’s not the end of the world.
Other goodwill factors: N/A . I did notice a Hacker Safe logo, which typically helps sites convert better by reassuring visitors, but I’m personally indifferent.
Selection: 5/10. While TigerDirect has a great variety of sorting options, their inventory is low relative to Shopping.com. You can argue that’s normal since Shopping.com is an affiliate getting feeds from multiple merchants, but this argument cuts both ways since some advantages are inherent to being a merchant (e.g. greater likelihood to get reviews posted).
Onsite search: 0/10. The results page lacked any reference to 16 inch laptops, and the first three categories it sent me to (those visible above the fold) lacked any such models. Additionally, my eye was first drawn towards the green-highlighted “Recommend Links,” making me think I wasn’t looking at search results.
Filters: 0/10. What filters? HP’s idea of a filter is to let you pick between a variety of notebook PCs “helpfully” branded as Compaq Presario, HP Home, Pavilion, Touchsmart of HP HDX. As an outsider to HP, these are meaningless to me. The rest of the site doesn’t make things any easier.
Message match: As with the search and filtering functions, this isn’t intuitive. After deciding to try some of HP’s jargony category links, I thought they must have been broken because they don’t take you to a new page. It turned out that they changed the main rectangle above them—which they’re not related to by visual hierarchy—so I didn’t notice what happened until I looked around. My eyes were focused on the selector links below the main rectangle, which is why I didn’t notice and had to think, to paraphrase Steve Krug…
Similarly, the dark colored links that appear are virtually indistinguishable from ordinary text. So unless you rollover, it’s unclear where to click for the next step.
Other goodwill factors: If the above weren’t enough, HP commits two more sins. First, clicking one of the marketese category links takes me to a page featuring a laptop picture and two calls to action (compare these products and HP Pavilion Home Network PCs). It’s not at all clear why I’m not already viewing their selection of laptops, so I click HP Pavilion Home Network PCs again (the smaller green area, not the title/banner higher up):
To reward me for clicking, HP serves me an unholy avalanche of information overload. Notice the horizontal and vertical scrollbars?
Selection: 5/10. The selection is wide, but as we’ve just seen, it’s not filterable or accessible in a format that allows me to make my decision easily.
This site is remarkably fast. It took less than 60 seconds to show me the door! Why?
Calling the prominent support number drew an automated message that the inbox was full. Also, the warranty page refers to various conflicting periods such that it sounds like there’s no warranty despite the looks. Consider:
- “If you’re not satisfied, simply return the laptop in its original condition within 3 days of receipt…” I have 3 days to return it if I’m not satisfied? That’s all?
- “All laptops sold through Laptopcloseout.com are entitled to laptop closeout 1 to 6 months days full warranty…” Huh?
With the exception of a gibberish 156-character URL that would reduce CTR from search results, Lenovo scored very highly.
Onsite search: 7/10. Searching for a Lenovo model (the S10e) returns it #3 behind some support results for it, which isn’t perfect but still good enough. And a search for a 15″ laptop returned numerous models (they have no 16 inchers from what I could tell). The only letdown was a search for a “15 inch laptop” only returning 1 result.
Filters: 10/10. With numerous filters, including some particularly valuable ones for holiday shopping (ships within X# weeks), which are cumulative, Lenovo makes it easy to find what you want.
Message match: Taken care of.
Other goodwill factors: 8/10. Above the fold, the intro paragraph to each laptop line clarifies which type of customer each laptop line is intended for.
And the product-line comparison chart they offer below the fold is extremely valuable to methodical shoppers who want more details for comparing their choices. On a slightly odd note, their search results include many IBM.com pages, whose presence won’t make sense to anyone unaware that Lenovo bought out IBM’s Thinkpad laptop line.
Selection: 7/10. While it’s again narrower as compared to Shopping.com, Lenovo is a manufacturer, so this is to be expected.
We regularly receive MDG’s flyers at home, so I was curious to see how their site would perform. The performance was laughable, since there was such poor message match across the site’s pages.
On one page, MDG offers to recommend the right laptop according to your lifestyle/usage.
On the next, instead of recommendations, I get a credit application. No thanks – that’s not what I asked for.
The user experience offered to a potential visitor can’t be determined solely on the basis of whether a site is an affiliate site or a merchant, regardless of the brand size. HP is a merchant and the best known brand of any of these companies, and their performance was the worst. Lenovo is also a manufacturer and retailer, but their performance was highly impressive, just as Shopping.com’s was.
LaptopCloseout, MDG and FutureShop showed that you can be small, medium or large retailer and still leave users scratching their heads.
Perhaps those trust metrics from Google’s Vince update reflected how quickly visitors click through from Google or other “user happiness” metrics (Google’s term), but they don’t necessarily correlate with user experience metrics post-click.
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