Internet Shopping Usability: No Guidance, No Interaction, No Sale

A good friend recently told me a story about how a company built a web site that needed user instructions to use it. The only page that was allowed to put a link to those instructions was the homepage. Therefore, should a visitor arrive via a search engine to a page within the web site, […]

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A good friend recently told me a story about how a company built a web site that needed user instructions to use it. The only page that was allowed to put a link to those instructions was the homepage. Therefore, should a visitor arrive via a search engine to a page within the web site, they were out of luck. No guidance, no interaction, no sale.

I went Christmas shopping online for a computer armoire. I knew exactly what I wanted because I had done previous research on the manufacturer and pricing. The specific piece I wanted was sold out on every top brand department store that had advertised a low price for the item.

Next, I searched in Google for the item by brand name and product description. My expectation was that the company that makes the computer armoire would come up and Google would show me the actual product pages itself so I could get right to it. I was wrong. The manufacturer’s website not only didn’t appear in the natural search results, it also didn’t show up in any paid placement areas of the search results page. How odd for a name brand company not to have their own website rank well, I thought.

Google presented me with all the major department stores that sold the computer armoire that I had already spent an hour checking that were all dead ends. So, thinking this was strange, I searched directly by the name of the company who makes the furniture item I wanted to buy. Perhaps they still had some in stock.

No such luck! They don’t sell their own products! All their web site does is let you search for stores that do. I entered my zip code and their search results brought back no results. However, I already own this piece of furniture. I bought it down the road. I would have done so again, but they were sold out. Not only does this furniture company not sell their own merchandise, they don’t do any promotion of their resellers. There is no time savings device to take potential customers to any reseller who may still have the item in stock. This was a complete dead end. In the days of personalization and communication, this is unacceptable.

Rather than give up, I searched Google with the exact product number and manufacturer as my search phrase. My expectation was that someone, somewhere on the planet, must have this piece of furniture for sale. I was even willing to pay a higher price if someone could prove they had one in stock. I would even DRIVE to pick it up if it was at a store nearby.

Google brought up many excellent search results for me. It didn’t take me long to realize they were all distributors of this particular piece of furniture. I was delighted to discover the first site I visited had what I wanted. Or did they?

They couldn’t tell me whether or not it was in stock. Taking a chance, I began to go down the purchase path to order it. It allowed me to proceed as a “guest”. I was able to add the product to a shopping cart. However, it never told me if they had it. Since everyone else was sold out, I didn’t feel confident they had the item in stock either. I got as far as the address and billing phase, but stopped because not only did I not know if they had the item, they weren’t about to inform me if it would arrive before Christmas or could be expedited to do so. When I looked around for other clues, I realized there was no log in area for customers, no way to track orders and no payment method offered ahead of time. There was no indication whatsoever they even knew I was there trying to place an order. This is because there were no user instructions, no welcoming content, no confirmation of data received and no online presence that anyone was behind the curtain.

I left that site and tried 4 others. In each case, it was a distributor. In every single case, they used the same third party shopping cart process, suggesting to me that the manufacturer supplies it to their resellers. Not a single one of these resellers could tell me if the product would or could be delivered by Christmas, was in stock or could be tracked. I never bought the item.
For the major department stores that did sell the item, they never established whether or not they would re-stock the item. There was no way for me to be notified if they did. So here I am. A customer shopping online, prepared with money and the exact item I want, and I’m unable to buy it from the manufacturer themselves or any of their resellers.

What Are Some Lessons Here?

1. Searchers are smart. They do their research before searching and will search by exact product descriptions, model numbers, manufacturer, brand name, and even down to exact measurements and other specifications. Make sure your web site is optimized accordingly.

2. If you offer any third party application, be it a shopping cart or travel reservations, you MUST test it to be sure it works functionally and is designed to sell. Just because a manufacturer gives you a free cart in no way means they gave you one that will earn you revenue.

3. If your order process shows an “Out of Stock” message, and you want the customer to return again or have any faith in your business whatsoever, show them how to find out when it will be re-stocked. If any of these stores would have re-stocked in a week, I still could have ordered and picked it up at a nearby physical store in time for Christmas.

4. No guidance, no interaction, no sale.

5. Remember your target market and especially the “Last minute holiday shopper” user persona.

6. Don’t rely on resellers to sell for you if you don’t support them with usable applications and a well ranked web site of your own.

I did have good experiences with NetShops and Amazon. I’ll return to them again because they made purchasing online a pleasure and hassle free. And, they were prepared for last minute holiday shoppers like me with ship date deadlines, last minute crunch time specials and alternatives to out of stock items.

In other words, they knew I was coming and they were ready for me. That’s the best usability lesson of all.

Contributing authors are invited to create content for Search Engine Land and are chosen for their expertise and contribution to the search community. Our contributors work under the oversight of the editorial staff and contributions are checked for quality and relevance to our readers. The opinions they express are their own.

About the author

Kim Krause Berg
Kim Krause Berg is the SEO/Usability Consultant for Cre8pc. Her work combines website and software application usability testing with a working knowledge of search engine optimization.

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