It’s A Fatal Mistake To Copy Successful Web Sites

Kim Krause Berg on
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  • At a search engine marketing conference, several of us gave a session on website usability topics ranging from usability and SEO to site architecture and requirements gathering. Afterward, there was time for questions by the audience. Someone asked, “Why don’t we all just copy” I replied, “Never, ever copy what Amazon does.” The audience responded with surprise, thinking I was not a fan of Amazon.

    Not true. The reason you don’t want to copy a successful site like Amazon is that their website requirements are not likely to be the same as your site requirements. Their users may have different characteristics than your site visitors. Their customers’ needs may be completely different. You don’t have the user, traffic analysis and usability testing data they’ve collected over the years that they use as a base for their user interface, information architecture and content delivery.

    Your website is unique

    Today, with blog templates or content management system software being the design foundation for many sites, web page layouts are fairly consistent and come with no surprises. We’ll find two or three columns, a header, footer, sidebar navigation and a picture or two. The logo typically goes into the top upper left corner. It would be unusual to find a page beginning with a copyright year, privacy policy and company address. Arriving to a solo column page with no header would be odd.

    One wonders what creativity we’ve lost out on because we’re afraid to change the status quo. Usability folks like to promote consistency and user habits for design considerations. This is because anytime we are forced to re-learn where items are customarily placed, it slows us down. There is a risk of user confusion. We’re told that it takes only a few seconds to lose your visitor, so why take any chances?

    Many web designers have been creating product navigation menus the way Amazon has been doing it, believing that if Amazon’s way is making them a profit, it ought to do the same for their sites too. Why wouldn’t this work?

    Understanding mental models

    Amazon has expert knowledge of their customers’ mental model. This means they know how their visitors search and browse their site. They know what their users want to find, or learn, before they add an item to the cart. They know how what words are chosen most often to locate certain products, so their information architects can then create their entire information architecture based on user language, keyword choices, and traffic patterns.

    When someone says they will make your website easier to use, ask them what mental model they are referring to. Are they going to make it easier for search engines to crawl and rank it? This is a searcher mental model and one an SEO is more likely to be focused on. An information architect wants to know the mental model of your target users. What are your customer needs? What types of behaviors can you expect from them? Many websites have different user paths on one website.

    For example, colleges provide different types of information for students, parents, alumni, staff and teachers. Each type of person has a different mental model, with their own needs and expectations. A common mistake is to design identical user paths for everyone, ignoring the specific financial, emotional and practical needs of each user group. Remember that your website is unique. The better you understand what motivates and interests your site visitors, the more competitive your site will be.

    Findability and manageability

    Information architecture supports findability and usability. It can also support organic SEO practices related to on-page content and word usage. One area that Amazon has helped to pioneer is user management of information. Their customers are recognized by the use of cookies and purchase history. There are different user types for them to track. Some people are affiliates. Some arrive for the first time because they received a gift certificate. Others are regular customers, so Amazon has a chance to study the kinds of products they like. Amazon users can manage their own wish lists, accounts, leave book reviews, send gifts and follow author blogs. Do you know your site visitors this well?

    Information architects use terms such as taxonomies and semantics to help describe what they do. Simply put, they organize categories of information into something that makes logical sense. A usability oriented person is interested in the same thing because words can create momentum or promote frustration.

    For example, which one of these category links is the best choice to find online specials?

    • Closeout Sale
    • Gift Ideas
    • International
    • New Releases
    • Top Sellers
    • Today’s Sales

    What if your customer wants to find sales or new releases by product category? Can they tell, by looking at these links, if they can sort by price? What types of products does this site offer? There are no clues offered in these link labels. By “today”, when is the cut-off time? What does “international” mean?

    Interestingly, the website that uses these category links has all of its customer service information at the very bottom of the homepage, lumped into a box as if an afterthought. What message does this send to customers? Was any user testing performed? Apparently not. However, there was attention put on the searcher mental model as far as search engine queries go. Unfortunately, the site owner learned that search results did not equal conversions. In their case, they required both a rebuilt information architecture as well as usability adjustments to increase and support conversions.

    A 360 degree team effort

    Your website is and should be the manifestation of your own vision. Sure, it’s fun and helpful to study other websites. But those sites should inspire you to try new ideas or even have the courage to think outside the box. Surround yourself with those who have the technical skills to implement your vision. These people will be your project managers, search engine marketers, social media marketers, information architects, usability and user experience consultants, web designers and developers. Ask them questions about where they acquire their inspiration. Test site designs on people. Research, with and without search engines, the language and terms your site visitors use to find your products or services. Be sure to write out your specific site requirements and business goals. Write guidelines to be sure everyone on your team sticks to the game plan.

    And know that nobody understands your customers better than you do. Not even Amazon.

    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.