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Power Up: The Online Retail Entrepreneur’s Guide – Improving Site Performance
Getting an e-commerce site’s aesthetics looking slick is all good and well, but there’s even more to getting it geared up for making serious numbers of sales.
Online retailers worldwide often make one critical error. Partnering with a web design company that is able to make beautiful websites is an admirable business decision, however too many get caught out by partnering with firms or agencies that haven’t designed for e-commerce before.
Understanding the basics of what makes a good retail website is necessary for any entrepreneur looking to enter into the industry, as this will ensure you can be confident when choosing solutions and making design decisions.
e-Commerce Site Performance Issues
When discussing good site design, there are several concerns that online retailers need to be aware of that can have a serious affect on keeping customers on your site and ensuring a high rate of conversion. Retailers that are unaware of these issues can run up against a whole raft of performance issues that will cost the business sales and resources.
Ben Athey, Technical Director for TAOS Creative outlines a few factors that online retailers should consider in order to boost their site’s technical and conversion performance:
- Be Aware of Slow Load Times – Customers expect instantaneous results, and if a website and/or pages take more than a few seconds to load, not only will they bounce off your site, but it could impact on potential future loyalty and mean negative recommendations to friends and family.
- Optimise, Optimise and Optimise Some More – Not only can Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) have massive implications on where you appear within organic search results (e.g. your Search Engine Ranking Position or SERP), but this can guide the quality of the traffic coming to your website.
- Imitation is Not Flattering Online – Search engines are increasingly evaluating and penalising websites that duplicate content by dropping their SERPs. This is particularly challenging for retailers, where products names and descriptions are often the same – taking the time to differentiate content will pay dividends.
- Discoverability is Key – Retailers need to ensure that on-site content is easily discoverable through site search. This means optimising content, such as keywords and landing pages to match customer search queries.
- Navigating to Conversion – Crucial to assisting retailers to organise their wares, navigation can also determine how quickly a customer finds what they are looking for. Best practice navigation allows customers to find a product in no more than two clicks. Retailers need to give ample consideration to including keywords common to customer search habits in the navigation.
- Remember the Eyes Eat First – As customers that shop online do not have the ability to physically touch and feel products, visual cues, such as product images, banner promotions and trust markers are crucial to the process of product selection and greatly assist conversion.
- Be Upfront and Honest – To instil further buying confidence, retailers should make buying, terms of business, plus shipping and returns policies and information visible and easily accessible to customers. There is nothing worse for a customer than a nasty surprise at the end of purchase/returns process, which all too often results in negative feedback directed towards the retailer.
- How Many Clicks to Checkout – An overly complicated buying process, full of distractions (e.g. upsells, collection of marketing information, etc) will deter the customer from converting. Ensure your checkout is simple and focuses the customer on purchasing.
- Security is High Priority – Trust, reputation and site credibility is vital for any e-commerce site. Retailers need to ensure that security and trust markers are highly visible on-site – making it clear that they are a trustworthy and credible business.
- Facilitate the Conversation – User-generated content (even negative feedback) will positively influence conversions. Retailers should encourage social engagement and facilitate the growth of their own online communities.
Art Leyzerovich, General Manager of Emerging Technologies (Hosting) at Macquarie Telecom emphasises the keep it simple philosophy, as it applies to various levels of great webstore design.
“Online retailers need to make sure that their website and purchasing process is as simple and intuitive as possible,” he says. “A few of the most important factors in determining whether a customer will purchase and/or return are: having as few steps to purchase as possible, having a great product search engine and having a one page checkout.”
This notion of simplicity in design also requires webstores to be consistent, as customers may first arrive at the site on any page. Phil Morgan, e-Commerce and Omni-channel Retail Consultant for Playhouse Group reinforces this point.
“Navigation should never dictate how customers use the site,” he explains. “It should help them to search, browse and explore whichever way they like, while allowing them to reach their intended destination as quickly as possible.”
Technically Speaking, Performance is Paramount
Of course, some issues aren’t quite as simple to rectify as tweaking the design of the site and may spring from problems rooted in the technology the webstore is built upon. Other issues may even occur at the customer’s end.
Macquarie Telecom’s Performance Points:
- Attempt to keep the size of each web page minimal
- Test the site on all web browsers
- Partner with a hosting provider that can guarantee the hosting environment and scale up during high-traffic periods
- Consider new hosted technologies like web acceleration and global server load balancing
Morgan points out that there are other ways of quickly improving the performance of a webstore, but these ‘shortcuts’ can be as damaging as they are helpful.
“There are quite a few examples where performance problems have been ‘solved’ by either throttling the number of possible sessions on a site, or alternatively, ending customer sessions by force on a short time-out,” Morgan explains. “This is never a good way to behave – you wouldn’t lock customers out of your store when it gets busy in the offline world, so why do it online? It’s all retail.”
Testing, Testing. 1, 2, 3…
Testing is a necessary part of the online process no matter what a business’s niche, model or speciality is. Not only that, testing must also be considered an ongoing process, as the digital world continues to change at a rate of knots. Staying up-to-date with website analytics and system checks will make sure you get the most from your hard-earned retail venture.
“There are various softwares that retailers can use to set up and monitor website testing. The two main types of testing are A/B testing and multivariate testing. Both types provide data about what works best and can be use to rapidly, and cheaply, improve the usability and effectiveness of a site.”
However, on-site testing can also be coupled with traditional analytics packages for an even better result. Sites like Google Analytics can be used to yield statistics on how a site is being used, where users are coming from, how long they remain and it will even give insight into what is causing them to leave prematurely.
“Don’t just focus on what is causing the bottlenecks and how to reduce them,” counsels Morgan, “focus on why customers are accessing the areas of the site that are causing bottlenecks. If you didn’t expect the customer behaviour your are witnessing, and are thus facing performance issues, don’t try and change their behaviour – change your model to suit what they want.”
Hosting and Content Delivery
As mentioned earlier, one of the crucial aspects of a site’s performance comes from choosing the right partner to host your website. How the site is hosted, as well as how the content is delivered to the website, will have implications for loading speeds and user capacities of any website.
Some retailers will opt for an in-house hosting solution, but this can mean a lack of redundancy and ineffective back-up procedures that could spell disaster in the case of a security breach or traffic overload. Alternatively, website hosting providers can take this aspect out of your hands, offering guarantees with a strong Service Level Agreement (SLA).
“By using the services of a third-party hosting provider, it also means that the retailer does not need to worry about hardware upgrades and depreciated costs, but instead gets access to the most up-to-date technology available,” says Leyzerovich.
Morgan points out that efficiency can also be built-in to the method by which a business delivers content to its website. This springs from the simple concept of trying not to place too much stress on any one area, so as to avoid overloading any one system.
“A separate content delivery system network that ensures the demand of image, video and document loading doesn’t affect your main site is always a good idea,” Morgan explains. “Also, keeping your database and your front-end separate is a key step that many people miss initially.”
All in all, a webstore’s performance comes down to a keen understanding of how the site’s technology works, as well as how the site’s customers think.
To find out more about Site Optimisation, read Power Retail’s Special Report on the topic.
Seeking more information on how to get an online retail venture off to a flying start? See our complete A-Z guide, Power Up: The Online Retail Entrepreneur’s Guide.