Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Ten Tips for Small, New and Wannabe Online Retailers

Yesterday I was asked to take a look at a new small online retailer and see if I could help as things weren't going as well as they had hoped.

Well as you all know, there's a huge advantage to hindsight, and I love reviewing websites. I've had the odd occasion when people haven't been totally happy with what I've said - who likes criticism, after all? But it's happened to me recently, when Debenhams head online honcho made some constructive remarks about

I listened, struggled for a moment, as you do, and then went back and tried to implement what he suggested, which was absolutely right, of course.

When I got to this particular site yesterday, I found the following:

A great deal of flash on the home page - with the intro content embedded in flash (which meant that no search engine would pick it up).
Little invitation to buy online, and lots of distractions.
Pretty well no SEO at all
Broken picture links on the Shopping Basket page
No contact phone number
No About Us link
No Search Box
No proper Sign-Up box

Well, as you can imagine, I didn't scratch my head for long, and gave the owner the advice that I am frequently giving to new and small online retailers. I just wish that I could have got to them to start with. So I've put together my initial top tips for getting started or tweaking a website that isn't working properly. What to do at the beginning, if you can. And the 'tick-off' points that every would-be e-commerce giant should know.

The retailer I was (and still am) talking to is Aurlanne Jewellery and I'm delighted that she's been so positive and reactive to what I've said. I started writing this for her - and so I hope she will put a comment here on what she's discovered since I started my - er - critique/mentoring activity. Did I say mentoring? I must be nuts.

Here are my First (because there will be more) Top Ten Tips for Small, New and Wannabe Online Retailers:

1. Do not opt for a flash website. I've written about this before in Glamoursleuth. Simple, well designed websites need to start without flash. Why? Because it will slow you down, it will make Search extremely difficult. It will cost you more. Do not be tempted to start with.

2. Be absolutely clear about what you want people to do on your website, and then help them to do it. If you want them to Shop Online, us those words and make the path absolutely clear. Do not try and be clever. To that end read Steve Krug's marvellous book, Don't Make me Think.

3. Prioritise your best selling categories so that people go to them first. You will be more likely to convert prospects to customers from these. Put your top three best selling products at the top, and everything else alphabetically underneath.

4. Be very, very careful before you sign up to a web developer. Most of them are after just one thing. Your money. I have worked with the same developer now for seven years which is amazing bearing in mind I am one of the least tolerant people you have ever come across. I am willing to wait a little bit longer because I trust them totally, I know they are honest and they know what they are doing. Know what you're doing before you sign.

5. Read every word of any development contract before you sign and make sure it includes absolutely everything you want. Do not sign off any work until you, and others, have tested it thoroughly.

6. Retain as much control of your site as you can. A small website need not be a lot of work to keep updated, but many developers will try and charge you a small fortune for any changes. Take the trouble to learn how to make changes. Pictures, Copy, Internal Links, New Products, Title Tags and Meta Descriptions - none of this is rocket science. Make sure you have the facility to do it.

7. SEO. First buy this book - SEO An Hour a Day and read it from cover to cover. It's not a hard read and will seriously open your eyes to how search engine optimisation works and what you need to do.

8. Title Tags - These are the single most important elements of your web optimisation, matching up what you are offering with what people are looking for via the search engines. Try not to have them directly linked to your category headings, you need to be able to manage and change them yourself and create your meta descriptions (the short ads that will accompany them if the search engines pick them up). SEO is a trial and error game and you need to have control.

9. Your Search Box and email Sign-up Box need to be above the fold, where people can see them clearly. Do not try and be clever (again). The Search Box should say just that 'Search'. Your Sign-up Box must not ask for too much information (such as age, gender, and all the other things you don't need to know), the more you ask for, the fewer people will sign up. Believe me.

10. Make sure all your links work and there are no typos in your copy. It is nearly impossible to be 100% perfect all the time (and don't I know it), but you need to take as much care as is humanly possible to look professional.

There is more, of course, but I'm going to tackle this in small bites as it is all so important and not possible to put here all at once - from the importance of good pictures to how to structure your title tags.

If you let me know an aspect you'd like me to cover I'd be happy to go there first - otherwise you'll have to leave it up to me and I'll be back with more very soon. After I've found my next favourite handbag and written about that, of course.

At least I hope I'll be back soon, off to the ballet in London with the daughter this evening. Wish us luck getting there>>>>>


  1. Thanks Patricia for your constructive criticism. All is being taken on board.
    Some points were already being addressed, like making the "About Us" page live, tweaking the format so that "SHOP BY", “long in”, and the Newsletter sign in are more prominent, inserting the search box, etc. Unfortunately, these are points which require the developer to action, and this means waiting.
    I think that having as much control over your website (as Patricia suggests) is KEY. It's easy to do, and it allows you to make instant changes, rather than wait for your web developer to do it for you and at cost. I wanted as much control over my website as possible, so luckily, most of my website is built with this in mind, which means, for example, that I can get on with the SEO improvements Patracia recommended, and quickly.
    Small on-line business and especially start ups are easily pushed down the priority list of developers. Small budgets make it hard to compete with the attention they give to bigger clients, and you can end up waiting for days for small changes. As much autonomy as possible will save you time and money.
    Reading insightful books, like the one Patricia recommends, or one like Jon Smith's "Get into bed with Google" (52 tips: succinct, and quick to read) is also key. They can be a great source of knowledge at little cost (far less than the average £50 an hour a developer would invoice you), and makes you more on a par when conversing with your web agency.
    Another point, which I think is crucial to those about to have a developer create a website for them, is: write a proper, detailed brief, and / or put everything that has been agreed in writing.
    It’s obvious, but can be overlooked, especially after a very keen sale speech where you are promised miracles. Put those miracles in writing! Or start by writing a brief and make it detailed, listing all your expectations (design, functionality, how you wish to work after launch - e.g. do you want to be able to update your site yourself, or would you prefer the developer to charge you for it?, etc). This brief will be used as a base for a quote, or is a confirmation of what work has been agreed for a certain price. It is also a great tool to refer to in case of disagreements about what was and what wasn't included in the price.
    Timescale should also be included in your agreement. Very important! If you've been told that your website will take 2 months to develop, you do not want to still be waiting for launch after 4 or 6 months. If it is not included in your agreement or contract, you have nothing to stand on if things start to go wrong.
    And, as you go along the way, back up any major verbal discussion or agreement with your developer/coder in writing. Make sure it is acknowledged back, or specify that no answer will constitute agreement. If, like happened to me, your coder leaves the agency abruptly without leaving a brief for his team and your work is being disputed, at least you have something to refer to.
    As Patricia says, there’s a huge advantage to hindsight. I know I am stating obvious points, but when you are starved for time and have endless “to do” lists, it is easy to make mistakes. I hope these comments will help some avoid some of my mistakes!

  2. Really great post I found on your blog today. And it couldn't be more relevant to me at the moment!

    I am a jewellery designer/maker, selling online in various places. I've decided that I need my own website and have bought the domain.

    I have very limited budget for this, and am more computer literate than your average punter, but certainly not any kind of website builder!

    I decided therefore to go for Mr Site Takeaway website, just grappling my way around it now. I know what I want it to 'look' like, but organising it to look like that is another matter. It does mean I have full control over all the things you mentioned (even though I don't know what all of them mean, yet!). It also means I can implement what you mention at the beginning.

    I would love for you to give my site the once over when it's up and running, although understandably presume you charge for this? If not, anything you can throw my way would be helpful.

    I will be getting those books recommended, and keeping up with these posts, don't you fear!

    In the meantime, I have a question to ask. I didn't understand what you meant by this part for 8)

    "Try not to have them directly linked to your category headings, you need to be able to manage and change them yourself and create your meta descriptions (the short ads that will accompany them if the search engines pick them up)"

    What do you mean by directly linked? is this the H1 tags you are referring to?


  3. hi, I'm back again. You have a great blog so I've given you an award, check my blog for details.

  4. Hi Rachellucie, I think I understand what Patricia means by this (but please, Patricia, correct me if I'm wrong), and I'll just give an example to illustrate, I think it's probably more helpful. You might call a category on your website "necklaces", but this is not very descriptive or specific for search engines, so you'll end up in some "catch-all" basket which will probably never generate relevant search engine "pick up". So, in a tag, you might want to be more specific and say "gemstone necklaces" or "silver necklaces" or something even more relevant to the category you are trying to position yourself into "handmade glass necklacds". The more specific and niche you're ub (if this applies to you), the higher up you will obviously rank, because there is less competition within that category.
    Please tell me if I totally misunderstood your question, and Patricia, please slap my hand if I butted in and this is not the thing to do...
    I'm not used to blogs, comments, forums etc. Just learning and only trying to (hopefully) help.

  5. ps: sorry for the typos... I was in a rush, and this is really embarrassing.