Rant: How To Not Sell Stuff

Today I've been reminded that while the web revolution continues apace - witness Web 2.0, ajax, mashups, RESTful web services, etc. - much of the web hasn't yet made it to Web 1.0, let alone Web 2.0.

Take ecommerce.

One of this afternoon's tasks was this: order some graphics cards for a batch of workstations. We had a pretty good idea of the kind of cards we wanted - PCIe Nvidia 8600GT-based cards. The unusual twist today was this: ideally we wanted ones that would only take up a single PCIe slot, so we could use them okay even if the neighbouring slot was filled i.e.

select * from graphics_cards
where chipset_vendor = 'nvidia'
and chipset = '8600GT'
order by width desc;

or something. Note that we don't even really care much about price. We just need some retailer to expose the data on their cards in a useful sortable fashion, and they would get our order.

In practice, this is Mission Impossible.

Mostly, merchants will just allow me to drill down to their graphics cards page and browse the gazillion cards they have available. If I'm lucky, I'll be able to get a view that only includes Nvidia PCIe cards. If I'm very lucky, I might even be able to drill down to only 8000-series cards, or even 8600GTs.

Some merchants also allow ordering on certain columns, which is actually pretty useful when you're buying on price. But none seem to expose RAM or clockspeeds in list view, let alone card dimensions.

And even when I manually drill down to the cards themselves, very few have much useful information there. I did find two sites that actually quoted the physical dimensions for some cards, but the in both cases the numbers they were quoting seemed bogus.

Okay, so how about we try and figure it out from the manufacturer's websites?

This turns out to be Mission Impossible II. The manufacturer's websites are all controlled by their marketing departments and largely consist of flash demos and brochureware. Even finding a particular card is an impressive feat, even if you have the merchant's approximation of its name. And when you do they often have less information than the retailers'. If there is any significant data available for a card, it's usually in a pdf datasheet or a manual, rather than available on a webpage.


So here are a few free suggestions for all and sundry, born out of today's frustration.

For manufacturers:

  • use part numbers - all products need a unique identifier, like books have an ISBN. That means I don't have to try and guess whether your 'SoFast HyperFlapdoodle 8600GT' is the same things as the random mislabel the merchant put on it.

  • provide a standard url for getting to a product page given your part number. I know, that's pretty revolutionary, but maybe take a few tips from google instead of just listening to your marketing department e.g. http://www.supervidio.com.tw/?q=sofast-hf-8600gt-256

  • keep old product pages around, since people don't just buy your latest and greatest, and products take a long time to clear in some parts of the world

  • include some data on your product pages, rather than just your brochureware. Put it way down the bottom of the page so your marketing people don't complain as much. For bonus points, mark it up with semantic microformat-type classes to make parsing easier.

  • alternatively, provide dedicated data product pages, perhaps in xml, optimised for machine use rather than marketing. They don't even have to be visible via browse paths, just available via search urls given product ids.

For merchants:

  • include manufacturer's part numbers, even if you want to use your own as the primary key. It's good to let your customers get additional information from the manufacturer, of course.

  • provide links at least to the manufacturer's home page, and ideally to individual product pages

  • invest in your web interface, particularly in terms of filtering results. If you have 5 items that are going to meet my requirements, I want to be able to filter down to exactly and only those five, instead of having to hunt for them among 50. Price is usually an important determiner of shopping decisions, of course, but if I have two merchants with similar pricing, one of whom let me find exactly the target set I was interested in, guess who I'm going to buy from?

  • do provide as much data as possible as conveniently as possible for shopping aggregators, particularly product information and stock levels. People will build useful interfaces on top of your data if you let them, and will send traffic your way for free. Pricing is important, but it's only one piece of the equation.

  • simple and useful beats pretty and painful - in particular, don't use frames, since they break lots of standard web magic like bookmarking and back buttons; don't do things like magic javascript links that don't work in standard browser fashion; and don't open content in new windows for me - I can do that myself

  • actively solicit feedback from your customers - very few people will give you feedback unless you make it very clear you welcome and appreciate it, and when you get it, take it seriously

End of rant.

So tell me, are there any clueful manufacturers and merchants out there? I don't like just hurling brickbats ...

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