Archive for the ‘Site Design’ Category

Amazon abandon affiliates in California, so I’m pulling the plug. #AmazonBoycott

Friday, July 1st, 2011

California just passed a law saying companies like and have to collect and pay sales taxes to the state for items sold online to CA residents. Part of the law defines what sort of companies must do this, and it has something to do with whether an out-of-state online retailer with any kind of “nexus” in the state – a physical or corporate presence, not just a brick-and-mortar retail outlet – is liable.

Read more:

Such businesses within the state must already pay the tax. Amazon, with their headquarters in Washington and warehouses in Nevada, think they shouldn’t have to. The law now says they must. To avoid it, they’ve thrown their California “Associates” who make affiliate fees for referring customers, under the bus. They would constitute the “nexus” presumably. Amazon A9 and A2Z Development are in the state, but they could move those, perhaps.

I think this is supremely douchy of them.

The California budget that passed guarantees that “…poor people will receive less medical care and welfare, disabled people will see fewer services, state parks will close and public university students will pay more in California under the budget that takes effect Friday.” Amazon benefits from the market, and simply would have to do what California-based retailers routinely do: charge their customers tax, and send that collected tax to the state.

They can argue that it’s unconstitutional, but they can’t argue that it’s wrong. The lack of such tax gives them a competitive advantage against home-grown businesses on the total price of goods sold. So it hurts California business that they don’t have the same obligations. I know there are lots of people who think corporations shouldn’t have to participate in the communities that they earn their billions from, but I disagree.

I buy a couple hundred bucks in goods from Amazon per year. But July 15th I was planning on setting up an Amazon EC2 and S3 server and experiment with Cloudfront. That’s a minimum of $1k per year I was going to spend with Amazon. But I’m not going to do that, now. I’ve decided to boycott them. Maybe no one else will join me, but I don’t really care. Just my little drop removed from their billion-dollar bucket in defense of California, California affiliates, and California online competitors.

I’m using the hashtag #AmazonBoycott. Join me if you like.

Nearing Completion on my First Magento site…

Saturday, May 14th, 2011

Over the years I’ve done a few e-commerce things with commercial systems like Miva Merchant and with PayPal carts and the PayPal API… to name a few.

I was asked by a client how best to do a 1200+ SKU e-commerce site, and I suggested Magento… then they said ‘OK, let’s do it’. A couple months later we’re almost ready to go live… with the first 350 or so products.

I’m reminded of a trip to Aruba, when my wife and I, and our friends, said we wanted to rent a ‘Jeep’ (we got a Suzuki Samurai) and drive to the Natural Pools on the far side of the island. The windward side. It’s like Mars over there. They said, “drive down this road then that road then go past the white house onto the dirt road… and then your adventure begins“.

Magento is like that. The destination is awesome, but the markers are hard to find, the routes are multiple, various and nefarious, not much is obvious… but in the end, you get a site that has everything you need to compete with the big dogs… product comparisons by attribute, ratings, surveys, multiple store fronts on a single database, direct support for major payment systems, Google Base, Google XML Sitemaps, etc. and an upgrade path for when you start making millions in sales (I dream big).

Underneath is the PHP framework called “Zend Framework” which is extensible and comprehensible and logically defensible (if you know this stuff) but not for the faint of heart.

But here’s the thing to think about: Are you ready to merchandise your products?

There are a ton of useless e-commerce sites out there that don’t provide useful information, have blurry pictures (more on this later) and don’t really support the buyer’s decision. The reason is that it takes time and effort and expertise to make what is essentially a mini-site all about each product line, manufacturer and category. Companies that open brick-and-mortar store fronts spend hundreds of thousands on signage, window displays, staff training, and store fixtures… then set a budget on their e-commerce site of a few thousand bucks, and virtually no staff-time… If it’s worth doing a window display for your products so passers-by walk in the front door, why is it not appropriate to present products on the web with the same care?

For a small company, there’s another side to the story: The minimal e-commerce site you know you can afford may not pay off, so you don’t invest much. This is understandable, but if you don’t put enough effort in, it’s almost guaranteed not to work. You might try a small number of products where there’s not much e-commerce competition, and put more energy into presenting each product. But do put in the energy to make each product look the best you can and the content about the product as useful as you can, rather than shovel bad images and product id codes without descriptive text onto a cheap or free cart and then call it done. It ain’t likely to work.

For this site, we’re not doing it all at once… we’ll go live with the most important products. We’ll have product descriptions in. We’ll have the best images we can find (legally). But it won’t go live in a perfect state… it will evolve into a (near) perfect state over time. This is the same as a WordPress site… it’s designed to grow and improve over time… and that’s actually a good thing. You want your site in a state of change with new discoveries appearing each week. You want people to shop. To browse, explore, learn, try things on (virtually)… yes: Shop. It’s the national pastime. Play it!

A note about images: Most people now have broadband. Manufacturers that still don’t supply adequate images on their websites for fear of download speed issues (or some other excuse) need to wake up and smell the coffee. Their online, catalog and brick-and-mortar retailers need good photography and those that don’t provide that service are blowing it, big time. Every product should be shot from every angle and web retailers should be given access to the these in sizes sufficient for a print catalog! The bandwidth is there. The browsers aren’t going to squawk. The cost is truly worthwhile. Good images are made with good Photoshop skills. Don’t shoot your products with your cell phone in a dingy yellow light, crop it to 128 pixels square and then JPEG it to death to make it even tinier. Seriously: Half the e-commerce I see is exactly that, and every e-commerce site selling that widget got their photos (mostly exactly the same photo) from the Manufacturer’s website.

I’m always shocked (shocked, I say!) to see a medium to large company that still has a ’90s-era website… Maybe it’s just a lack of understanding about what sells, and why. Maybe it’s an unwillingness to realize that — even though people aren’t going to buy directly on your site — they will buy based on how well you promote your products on other sites, which is largely about imagery, and those images need to come from you, the manufacturer.

I just had to get that out of my system… thanks for listening.

Planning a New Website: The Creative Brief

Thursday, September 2nd, 2010

Why does this site look the way it does? This started out as a personal blog to experiment with WordPress, now it is dated and technically way below my standard. So, I need to start out with a clean design and a clean message.

Starting a website can be overwhelming. There are so many variables, what-ifs, and strategic decisions to answer about the content. And then there are the questions about the technology. And then there are the questions about presentation, including design, organization, and ongoing development. All this, and by the way, you have to keep up with your regular responsibilities on top of all that planning.

I recommend working with someone who solves these problems every day, and letting them guide you through the process. (Disclaimer: I’m that guy. Hire me. Never mind I haven’t gotten to it myself… that’s a sign I’m in demand and busy!) But if you want to get further before you start that conversation, start with the following questions (Surprise! None are about technology). Most of these are Marketing 101 questions. But most people in business either never took Marketing 101 or have forgotten it. But this is the information you will need to relate to the web designer, so it’s time to polish your answers. The technical term for these questions and their answers is “The Creative Brief”. Start your Creative Brief now:

  • Who is your target audience?
    People who are selling something need to ask:
    a) Who currently buys my products?
    b) Who should, but doesn’t yet?
    c) Who might influence people who buy my products?
    Content providers need to ask:

    a) What content can I create, and what can I consolidate from other sources, and how can I frame it, uniquely?
    b)  Who’s already trying to do what I’m trying to do? How will I compete with them?
    At least a dozen times I’ve been asked to advise someone on selling a product on the web, and in the course of the meeting I find they haven’t done a simple Google search to see what their competitors are doing. This is second only to the “I want to make something like eBay, and my budget is $700” in causing a web developer to develop sudden breathing problems.
  • Who are your closest competitors?
    a) Go to their websites and ask “what are they up to?” and “what are they missing”
    b) Make a list, with their urls, and features of their sites you like and don’t like.
  • What type of product or service do you offer?
    a) Compile your existing marketing materials, and make sure they’re up to date.
    b) Make sure you’re framing your presentation to the buyer, not to yourself.
    c) If your current offerings are not already compiled in other marketing materials, plan to use the website creation process to get graphics and content for print materials: i.e. Get the designers/photographers to make high-res versions of everything, and use colors that work in print as well as on the web.
  • What is your unique selling proposition?
    Make sure you know how your competitors are getting their clients, and up the ante:
    a) Consider price positioning (discount, competitive, premium)
    b) Don’t just copy others, exceed expectations for your industry and region
    c) Don’t promise what you can’t or won’t deliver. Reputations are increasingly transparent with the web. Online review sites can make it clear to everyone if you don’t deliver value.
    d) Having trouble thinking up an answer to this one? Try writing down all the selling phrases you and your staff use to move your product… Just write them all down, then organize them by priority… What words make people focus, What makes them go dreamy? What makes them empathize? What words create trust or counter distrust? What are the objections?
  • What is your budget?
    a) A website can run from “free” (Do it yourself isn’t really free) to annual budgets in the millions. The limiting factor is always the budget. Don’t skimp, this is your brand on the Internet! But don’t say you can spend more than you have: Your site can often be shut down by the developer, if you can’t pay for it. And even if not, it’s expensive to change developers.
    b) Consider what it will require to get to “Live” and then consider what it will take to keep it fresh, after that. A website doesn’t stop needing attention immediately after it is made public. What are you going to do for the long haul?
    c) The most powerful way to build a brand on the Internet inexpensively is the WordPress blog, with SEO and Social Network features embedded, and ongoing posting (twice per week is good).
  • What is your deadline?
    a) Consider a phased rollout. Sometimes it makes sense to get something done for, say, holiday season, or back-to-school, that’s quick and cheap, then do the big redesign after that.
    b) Really? Just one deadline? Are you thinking about ‘Keeping it Fresh’?
    c) Sometimes it makes sense to start small and grow the site in front of your customers. Blogging is a great way to do that.
  • Is your branding worked out yet? Is this an opportunity to do that?
    a) As a designer, I like well designed sites that have beautiful spacing and graphic qualities, but sometimes you don’t want to look too slick… If you’re a discount shop or a funky coffeehouse, maybe it’s ok to be a little ragged and homegrown looking.
    b) Big companies pay millions for logos, but little companies often sketch something themselves or get a stock logo from a business card company. Really, a couple hundred bucks for a small business that isn’t too picky might be enough to get a logo that’s really yours and pretty good. Being unique matters on the web — you’re not just local any more. Being local, you can often have a company name that exists in other towns in other regions. But on the web, you might get a cease and desist from a lawyer. Search your name in several ways online. If someone has a competitive product or service and the same name, you have an issue.
  • Does your logo present well on the web?
    a) Logos with fine details need to be displayed large, because websites have low resolution.
    b) Is your logo limited to black and white? Is it going to look bad on a colorful site?
    c) Has it been copied and recopied, and looks ragged along the edges? Fixing it up may be critical to your presentation.
  • What is your company’s slogan or tagline?
    a) If it’s descriptive, it should show up in any Google search, and not just be invisible in a graphic (the contents of graphic elements of your website won’t show up in a search).
    b) Can it be improved and made into a selling point or competitive differentiator?
  • Describe at least 5 websites you like, including what you like about them. Include URLs.
  • Do you have a typographic preference? (Heavy, light, modern, classic, etc…)
    A good site designer will look at examples of your existing marketing materials, and the sites that you like, and create a composite impression that they will use to guide their design. Then they will exceed your expectations.
  • Are there any specific images you’d like to incorporate?
    a) Do you own the rights?
    b) Are they of high quality, or should they be recreated?
    c) Let your designer or web developer prepare the images… just give them the very best and largest version you have. Good graphics define the website user’s perception of quality of your whole company.
  • Are there any specific colors you may want to use?
    As mentioned above, a good designer will take your existing materials, and sites you like, as well as the images you’ve given them to guide them on colors. Generally a good designer will pick better colors than you can, because they’ve studied how color effects people and also what colors go well together. But if you have specific branding materials that you need to stick to, make sure you can provide specific color information.
  • Are there any specific concepts or colors or imagery you’d like to avoid?
    I remember a client that used an early Terabyte storage system; It was a huge selling point. The design company worked very hard on branding strategy around the image of a fearsome Tyrannosaurus Rex taking a huge bite out of… something. (I can’t remember.) Turned out, the CEO was a fundamentalist, and didn’t believe in dinosaurs… And two weeks of work went down the drain. Tell your designer of any taboos your company might have.
  • Finally, ask yourself: How is this website going to stay fresh? Can I write content or do I have staff that can write? Do I need an editor? Do I have authorization from the Big Boss or do we need a content brief.
This is just the beginning of the journey… but it’s a great way to get your head into the project. There have been numerous times I’ve participated in projects that effectively redefine an existing company, because the company finally sat down and said “This is who we are” with the Creative Brief. Older companies often experience this, because over years, they drift without redefinition or reviewing the original business plan. Sometimes the world changes under their feet, and the Creative Brief wakes them up. Sometimes the discussions of what should be in the web site lead to enormous efficiency improvements in customer service, or whole new products, delivered digitally. By the way, I just switched credit unions because of a lousy website. It does matter.

WordPress, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn Integration for SEO

Saturday, July 17th, 2010

The best SEO (Search Engine Optimization) tricks out there are the ones that don’t require a lot of work. We all have other things to do than to go to a bunch of different sites all day long, composing messages. The benefits of doing all the posting are large: Each post increase your visibility enormously, so many people are going to all the trouble to do exactly that.

One of the beautiful solutions is the circular posting capability involving WordPress, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. It’s like hiring a sign-shaker to dance on every corner.

In WordPress, it’s relatively easy to add a plugin that allows people, with a single click, create a link to an article in your blog, or one of your pages from FaceBook, LinkedIn, Twitter and more. Sociable is a good WordPress plugin for this. In addition, you can add a Twitter ‘Follow’ button, and links to your profiles on LinkedIn, Facebook, etc. All that is important (in fact, why haven’t I finished doing it on my blog..? oh yeah, it’s awaiting the re-design I never get around to doing)… but it’s just the start.

The next step is a bit more involved. Twitter Tools is a multi-part WordPress plugin that allows you to do round-trip posting. It can show your tweets automatically in a sidebar, or as a post, it can turn your posts into tweets automatically (using the post title, and a link back to the post), and it can do things like url shortening, and more. One key feature is the hash (#) handling part of Twitter Tools. By adding #li or #ln to this plugins settings, each post also goes to LinkedIn.

In addition, a WordPress plugin called “WordBook” allows cross-posting between Facebook and WordPress. At the moment I was writing this, however, there was some conflict keeping it from working. The author was trying to solve it, so by the time you read this, it may be resolved. However, if you’ve installed a Facebook ‘share’ button using Sociable (mentioned above) you can just click this, when your post is complete, and quickly share the WordPress post to Facebook.

If all this seems a bit confusing, it is. But once you get it set up, it’s magic for getting your site out to the search engines, and to get people seeing it through Twitter and Facebook. Every blog post you do is multiplied with a single click to the Publish button. None of these benefits are available if you have a static website, or a cheap ‘build it in a day’ site.

As a web developer, I’ve seen a lot of site-building tools come and go. This is the most powerful combination I’ve seen for businesses to compete for the best search engine results. If you’re ready to rebuild your site to take advantage of all this, or already have a WordPress site but don’t know how to implement all these cool tricks, contact me.

The joy of technical writing and web design

Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

The joy of technical writing, and of web design, is discovery, exploration, and mastery.

There are few businesses where one is always learning, not just how to do the basic work, but also about how the client’s businesses and their products actually work.

From nitty-gritty technical details (how does video get converted to an image on an array of LEDs?) but also, how does the client reach their customers? How do they brand their product? How do they get it out the door?

Technical writing is about translating the engineering details to the reader’s learning style, and delivering the critical ‘how-to’ information in a way that anchors to their pre-existing basis of understanding.

That’s relatively easy compared to modern website design, which is about translating the business details to the reader’s learning style and delivering the critical ‘why buy’ information in a way that anchors to their pre-existing basis of understanding, as well as their desires — All while executing the high-wire act of making it look good across a half-dozen browsers, and making it interact and flow in a predictable and pleasing manner… and considering how search engines will interpret the code, how the programming code works at a technical level, how the server works, and finally, how it should interact with several social networking sites, email systems, and lately, smart phones.

Regardless of whether the end result is a user manual, created in InDesign, delivered as a PDF, which will be printed and bound a thousand miles away and delivered with the product… or a web site, where the domain is pointed and suddenly the world can see your work… there’s that joy of creation.

Of finally pulling it all together into a coherent message. Mastering complexity.

It’s fun.

But, I’ll hire someone to do my taxes. You’ve got to draw the line somewhere.