6 E-commerce SEO Marketing Insights from Rand Fishkin

I’ve known Rand Fishkin for years. And for years, I’ve been picking his brain for insight and advice every chance I get. I can’t tell you how much I respect his opinions. Heck, you all know this already if you’ve ever seen a Whiteboard Friday or had a chance to see him speak. We recently held our second Founders Speaker Series event with Rand in Seattle. Before he answered questions from peers attending the event, I was able to pick his brain one more time on camera for over an hour. We’ve taken the best parts of that interview and split it into two parts.

The first video is really focused on strategic and tactical marketing topics. I polled some of our clients and asked them what questions they have for Rand. Rand answers those questions and more tackling questions ranging from what he would do if he were running SEO for your e-commerce company to whether you should worry about disavowing low quality links or not.

Here is a list of the questions that Rand answers in this video.

  • What are the first things you would do if you were in charge of SEO for an e-commerce company

  • Will we need to re-tool the skill sets of our SEO team to be successful in the future

  • What are the keys to building a successful link-building campaign and how do you get internal support?

  • Should I disavow bad links and how often?

  • How can retailers remain competitive?

  • How do I fight back against challengers to my Google search rankings?

Will robots do our shopping for us in the future?

blog-aishopper-3.jpg


Convenience has always been king in America. It’s what gave rise to fast food and one stop supercenter stores. New tech popularity and adoption is heavily linked to the convenience offered. Even when environmentally maligned like Keurig coffee systems, consumers often opt for convenience.

Consumers were certainly drawn to online shopping initially because of the actual or perceived discounts, but as more products became available and as Amazon compressed delivery times convenience began to win the day.  Amazon continues to innovate when it comes to conveniently being able to buy whatever you need.  Innovations like pushing a Dash button to re-order some laundry detergent or asking Alexa to order some cat litter show the progression. 

How long will it be before these devices do the ordering for us, without our prompting?

It’s not hard to image a future where a fully integrated home would know to replenish itself. Smart-fridges already have the technology to keep stock and have delivery orders placed. Are people willing to turn over the control of their purchases and essentially their bank account to a robot? 

Are we close enough for this to even be a possibility in the next 5 years?

According to our Future of E-Commerce survey, most people say no. 70% of our respondents don’t believe the robots will have control of our wallets in 5 years. 

WILL YOU HAVE A PERSONAL AI SHOPPING ASSISTANT MAKING PURCHASES ON YOUR BEHALF 5 YEARS FROM NOW?

 

However I wanted to gain some additional perspective from some folks enabling us to leverage bots in our businesses today. Do they believe 5 years is just too short for implementation; or do they believe people will never be that trusting of technology?

I thought it would be interesting to hear the opinions of some technology entrepreneurs providing AI-based solutions to retailers and brands.

Larry Kim, CEO of MobileMonkey, a chatbot marketing platform, offered the following insights, "I don't know if we'll be using personal shopping assistants in 5 years, but AI is already having a profound impact on how ad targeting on Facebook and Google, which dramatically impacts shopping behavior, and is something many in the industry thought was not possible."

"I just think that that shopping trends are really difficult to predict. AI by definition looks at patterns in the past and tries to predict future behavior, and that's just harder to do when people like to buy new stuff that wasn't invented before. Of course a shopping bot could tell you that your fridge filter needs to be changed, but I just think that people have complex tastes and preferences and this could be a tough nut to crack."

Conversely, Usama Noman, CEO of Botisy was much more optimistic that in 5 years robots will do the shopping for us. "We are already there to some extent. At Google I/O this year, Google demonstrated Google Assistant making a reservation on your behalf by having a real telephonic conversation between a computer and the person that answered the phone at the restaurant.  In five years we will see other companies emerging to level up the game making purchases via chatbots on your behalf."

"The AI is already capable of reading reviews, knowing your flavor and mood to find you the best product of the lot.  While a lot of the technology is in place today, it's still very hard to manage languages other than English.  There are tons of people who are not very familiar with the English language. Middle-Eastern countries specifically are not comfortable with English. Local startups will have to emerge to do this work in order to make this a global reality in next 5 years. Amazon and Google are already making progress in India and Japan, but some work has to be done for other major languages around the world for this to trend to become ubiquitous."

"Once this work is done, it will revolutionize e-commerce and suddenly you will find there won’t be many people ordering food and cosmetics by logging into their laptops or mobile phones, it will be all done through voice commands."

Finally, I turned to Gary Hoover, retail strategist, entrepreneur and business historian to put this trend in context of the greater evolution of retailing and consumer technology adoption.  Gary believes, "any predictions of the future must be based on a close and thoughtful analysis both of customers and of the products or services offered. Does the product require touch or not? It is easy for me to know which toothpaste or toilet paper I want, less so with clothing, fresh produce, or laptops (for those of us who type a lot). Is the level of touch changing? Refrigerators were pretty basic; all you had to know was the cubic size and color.

Now, and more so in the future, they are feature-laden. Maxwell House tasted pretty much the same at home or in any café; but coffees are not all the same today. Do I need a demonstration or a test drive? What is the frequency of purchase? There is a big difference between bread and sofas. What is the rate of innovation in the field? The Internet of Things brings new products to market each day. Pencils change a bit more slowly. But even underwear and mattresses are changing as I write this.

Stores, if run right, are better places to see and experience the new than the Internet.

You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.
— Steve Jobs

Those who take the long view of change – looking back 5, 10, or even 20 years, rather than the last month, quarter, or year – will be more likely to understand the future.

Deep thought about these questions and others like them will help retailers – online and off – to better navigate the future.  Some products will be sold by hitting a dash button, or on automatic re-order, but much will also be sold by real people in real buildings."

Personally, I feel pretty strongly that within 5 years time we will have an AI-based personal assistant that we can converse with and will turn over some form of our purchasing power to.  It’s not hard to imagine the evolution of Alexa and Google Assistant in the next 5 years being capable of doing more and more of our shopping for us.  Amazon clearly has the early advantage here and possibly an insurmountable advantage if Google doesn’t start executing much better.  

If you agree with this vision of the future or even want to make this future a reality what are the steps you should take today?

For retailers and brands, the conversations that your customer care team are having with your customers are the fuel for this future.  Making sure you have access to the raw data whether it is chat, email, SMS, messenger, a phone conversation or another form of social interaction will prove very valuable.  Additionally, as part of any experimental budgets I’d throw some resources at one of the chatbot services and would probably start investigating some Alexa Skill and Google Action development as a way of better understanding what a future would look like where bots are buying your products on behalf of humans.
 


about the author

Shilo Jones StatBid Co-Founder.png

Shilo co-founded StatBid with Roy Steves.  Shilo has spent nearly two decades building e-commerce businesses starting with evo.com where he served as the President as well as holding leadership positions at DestinationLighting.com and GolfDiscount.com.

Shilo Jones, Co-Founder, StatBid

Do you need an augmented reality e-commerce strategy now?

augmented-reality-ecomm.jpg

When we conduct our yearly e-commerce futures survey, it’s important we look at just that, the future.  Our entire goal is to help you shape your own view of the future by looking past the next quarter or even the next year.  As operators we need to have one eye on the telescope and make sure we are building for long-term success while still having one eye on the microscope focusing on execution.  By having one eye on the telescope we are looking at least 5 years out to make sure the strategic moves we are making today will pay off in the future.

In this post we are looking at the impact augmented reality will have on e-commerce in the next 5 years.  The major tech titans continue to invest in augmented reality, virtual reality and mixed reality experiences for a wide variety of use cases. Google introduced Project Glass in 2012 to bring augmented reality to the world.  Apple acquired Metaio in 2015 and Tim Cook has been very bullish on the technology saying.

I regard [AR] as a big idea like the smartphone. The smartphone is for everyone. We don’t have to think the iPhone is about a certain demographic, or country or vertical market; it’s for everyone. I think AR is that big. It’s huge. I get excited because of the things that could be done that could improve a lot of lives and be entertaining.
— Tim Cook - Apple CEO

% of Transactions Influenced by AR

What does this mean for e-commerce, though? Will AR be a driving force in e-commerce? According to our 2022 Futures survey, not really.

  • Nearly half of respondents (45%) think augmented reality will influence less than 25% of transactions.
  • Only 5% of survey takers thought AR would account for more than 3/4ths of sales.

To gain some additional perspective, I reached out to Jean-François Chianetta, Co-Founder and CEO at Augment, a leading SaaS-based provider of augmented reality solutions for his perspective.

"First of all, augmented reality will mainly impact the online sales of physical goods, it won't touch right away categories like cultural goods, insurance or travel. So I agree with the responses that AR won't touch every transaction. But for products like furniture, appliances or electronics, augmented reality will become the only interface through which you buy, you won't need to see pictures or video of the product, you'll test it right away in the real world and compare several products together as if you were in the store. At that point, the impact of AR will be outsized and will become even more important when augmented reality glasses become mainstream."

However, some in the retail market are not as optimistic. Nathan Decker the Director of e-Commerce for evo.com, an online outdoors outfitter, doesn’t see AR taking the lion’s share of purchases in 5 five years.

"I think it will be a long time – if ever - before AR is the “only interface” through which we buy physical goods. There are a few reasons for this.

The first is adoption. If you look at the rate technology has been adopted over the last hundred years, things that are ubiquitous like the telephone or microwave take 50 years to become common in every home. Over the last few decades the curve has shortened significantly with cell phones and the internet gaining widespread adoption in 20-25 years but VR and AR are just getting started. The soonest we will have widespread adoption of the technology, at least VR where you need a separate device, is 2030 or 2035...

The second reason is because there are so many other effective ways to bridge the gap between physical and digital. The sheer variety and ease of buying digitally makes AR and VR less necessary today than it might have been even 5 or 10 years ago. A multitude of interfaces compete to make the digital shopping experience seamless, easy, low commit. Ordering something by voice or setting up auto-refill subscription services or “dash” buttons reduce the need to even see an item at all before buying, let alone see it in an elevated way."

Jeff McRitchie, VP of Marketing, of MyBinding.com, a paper products retailer, had this to offer:

"Currently I am seeing a few instances where AR is making a difference and starting to enhance the shopping experience.  Specifically in virtual try on experiences, virtual walk throughs and in design applications...I can see these continuing to increase over time especially as the friction is reduced. That being said AR doesn’t really solve many of the primary areas of resistance to digital dominance.  People still like to touch and feel and experience products first hand and current AR / VR technology is a long way from solving that problem.

For businesses that experience a high degree of analog resistance where people struggle to transact digitally I suspect that technology will continue to improve and companies will find ways to reduce the friction to transact online.  This will drive AR/VR in the near term and I believe in the next five years sales that are impacted by these technologies will primarily fall into this category. Longer term it is possible that digital and analog worlds will continue to merge and become seamless.  However, that appears to be much further out and may or may not ever become fully realized

Unless you are in an industry facing a great deal of friction with analog buyers it is most likely smart to be on the trailing edge of this wave letting big players spend massive amounts of money to drive adoption."

Nathan echoed a similar sentiment cautioning smaller retailers to be wary of early adoption of unnecessary tech and software:

"Totally agree. The path to a viable economical commerce-oriented application is likely to have casualties along the way. The tech will come to us before we need to build anything."

Personally, my feelings on AR echo both Nathan and Jeff’s opinion in that it’s really only valuable to very specific industry segments where there is a lot of friction around the consumer journey, remodeling your kitchen for example.  Lower AOV transactions like clothing where virtual, augmented or mixed reality experiences theoretically could prove valuable on a majority of online or digitally-influences transactions are still well over 5 years out.

Ten years from now we'll see broader consumer adoption for these technologies based on the evolution of in-home entertainment and other real world applications like translators and teaching tools.  As the overall experience evolves and become more commonplace the impact on e-commerce will follow.

It’s apparent with this technology in its infancy we'll need see to adoption increase by leaps and bounds to warrant much investment as operators at this time. It's possible that some early adopters leveraging this technology can create brand new experiences that can support entirely new businesses and business models, but there are more interesting trends that B2C and D2C e-commerce companies should focus on.  For a full break down of the attitudes toward AR/VR and other future emerging tech, click to follow the link to our 2022 Future of E-Commerce Survey.


About the Author

Shilo Jones StatBid Co-Founder.png

Shilo co-founded StatBid with Roy Steves.  Shilo has spent nearly two decades building e-commerce businesses starting with evo.com where he served as the President as well as holding leadership positions at DestinationLighting.com and GolfDiscount.com.

Shilo Jones, Co-Founder, StatBid

StatBid Foundations Series with Rand Fishkin

We all hold these biases in thinking we want something because it is held up as the prototypical or archetypical example of what ‘success’ looks like.
— Rand Fishkin, Founder of Moz, Sparktoro

I’m so happy to share the success of our first in hopefully many Foundations speaker series events. We held the event at the Irving Street Kitchen in the heart of Portland’s Pearl District.  Many thanks to the staff, their beautiful space, and the wonderful spread they put out for us. A huge thank you to Big Commerce, theJibe & Shopper Approved for sponsoring.  The event was so successful, we’re excited to announce we’re bringing Rand to Seattle on August 23rd.

Rand_Roy_Shilo.jpg
Food.jpg

Every startup has its own challenges, and we’re no different. We’ve done our best to meet these challenges head on.  Part of what Roy and I love about StatBid is bringing people together to learn from one another and hopefully in doing so we can help others avoid some of the mistakes we've made. 

By solving problems and sharing ideas as a community, we can all grow in success.

Rand Reading Audience

I’ve had the good fortune to know Rand Fishkin for many years and he shares these same core values. It’s what led him to write the book Lost & Founder.  So, it seemed like a no-brainer to ask him to be our first speaker. To a group e-commerce professionals, Rand
read excerpts from the very book he wrote for everyone who’s looking just to sit down
and pick his brain over lunch. Obviously, it’d be impossible for him to spend all his time
having lunch with the curious minded, but he was gracious enough to spend some of
that time with us.

Rand Reading
...promotional pricing, especially when offered to a very large audience, creates
the impression that discounts and special offers are part of a brand’s ethos, and
rather signing up at full price you, as a potential buyer, should wait until the next
promotion launches.
— Lost & Founder by Rand Fishkin
Rand Q&A

Not only did he impart some illuminating knowledge through his reading, but the
event goes to the next level with an open-ended Q&A session. Rand
spent the better part of an hour answering questions from the audience in a formal capacity, and as you can see from the photos even more time while signing books.

It was so great hearing so many ideas thrown out and Rand being able to give
his insight. Personally, I loved seeing everyone sharing ideas with each other after Rand wrapped up.  This is what we had hoped for and why we take the time to build a community of like-minded people willing to share and learn from one another.

Below are some of the questions people asked and Rand's answers.  There's a ton of value packed into Rand's answers.


questions answered

Question: My biggest issues are some of the chatter around Google ranking manufacturers higher than retailers and increased pricing competition. Obviously, we need to differentiate and provide a unique brand experience, but what are the keys to eCom success in niche speciality retail? Where do you see up and coming marketing opportunities to grow new to file customers?

Rand's Answer: Yeah, right. So you're basically describing a problem that's gotten perniciously worse in Google, over time, for anyone who's a reseller of a product that a manufacturer offers on their own website. Right? Or, very frankly, that Amazon offers on their website, because Amazon has become such an overpowering brand in Google search results that they can sometimes take over, even above the manufacturer. So there's a few things you can do. First off, if someone else has a huge amount of authority, you can leverage that.

For example, if you can get your product onto Amazon as a reseller, you can sometimes outrank the manufacturer with your Amazon page. Which, Amazon's not exclusively alone in this, that can sometimes be true on some other websites depending on the niche; but that's certainly one option. And that's called "Barnacle SEO", by the way. So for anyone who's interested... like you've latched yourself onto a big ship. So if anyone's interested in playing that game, Barnacle SEO.

The second thing, that I definitely recommend, is trying to earn your loyal customers and loyal audience through indirect searches and indirect traffic generation methods. So this would be the things like, we're gonna do content marketing, we're gonna do social media marketing, we're gonna do influencer marketing, and we're gonna get people to our site, right? Who then subscribe to us, who build loyalty with us, who think of us, so that when they search for whatever it is, they add, then, our brand name to the query.   I'm seeing it a bunch with Etsy. Where people have a basically a non-branded query term and they add Etsy to it because they're looking for stuff specifically from Etsy. They want to support those types of businesses.

And then, I think, the third tactic that you can play is the pure ad game. Right? So Google has gotten pretty darn aggressive with Google Shopping results. They can sometimes dominate the top of the search so heavily that the first organic result, which would be a manufacturer's page, is pushed down far enough that you have to worry about it less. 

But this means, I think for each query like that you have to pay close enough attention to what's going on in the search results and then sort of see the trend, what are the features, what does this visually look like on mobile and on desktop, can we play that game, is that going to be a winning strategy. And you can combine all three of these too.

Question:  Do you ever see Amazon's market share within product search stabilizing?

Rand's Answer: So, fascinating question because it pre-supposes that Amazon is dominant in this area. So together with a company called Jumpshot, out of California, which monitors click-stream data; and they have access, I think it's ... I think they have between six and seven million devices here in the US, mobile and desktop, and so they basically observe all of the urls that all of those devices visit on a browser. Doesn't matter if they're https, doesn't matter if incognito window, etc. 

From those, they can see where searches begin and I actually published that data in April on the SparkToro blog and so you can check that out. What it shows is that search ... so Amazon's share of all searches in 2015 was about 2.2% to Google's about 85%. And in this year, in February of this year, it was 2.3% and Google had gone up a little bit more. So, fascinatingly Amazon basically has stabilized as a percentage of all queries. 

I think one of the problems that I see, is that a ton of the coverage I've seen about Amazon's dominance in search, right? Well, again, you've probably seen this too. All the headlines that say, "70% of US Consumers Say They Started Their Searches On Amazon". They don't. They start them on Google, but Amazon ranks #1 and that's what they click. Or it ranks somewhere in the first page. Or they search for "product + Amazon", but in Google itself.

And so, I think that the ... I think the right answer to your question, it's a little complicated; but in terms of do I see, right now, a path for Amazon to shrink?

No.

Do I think that they're gonna stay relatively stable?

I think the biggest war is gonna be in voice. So if Alexa becomes the in-home device that everyone has and uses, I think that's gonna mean that Amazon dominates a lot of that. 

Especially, not first time ... no one says, "Hey, Alexa. Order me some paper towels." Okay, that might happen; but I don't think it's gonna be, "Alexa, get me a new laptop." You kind of, are you sure about that? I never see that happening. "Hey, Alexa. Just book me a vacation. I don't care where." No, it's not gonna happen, right?

I really don't think that Alexa will be like, "I can choose for you." Right? But it's gonna be a few generations before it will do that. I think people will continue to have product research; but there's also, I think the Google voice and the new Google home device is gonna make a really strong push. And it's gonna be a war. 

Question: You talk about competing with the manufacturer, how about flipping that around. How does the manufacturer compete with Amazon?

Rand's Answer: So a few things are available to use as a manufacturer that are not available to anyone else. One of those is being able to control, what Google calls, the knowledge graph results. It appears on the right sidebar of a search query. Is that right? Yeah. The right sidebar of a search query for any particular brand name or an entity name. 

So, for example, if you search for any actor's name, right? You would find, who were we just researching? Tessa Thompson, right? So if you search for her, you'll see ... because her and Janelle Monáe are like dating now. Oh my god. 

So, you know, if you search for anybody like that, those knowledge graph results are available to you. And, in fact, those are controllable as of last week by a brand that says, "We own and control this." So that is a very cool ability available to no one else but you, the registered trademark owner of the brand name. 

The second thing that's pretty cool is that Google gives, by nature, a sort of extra boost, click-through boost and authority-boost, to the official website in terms of a brand name search. So long as you get a lot the SEO things right on your website. So that includes like a friendly url; you don't want to be using sub-domains that'll dilute things, you don't want to be using long, complicated url strings that have a bunch of parameters in them. This is even for sub-brands. 

So if we're talking about like REI's, I don't know, global tracking hiker shoe, I don't know if that's actually a thing but let's say ... it probably is. Then that would be a url that you want to have in that format with those right folders and that kind of thing. As an example, again with REI, if they registered some random domain like, globaltrackerhiking.com and then you had their ad point to that, it will not perform nearly as well as if they have it go to REI.com/global/tracker/shoe or trackershoe or whatever. 

Generally speaking, Google has, has this paradigm whereby, on both the organic and the paid side, domains inherit a certain amount of authority and as you build up this authority and preference; like lots of users who see this domain now prefer to search like this. Click on this and don't bounce back to the search results. You benefit over time.

So another great thing that can and obviously should do, is measure your bounce rate. If lots of people come to your website from Google and then they click the back button and choose a different result in Google, that will kill your ability to rank. In both paid and organic. And that, yeah, that can be a death knell. So folks they see this one, their websites really slow, web user experience is not good or it's not mobile friendly or when it's not desktop friendly. Like someone went overboard with mobile first and now it looks like crap on desktop.

That's a real thing now. And that can seriously harm you click return conversion. Google calls it pogo-sticking when someone goes from the search result to your page back to the search result.

So the question was, how should you think about branded optimization versus non-branded. I have changed my position on this significantly. So I used to think that ranking for your non-branded stuff was the most important because those are the ones that are competitive. And that is true, that's still true today. Non-branded is becoming much more competitive than branded is.

However, the most successful organizations that I see in search and on the web and just in general, are those where the CEO can smile and go, "Oh, you think SEO is important. Guess what, that's 1/100th. All the search terms combined for all of our unbranded products is 1/100th the amount of searches we get for our brand names. And that is intentional." 

And so, I have very much come around to saying, "Yes, SEO still matters, certainly, for smaller organizations and you can win that space." It can be awesome and transformative. It's definitely a wonderful short and medium term investment; but if long-term you can invest in things that will get people, rather than searching for hiking boots, to search for Nike boots.

Forget about it. 

That's the real win. A brand just dominates. And I think we're in an era in, not sure if it's global capitalism or American capitalism, whereby there's so many compounding benefits for becoming a winning brand in a space.  So that's certainly an area that I urge everyone to invest in. 

Question: What if you only had one thing to focus on in eCommerce, what would you be doing?

Rand's Answer:  I think this ties a little bit to my previous answer, but I think that the process of figuring out when and why my audience, who buys my product, goes and talks about that product and amplifies it for me. All right, so researching that process. Why you talk about it, when you talk about it, with whom you talk about it, who are you to talking about it and don't talk about it, and then getting lots and lots of those people who do talk about it, to talk about it more. And amplifying whatever it takes to get that going, that is what I would invest in. 

I get that being able to spread organically without needing to ... win in competitive marketplaces is probably the thing that sets great brands apart from good brands that you've heard about.

Is it challenging to do that without looking like fake and astroturfy?

Yes, it definitely hard to do. I think that people who do it best and look authentic doing it are the ones who invest primarily in a combination of actual product, like the product that delights their customer in some way that's very meaningful and also makes it amplification worthy, and they invest in customer service and being the ... a level of communication and a kind of communication that resonates with their audience in a very special way. 

Actually, one of my favorite examples, definitely my favorite example right now. You guys are familiar with the Domino's Pizza marketing story? A few are nodding heads.

Okay. This is 2008? 2009? I think Domino's got a new CEO. Maybe it was earlier, 2006, something like that. They decided that many of the critics of their pizza were correct. They were great at fast delivery, they were great at location, they were great at convenience, they had good prices. Their pizza was terrible. Tasted, literally, like cardboard.  So, the incoming CEO and the executive team put together a marketing campaign that was, sorry, a product and then a marketing campaign that was essentially, "We're gonna throw out our old recipes. We agree with our consumers who told us it was terrible."

We're not gonna make a pizza like this anymore. We're re-doing our ovens, our ingredients, our dough, our sauce, our toppings, our spices, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And then, we're gonna put up billboards around the country that have, whatever it is. Shilo tweeted at us six months ago, "Domino's I'd rather eat this leathery shoe." And Shilo, our pizza is now way better than a leathery shoe. Have billboards with, literally, people's names and then the crap that they said about them and addressing them.

And they had a big television marketing campaign that they ran on NFL and all that kind of stuff of, "Yes, we used to suck and now we're better. Here's this offer." So I think that's kind of a good example of that ... it is viral-worthy. It's worthy of talking about, but it also has some authenticity behind it. 

One caveat to this, my friend Adam's son just did his middle school science fair project on "Which is the best fast-food pizza?" And they ordered all of the Seattle area fast-food pizza chains. Domino's still came in last.  So ... It may be that it's way better but apparently it's still not that good.

Question: Does link building still matter?

Rand's Answer: So Google's messaging has been, "You don't have to worry about that as much as in the past." That was, by the way, also their messaging in 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2016, right?

Like, "We are less reliant on links now. You just put better content in, we'll take care of the rest." I think that's ... I think it would be dumb to ignore link building for a bunch of reasons.

First off, links can send direct traffic. And direct traffic that you can get from links is high-quality, good stuff. Good ... if you can diversify your sources of traffic, that's also an excellent method.

Second, Google likes links coming from places that are authentically covering what you are doing or want to refer people to you. Which means you have to do things that are worthy of amplification coverage, which will help build your brand.

And then the third, I would agree today, with Google saying, "Links matter a little less than they did five years ago." Much more so than I did in 2013 or 2007.  But, less is not none. I would say if you are in a competitive space and you can get a dozen, two dozen high-quality, new linking domains to a page of yours that's ranking for a product; you will almost definitely move up in the rankings. You will almost definitely sell more of that product. You will almost definitely get more clicks and more traffic. 

And weirdly consumers have this perception that Google always puts the best thing at the top and so you can see consumer sentiment changing with Google rankings. Which is kind of disturbing, right? They think of Google as an endorsement engine and so if you can rank highly they'll give you that benefit.

So, in terms of ... onto your question about the strategic side of link building. What I would do, generally speaking, is I would try and identify those places that you think are likely to be linking to you or should be. And that could be a wide group. So you could look at, oh, here's a bunch of my competitors and where they get their links. And here's a bunch of people who wrote about similar content, but aren't actually our competitors, they're just places that cover topics like this and we'll link to them. 

Here are media sources that cover our field. Here's partners that they have. Whatever it is. And then try to look for the commonalities in why. So, one of the biggest pieces advice I always give people is, before you ever create something. A page, a product, a new company. Have a great answer to the question, "Who will help amplify this and why?" If you can literally list that out, if you can say, "Oh, okay. This person will help me amplify this because ... and here's the great answer to that." You're on the right path and that's the best way I've seen to get things too.

If it were easy, everyone would do it. The thing about link building that's awesome is that it is one of the few ways in SEO, as compared to like on-page stuff, few ways in SEO that you can truly stand out in your field. It's very difficult, very time consuming, challenging. There are very few, well there's more now ... there's only a small handful of consultants and agencies who are any good at it and so if you can build that as a competitive strength, it's also a competitive area worth entering.

 

StatCave 9: Moosejaw UX Review

It's 2018, and while eCommerce websites haven't really needed to change much in the past decade (compared to the previous decade, certainly), it continues to amaze me how rough so many shopping experiences actually are.  Why do you shop on Amazon (most of you do, so do I), as we are all doing so more and more, even as their price advantage is slowly traded in for profitability?  We trust that we'll be able to accomplish our goal (find and buy a thing) with as little pain as possible.

So, if we want to compete with Amazon in the slightest, we will need to do something remarkable to earn those shoppers.  But before we worry about "crafting a brand story that includes the customer", or "engaging with our audience in the way they want to be engaged," I propose we get some fundamentals right, first.

To that end, I did another secret shop, identifying opportunities in one shopping experience that are almost certainly relevant to your site, as well.  This episode's victim... um, I mean recipient of this free site audit is outdoor retailer, Moosejaw!  They were acquired by Walmart in early 2017, and we'll see whether that combo works for the shopper!

Today's exercise was shopping for a new pair of hiking boots for myself.  My current pair of Keens have had a long and illustrious career, carrying me through countless adventures over the past few years.

And, so, these boots have more than earned their retirement, but before I send them off to the boot farm, I'd better recruit their replacements!

Quick, to the Googlemobile!


The Field of Competition: Distinctly D2C?

 Notice something about the Shopping results?  No retailers, just Direct-to-Consumer brands.

Notice something about the Shopping results?  No retailers, just Direct-to-Consumer brands.

Direct to Consumer is a massive trend, for obvious reasons.  Retail, as a concept, has been primarily a geographic arbitrage game for the past few centuries.  You find a product that's less common somewhere else (or otherwise in greater demand), and you make a profit on the difference in perceived local value.  It's a business model that is as old as currency, yet erodes in the face of online shopping and almost unbelievably fast home delivery.  

DtC companies are the product, so their value is in the product creation itself, not just the markup on the materials.  Further, they're insulated from Amazon's predation, as there's no middleman  to cut out, and buy direct.  

Still, this was more severe than I expected.

I'm a huge fan of the DtC (sometimes labelled "D2C", although I'm going to stop doing that), but retail does provide one significant feature that DtC can't--cross-brand comparison shopping!  And so, I wanted to shop on a retailer, as I'm not sure what brand of boots I need, at least not yet.

And, so, I clicked on the Moosejaw text ad, rather than a Shopping result.  This also is going to drop me on a category page, which is more appropriate, given my broad search.


Eventually... a Landing Page!

 After an absurdly long load time, this is the landing page I'm presented with.

After an absurdly long load time, this is the landing page I'm presented with.

Load time was badly weighed down by the sheer number of asynchronous javascript bringing in page elements, long after the initial render.  But once the sun started to expand into its red giant phase, the page finally finished, presenting me with nearly half the screen informing me of what I had been assuming was a given...  FREE EXCHANGES ON FOOTWEAR.

This is the first instance of Moosejaw's rough, awkward, and kind of forced sense of humor, with the link to "read all the dumb rules and details."  I get it, you have a job, and there are things that your legal team make you do, and you're sticking it to the man.  The shopper's going to love that, right?

Not really.  What you've done is broken the fourth wall, and shown something uninviting behind the curtain.  

 
2018-07-20_11-16-39.png
 

If you want to humanize the brand, be sure that the culture you're revealing is a good thing.  Like Wistia's Annual Rap-Up video, or on the more serious side, Patagonia's activism section.

But, to be fair, their eye-rolling humor did catch my attention!  That's good, right?  Well, it might be, if it were on a call to action, but it was on a distraction.  If you click on it (as I couldn't prevent myself from doing), you're tossed to the very bottom of the Terms and Conditions page of the site, where it's not really clear what's going on, till you realize that you're looking at a clause on footwear exchanges.

 This is where the path they've laid out for you leads... exciting...

This is where the path they've laid out for you leads... exciting...

To make matters... (sigh) so very much worse, that banner click failed to open into a new tab, utterly derailing my attempt to shop for boots, and kicking me entirely out of the funnel.

What's the point of this site again?  To get me to buy something, right?  

Fine, I'll click "back" (itself a symptom, not a solution), and find that Moosejaw missed something else obvious.  Remember how I searched for men's hiking boots, and the Ad itself specifically called out that it was for men's boots?  Well, the landing page isn't narrowed to men's boots.  

That may seem minor, but it's also ridiculous to get wrong.  Even if the Ad itself was using Dynamic Keyword Insertion, there's nothing stopping them from attaching the appropriate landing page URL to the keywords that would be best served by a filtered landing page.

The ajax garbage ran amok again, loading the page in a little over 8 agonizing seconds, only to spend another four loading what appeared to be a floating footer bar, that was covered up by the status of the browser (at least in Chrome).  This means that bar is covering itself up by trying to load more crap into the bar?

2018-07-20_11-42-24.png

While trying to figure out where the links in this bar go, the mouse-over status bar did exactly the same thing, making it about as useful as a poke in the eye.

And then... in the middle of the bar (in the right of the screenshot above), what is MADNESS?

Madness (n): Extremely foolish behavior.  For example, linking away from your shopping experience on every page, giving your shoppers more opportunities to get distracted.

2018-07-20_11-48-40.png

I get it, they're still just trying to have fun with their brand.  But it feels really incoherent.  It feels like the "personality" of the brand is just what is squeezed between the bars of their corporate overlords.  It's almost like it was a cool brand, and maybe it was shredded into absurdity by the acquisition by Walmart?   


Finally back on topic...

Despite that MADNESS link also failing to open to a new tab, I managed to stumble my way back to the category page.  

At this point, weak product data started to become really obvious...

Data was really inconsistent, and it was really apparent when you looked at the filters on the category page:

2018-07-20_11-54-21.png

The fact that there was only a single "Size", and a ton of "Footwear Size" carrying products, suggests that the "Size" value was an artifact of some other product data schema.  This won't be the last time it seems like Moosejaw's catalog is badly cobbled together from manufacturer-provided data.

When I was a retailer, we had a rule: Never trust data from outside our own building.  This meant we had to do a lot of product content work before we could add products to the site, writing original titles, descriptions, and ensuring complete data across the relevant fields.  Lots of work, but the result was a site that positively exudes expertise and confidence.

This was the other thing.

But their category filters weren't all bad.  They did at least have a custom price range capability, which was better than I could say for Home Depot and others in my last UX review.

2018-07-20_12-00-41.png

Another field was what I assume represented Customer Ratings, but they decided to call these "Custy" ratings.  Was I able to determine that they were talking about Customers?  Sure.  But it was really awkward.  It's like an in-group joke, which might seem like a great idea for returning shoppers, but as a new shopper, it says "you're not one of us, and aren't welcome here."  Savvy?

Oh, and on the ratings, they were all "and up" values, which is normal.  Except, they were displayed as checkboxes, rather than radio buttons, despite being a select-one interface element.  Is it that hard to use the right interface element type for the right job, Moosejaw?


My ongoing struggle for relevant products...

2018-07-20_12-06-45.png
2018-07-20_12-19-42.png

Sorels are amazing, but they aren't hiking boots.  We have to select "hiking" in the "best use" filter in order to turn the Hiking Boots page into a ... hiking boots page?

Once properly filtered to... try to stay with me, now... men's hiking boots, I found something pretty disappointing.  They simply don't have anything resembling a good selection of these products.  Most of the few boots they did carry were designed for cold and wet hiking, which is great, but not what I need.  I live in Phoenix, "waterproof" is a negative for me, as I'd rather have the additional breathability for hiking in the desert.  


Oh, they have a Compare-To feature!

On the downside, it looks like I designed it.

First, how about that red notification bar, that encroaches on the "Compare Products" header?  Classy, right?  How about the awkward amount of whitespace, paired with all of the other elements that are claustrophobically crammed together?  Oh, and then there's our favorite, the usually-unreadable floating bottom bar, obscured by the browser status, as usual.

But as soon as you scroll down, it gets worse.

The product data was horribly hit and miss.  Many of the fields were only populated in one or two of the columns, resulting in a complete lack of confidence that I was even looking at valid data, let alone anything complete enough to drive a buying decision.  Even the data that was there was anxiety inducing, as one of these pairs of boots claimed to be more than twice the weight of the others.  Possible?  Sure!  But unlikely enough to chop another ten points off of our shopper's confidence score.

Further, when you clicked the "...more" link in the product description previews, rather than expanding to show the remaining available text, it takes you to that product page!  Would you be surprised at this point to hear that it wasn't in a new tab, either?

I think Moosejaw may be entirely unaware of target="_blank" as an option for links.

So, you want to really compare these products?  You're on your own to open new tabs, like a neanderthal.  


Product Page: Pain Points Present

Once I accepted my fate, and found myself on the Product Detail Page (PDP) for one of the boots I was investigating, it was apparent that little thought went into it beyond implementing the template provided by the eCommerce platform.

First, it was horrifyingly slow, as most of the pages had been.  Second, there was only one color available, and it wasn't preselected.  

2018-07-20_12-42-59.png

Just in case we were getting far too close to a buying decision, Moosejaw roars back with another ambiguity to throw us off the scent.  There's only one color available, "Ebony / Gargoyle", but there are photos of at least two different boots--one olive-gray (shown above), and another that was all-gray.  Ebony is allegedly a black color, which neither boot actually is, and Gargoyles are generally made of stone, so... is that the all-gray one?

So, I resorted to clicking the "Need Help" bug on the left of the product page, and get this:

2018-07-20_12-53-16.png

I guess it's supposed to be cute.  It seems badly forced, and only slightly less awkward than karaoke at an office party.  And what happens when we open this chat?

2018-07-20_12-56-05.png

I get that you might want email address to follow up with someone who is disconnected mid-chat, but I started to suspect that wouldn't be the end of it.  

Spoiler Alert: They f***ing spammed me later that same day.

So, without granting them permission to mail me at all (right?  RIGHT?), one of their support reps helped me.  That part of the experience was pretty solid.  The rep couldn't seem to tell which tab I was on, so it took a moment to get on the same page, but he did confirm for me that the olive-green photos represented the mysterious "Ebony / Gargoyle" color designation.

With that information in hand, I started to dig into the product photography.  The good news is that the actual photographs were really quite good!  This is also true of their 360-degree view, which requires a special rig to shoot effectively.  

The product page's gallery, on the other hand, failed to take advantage of that one shining beacon of competency, relying on a buggy, twitchy zoom-scroll interface, rather than letting me see the entire, full-resolution photo at once.  

I guess they're afraid that I'll steal their product photography?  I mean, that happens a lot, and I've had to defend my site from such hooligans, but never at the cost of the experience for the actual shoppers.

I spent so much time trying to get that photograph open in a new tab that I accidentally confused Chrome, and found myself stuck with an open Console pane, which locked me into their Mobile version of their responsive template.  

It wasn't great, either.

2018-07-20_13-08-45.png

Once I closed this tab, and started over, I encountered several more prolonged periods of "...waiting for cache...".  It was almost like Moosejaw didn't know that caching was supposed to speed things up.  If the browser was referring to local cache, something was misconfigured.  If the browser was referring to remote cache (image servers, in-memory object servers, etc.), then they weren't doing a very good job of saving load time.

Once the page was loaded again, in the right device view, I decided to try to watch the embedded product video for the Asolo boots I was viewing.  I expected it to describe the unique features of that product line.

Instead, it was a painfully boring video narrated by an anthropomorphized barbiturate.

2018-07-20_13-30-13.png

When I tried to go back from a product page to the Category page, I got hit by this:

No, Moosejaw, I'm not seeing what I want.  But more importantly, you threw a browse-abandonment modal window at me when I wasn't abandoning, but rather just navigating around your site.

Your modal manager (be it a third party app, or developed in-house) should be able to tell what browser I'm using, and therefore the difference between a mouse movement toward the URL bar (an upcoming exit), and the back button (a navigational click).  Just a mouse moving toward the top of the screen isn't enough to verify intent, and this use case was a hard miss.

Upon returning to the category page through the site navigation, my Compare-To selections were not preserved.  So, I had to recreate my selections, in order to continue my shopping.

At this point, I've already decided not to buy from this site, but I was in for a penny, in for a pound, so I added the closest option to the cart, and tried to charge ahead.


Cartastrophe

The cart was busy, ugly, and unremarkable.  It fell victim to one of one of the classic blunders!

VizziniDeath.gif

And yet...

2018-07-20_13-37-24.png

Do you need to make it easy for someone with a coupon to enter it?  Yes.  But you can do that with a little collapsed entry field.  "Have a discount code?" is a prompt that I've seen deployed successfully, and the absence of the code's field was effective enough to win an A/B test by a handsome margin.

They do this again in the checkout, just in case you missed your opportunity to leave the site and never come back.

The rest of the checkout process was pretty mediocre.  It was obviously driven by their platform's limitations, not the user's best interest.  The billing/shipping address controls were inconsistent and buggy.  The validation included notifications that would auto-dismiss before you could read them.  There were pop-over messages that showed up multiple times, uninvited.

Worst of all, it expects YOU to do more work that they should be doing for you.

2018-07-20_13-42-10.png

Throughout this wreck, it kept making reference to ship dates.  I don't care about ship dates.  Not in the slightest.  I care about delivery dates.  

On the topic of delivery...

2018-07-20_13-46-02.png
kill_them_all.gif

I gave up.  It was too much of a struggle to deal with this site.  They expect me to do all of the work of product comparison, fight through their nearly-non-existent product data, do basic math for them, and then they try to trick me into the cheaper shipping option... for them.

No thanks.

The entire site was so sluggish, and prone to extended ajax loading pains, that I had to see what the deal was.  BuiltWith reported that they were built on IBM Websphere, which may indicate that their ERP was wagging the dog, resulting in a mediocre web frontend.  However, they also had a laughable list of installed vendor tags.  No tag manager in the world can save you if you rely almost entirely on third party plugins for your site's functionality.  I bet they could have even tested each feature individually, each with a positive A/B test, but failed to realize that if you pile enough straw on a camel's back, eventually, that poor critter is going to be crushed into a fine, pink mist.

Oh, and just to top everything off, guess what?  

2018-07-20_13-54-43.png

Final Grade: D

I've seen worse, so I need to reserve the F for those truly remarkable disasters.  However, this was still a failure, so I can't give them even a C-, either.  They'll have to take this class over again. 

willy-wonka-you-get-nothing.gif

Their site fought me at every step, their load-times were inexcusable, and then they violated CAN-SPAM in order to send even more annoying garbage at me, even after I'd fled for the hills.  And this isn't user error--I literally have a video recorded of my entire shopping experience, so it's unambiguous that no consent was given along the way, even on accident.


If you'd like a UX review of your site, let me know at roy@statbid.com!  If I select your submission, and you'll let me share the results (brave enough?), they're free.  If you'd like it just for internal consumption, then we can discuss other arrangements, as well.  

I love talking shop, so let me know what you think!  Was I unfair?  Were there other ways to improve Moosejaw that I overlooked?