Four Fallacies of Wine Website design

In building Able Grape I’ve run tens of thousands of wine-related searches, and looked at some 15,000 of the 38,000 sites in our database. Though there are many mistakes that wine producers, wine organizations, and wine publications make while designing sites, there seem to be just a handful of fallacious beliefs behind the vast majority of problems. This post is my first cut at a list of them.

First, to highlight the importance of good website design, let’s start with a little story. It may be fictitious, but to those of us who frequently search for wine information, it rings all too familiar.

Imagine you’re a retailer. Or a sommelier. Or just a wine lover. One day you’re looking for information to put in your customer newsletter, or your winelist, or perhaps you’re just curious. You love the latest vintage of Producer X’s Muckleberry Vineyard blend. But what were the percentages of Saperavi and Nero d’Avola again? No problem, you think. Producer X has always had a great website with useful information. So you go to your favorite search engine, and type in 2005 producerX Muckleberry. Now where did that page from Producer X’s website go? You swear you’ve seen it before. Judging from the search results, it looks like just a bunch of retailers: Best prices on 2005 ProducerX Muckleberry. Or Buy Muckleberry Vineyard Saperavi/Nero d’Avola at winespaccio.com. You click on one at random, and it says “Producer X’s Muckleberry is 100% Nero d’Avola from Salaparuta suitcase clones.” Well, that doesn’t make sense. Everyone knows that ProducerX has been blending with Saperavi for years. This must be a cut-and-paste job from the description of a previous vintage. No matter, you think, and try a couple of others, with two different answers. Now what? Which one do you trust? Best to visit the producer’s own site. So you dutifully type ProducerX into your search engine, and click on http://www.producerx.com. But instead of the slightly homely but useful homepage you remember, suddenly you see “Loading Flash…” and a cute little bottle starts spinning on the page. Your browser gradually spits out “1%… 10%… 50%…” You wait with bated breath, because of course, if it takes some time to load, there must be something special and new. At last, you pass 99%, and you nearly jump out of your chair as the tinny sound of violins blazes out of your computer’s tiny speakers! Your office neighbor raises an eyebrow at you, as if to say, “Are you surfing YouTube again, slacker?” Blushing, you scramble to find the “sound off” button, hit it, and hastily mumble an apology. Now where are the specs for the 2005 Muckleberry Vineyard? Ah, it must be under Wines. Click. And finally, there is… oh no. “Loading Flash… 1%… 10%…” Arrgh! (you realize as your officemate throws you another quizzical look that you’ve actually groaned aloud). Finally, there it is, Muckleberry Vineyard Blend. Click. And up comes a beautiful picture of the wine, complete with little stars dancing around the bottle, and wow! you can see a close up of the label when you mouse over it. Now where were those percentages again?

The story may seem a joke, but scenes like this happen all too often. What’s ironic is that, as in the fictitious example, perfectly useful sites are often made worse by expensive redesigns. Thinking about who your users are, what they are looking for, and how they will find it can save pain for your users and help you sell your wines. Here are four fallacious beliefs that seem to underly many of the problems I’ve seen:

  • Users will come to my site and browse around for the information they need.. Sure, some of them will. But most won’t. Most users will start at a search engine, and they will be very specific about what they want. If you haven’t got that specific information on your web site, in a form search engines can understand, you’re missing an opportunity to connect with a current or potential customer. Worse yet, there are plenty of other search-savvy sites who will connect with that same potential customer, like the retailers in our fictitious example, and they may or may not communicate the message you want to send. Do you want to tell your own story or let them tell it for you?
  • The more traffic my site gets, the better. Missing out on connections with users interested in your wines is clearly a mistake. But so is trying to connect with users who are looking for something else. The art of good search engine optimization (SEO) is to help people find exactly what they’re looking for, no more, no less. Suppose, for example, that your SEO or web consultant works some special magic and your 2001 Reserve Cabernet ranks highly in the search results for “Cabernet Sauvignon.” Now put yourself in the shoes of a user looking for information about Cabernet. Are they likely to find your page useful? Are they likely to buy your product? The answer to both questions is “no”; your 2001 Reserve Cabernet may be fantastic, but they’re looking for general information, not a specific wine. Moreover, they may associate the negative experience of “spammy” search engine results with your brand. And if your SEO is too aggressive, you may even be blacklisted (removed) from search engines. This kind of extra traffic does more harm than good.
  • The more aesthetic a site is, the better it is. High-end wine is a luxury product, and of course, image matters. But there are just too many sites where form takes precedence over function. Fancy graphics and sometimes music conspire to create a site that is pretty, but less useful, and occasionally downright annoying. Flash sites are frequent, but by no means unique, culprits. If you’re going to redesign your site in Flash, pay attention to function. Be aware that (a) Flash content is often invisible to search engines; (b) Flash takes longer to load and is typically slower to navigate than “standard” HTML; and (c) your users can’t cut-and-paste Flash, so grabbing that information for their sales newsletter just got harder. With a judicious combination of Flash and HTML, you can get around some of these shortcomings and have the “best of both worlds.” But such sites seem relatively rare; there seem to be many web designers who are talented visual artists but lack expertise in creating search-engine-friendly and navigable sites. Think of this as a corollary to the first rule: don’t assume that your users will have the skill or patience to find and navigate your site; you’ve got to help them find what they want. And the more fancy your visual design, the more skill that sometimes takes.
  • Web sites are for consumers. Almost everyone, whether professional or consumer, uses the web to look for information these days. Among the first test users of Able Grape were the wine director of a top San Francisco wine bar and the wine buyer at a San Francisco retail store. When they want information to help them sell particular wines, they get on the internet to try to find the producer’s, distributor’s or importer’s spec sheets. And they start with a search engine. These are fairly typical (albeit atypically skilled and passionate!) wine professionals. The message? Producers, importers, and distributors, your sales support information should be on the internet, in a search-friendly format. And don’t just provide pretty label photos. Give solid, accurate, in-depth information.

Thoughts? Additions? Have any suggestions for best/worst-designed websites? These are some first thoughts toward a longer piece for publication, with more in-depth, specific examples of both good design and design mistakes. I’ve got a long list of examples, but I’d love to hear any you may have to add!

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15 Responses to “Four Fallacies of Wine Website design”


  1. 1 Marisa D'Vari July 18, 2008 at 5:41 am

    Well said! Flash and sound are the worst concepts to hit the web. I try to make mine web site
    clear and usable, and always welcome suggestions. Good post!

  2. 2 ablegrape July 18, 2008 at 3:12 pm

    Thanks, Marisa! Just to clarify, I don’t think Flash is necessarily bad, but one wouldn’t know that from looking at a lot of the sites that use it. Sites entirely in Flash are bad. But where the message and navigation are in HTML, a little Flash can add spice — interactive graphs, animations, etc — without detracting from the site’s utility. But it must be used judiciously.

  3. 3 neil July 18, 2008 at 5:40 pm

    agreed – im not a fan of flash in website design but admit it does have its places sometimes

  4. 4 Giampiero alias Aristide July 20, 2008 at 10:41 am

    Well done, Doug.
    Now, it seems we need something like a savvy checklist to reengineering wine web sites out there… ;-)

  5. 5 Rick Bakas July 21, 2008 at 10:24 pm

    What have you found when it comes to mobile wine sites?

  6. 6 Philip James July 22, 2008 at 8:14 pm

    Found this article from the “wine conversation” blog. Great piece. Glad you clearly called out flash monstrosities, while defending flash itself. As you say its a narrow line, but a lot of sites use a tiny amount of flash to good effect (we use it for, as you mentioned, charts and other things that dont work well in html).

    I also second Ricks question about mobile design – any pointers there?

  7. 7 ablegrape July 22, 2008 at 9:17 pm

    Hey Philip, Rick.

    I can’t say that I am an expert in mobile design (as a look at Able Grape on the iPhone will attest!). In the “full-size” browser world, the technologies are relatively stable, so there’s been a lot of time to define what “good design” means, both in terms of usability and search-engine friendliness. But the basic technologies of the mobile world have been so much in flux that “good design” there has been a moving target, if not a meaningless expression. The iPhone seems to have created a whole new world of possibilities, but is new enough that it will be a learning process to figure out what “good design” is in that space, especially in terms of search engines. How will users find content on mobile devices? So far every “bet” I’ve seen has rapidly fizzled out (witness WAP search engines, anybody remember those?). But it’s a sure bet that there will be *some* way — it’s a basic need. I imagine the two of you have been more active than I… what have you found so far?

  8. 8 gianpaolo August 9, 2008 at 7:23 am

    I recently choose to merge my blog and website. It wasn’t easy as wordpress can sometimes be a frustrating experience (trying to embed a google map was becoming a nightmare), so we also used normal Html pages beside the blog. I’m now trying to introduce a little bit of Flash, but again I can only make it work on Html pages. I like it anf I feel the same, too much is bad, but just a little could be good.
    Thank you for the tips, anyway. I’ll keep them in mind.

  9. 9 winetlv August 12, 2008 at 4:01 pm

    Excellent piece! I cordially detest running into Flash nonsense when I am searching for hard data. LOVE wine sites where I can get straight to press /media tools like the label I need for an article, fact sheets on each wine, etc.
    Our site ain’t much, but has all the basics for readers looking for an article subject in our archives and signing up for subscriptions. We finally got it out of frames last year (!), and added a Google search box on the home page.

  10. 10 Charles November 1, 2008 at 8:44 am

    I am about to design a wine site and find this article very helpful.
    Thank you.
    Can you recommend any websites to look at that you like?

  11. 11 Pinotmom March 5, 2009 at 8:44 pm

    Where have you been all my life? As a brand manager for years working with large and small domestic wineries and importers, retrieving wine info on the web to create informative sell sheets was a world of frustration. I would start with the winery or importer etc only to find flash crap (more common outside the US) photos of previous vintages, flowery descriptions with no varietal info etc. I’d go to google france to find French winery info. Down many a rabbit hole.
    You have given an amazing gift to the wine industry. Now as a freelance marketer for wine importers I am searching for a good web designer or existing tool that will meet the needs of the wine business; the ability to make constant updates without an instruction manual, clean, clear design and navigation tools, well, I’m preaching to the choir.
    Bravo on Able Grape and any suggestions on the above greatly appreciated. I am spreading the word.

  12. 12 ablegrape March 6, 2009 at 10:45 pm

    Hey Pinotmom, thanks for the kind words! I truly appreciate it.

    To answer your question: I’m not familiar with wine-industry focused website tools that may be out there, but I have seen more and more wineries and importers switching to blogging platforms (WordPress, Typepad, etc) – these are low-cost, simple to use and maintain, well supported, and designed to be easily updated without having to call a web designer. They’re also simple to navigate for the user, and they allow interaction between the site’s users and the winery or importer. Not necessarily the solution to all problems, but not a bad one in many cases.

  13. 13 Greg Schroeder May 11, 2009 at 4:09 am

    Wondered by your blog and found this post. Although its almost a year old, its still relevant today. Shows you how the wine industry is pathetically behind the times in this area.

    I own a retail wine store and have two different sites, each offering wine in two separate ways. AmazingGrapes.com is your “usual” wine retail site and we have many of the same problems you outline here; most specifically where do I get accurate, good content to best describe the wines we are selling and good shots/label images to use.

    Our other site, WineBlowOut.com, we have the same issues, but they exacerbated by the fact that I’m promoting one wine at a time and I have to present it in the best light I can find. If the wine is foreign, finding info is really difficult and often woefully behind the times.

    Want my biggest beef? Why can’t a winery post current releases AHEAD of the release? Think about it, they produce the wine over an extended period of time, test it numerous times, create marketing material in the form of labeling, yet can’t seem to finish the final step with putting current images and tasting notes on their own websites!!! How incredibly lazy can they be? And here’s a news flash to any foreign winery reading this – your flash sites are cool, but at least create a Trade section in good old HTML where we can copy and paste the information we need without having to interpret and retype it ourselves!!

    FYI – I have a friend that I’ve forwarded your blog to. He is developing an application for the wine industry that can solve these issues. I’ll let him contact you aside from my post.

  14. 14 Mark G May 25, 2009 at 4:44 pm

    It’s really incredible what You have done. Any ideas on how to find really good web designer or firm that can build an incredible retail site for my store?
    thanks mark g

    • 15 Greg Schroeder July 6, 2009 at 4:24 am

      What POS (point of sale) system are you using? The biggest issue you need to deal with is integrating the two. What’s shown on the web needs to be synched with what you have on the floor.

      Without spending enormous dollars, the best combo for this is what I use – MicroSoft RMS with NitroSell web store – and both can be purchased from Rich at Positive Software. Look for their link at the bottom of my site: http://www.amazinggrapeswinestore.com.

      Good luck,

      Greg


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