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!