Sunday, December 2, 2012

Online Catalogs Require Planning, Attention to Detail

Online catalogs help drive sales.


Having an online catalog is critical to the financial success of any sales-oriented firm, whether that firm operates on a retail “bricks and mortar” store, only an online ecommerce site, or a combination of both. Creating an online catalog requires research, writing and design, search engine optimization and a detailed database. When done properly, good online catalogs let your customers shop any time of the day or night. They also provide much more information—at a substantially lower cost—than a printed version.
On-line catalogs are costly in one major respect: they require a lot of material be manually inputted into a computer system.
Let’s take a look at each element starting with research.


Researching items for an online catalog means pouring through other online resources, such as those from your suppliers, and/or printed product descriptions. Your goal is to gather these critical elements for each item:
1.      A product photo. Customers want to see items they cannot touch and feel. Product photos should accurately reproduce the color and shape of each product.
2.      A product description. This and your product photo will make or break your sales. Too little information will drive customers to other sites where they can get the data they need.
3.      A product number. Each variation of each product should have its own product number. For example, a white, short-sleeved men’s extra large T-shirt would have one product number while an identical shirt in blue would have a different number.
4.      A price. List your normal price for each product. If one size costs more than another, explain it. For example, a half-inch dog leash costs $25. The three-quarter-inch version is $10 more.
5.      A simple, effective and easy way to order every product in any quantity. Use the electronic version of a shopping cart (have your web master create one or use one of many free versions).
6.      A shipping calculator. Have it calculate the cost based on the customer’s zip code.
7.      Ways to contact you with questions about various products, the shipping status of a specific order, return policies, etc.
Now it’s time to take a look at the writing and design of your online catalog.

Writing and Design

While much of your information will come from your suppliers, make sure your online catalog presents it in a clear, logical way. Make sure your writing is clear and uses complete sentences, not sentence fragments or phrases.
Writing your product description is critical to your success. Every product description should include key information customers will need. When referring to clothing, for example, make sure your product listing (not the description) lists every available size, color and variation.
Using multiple tabs is a common and effective method. Present a brief description or product summary on one tab, greater details on a second, customer reviews on a third, and for those products requiring it, technical specifications on a fourth tab.
The product page design should be uniform. Descriptive segments should appear in the same location on every page. For example, if you have some product photos on the middle left side of your screen and some on the right, adjust your pages so every product photo is in the same location.
A suggestion is having your webmaster create a design template. People inputting product information simply stick it in the right slot. Another method involves creating a detailed database that is run through one or more conversion programs. The conversion programs create the webpages automatically.
Your design is also a key in helping your customers find the products they want. Start with a combination of pop-out menu category lists on the left side. This helps your customer narrow their search to a given product category, such as long-sleeved work shirts. Have a summary page of smaller photos with links to each product category next to the menu. When your menu reaches the bottom level of a given category, include photos of specific products prices, brief descriptions and links to each product’s specific page.
Also make sure your website allows customers to enter specific terms and search for products that match those terms. For example, someone should be able to enter “men’s shoes size 12 DD” and come up with a list of products that match those terms. They should also be able to enter simply “women’s shoes” and be shown a much broader list of products.
By this point you should have a good general idea of what your online catalog may look like. Just writing and designing it, though, does not mean customers can find it unless they have already visited your site. That is where search engine optimization comes in.
Google's Keywords tool helps you find the right words and phrases.

Search Engine Optimization

Most online shoppers start by using a search engine such as Google, Yahoo or Bing. They enter a query and look for the most accurate match. One of your goals is to design your catalog so that each of these search engines quickly and easily records every product you sell.
Many shoppers will enter their shopping query, such as “where can I buy women’s blouses?” and only look at the top site. Others may look at any or all of the top five sites while a few look at the top 10 sites. Very few people, though, look beyond the sites listed on the first page of query results, even though there may be hundreds or thousands of matches.
Since your goal is to generate sales, it makes sense to include terms that help you achieve that goal. The technical expression used to define words and phrases that help search engines find your products is “key words.”
Key words (also called “tags”) are individual words and short phrases search engines look for when examining your site. They create a list of those words and phrases then match them to online queries. Exact word and phrase matches will generate a higher position on search engine results pages.
Your job is to include these words both in the actual text on your page, such as in the product descriptions, or in hidden text, such as the “Tags” section of Microsoft Word’s “Save As” screen.
Make sure your words and phrases are relevant to each product page. Why? Because search engines will look in the “Tags” and the product page. Tags referring to words not found on the specific web page may cause a search engine to reject the tag, lowering or eliminating your page from its rankings.
Good key words or tags about a product page advertising a specific type of work shirt, for example, could include: work shirts, long-sleeved work shirts, outdoor work shirts, stain-resistant work shirts, cotton work shirts, men’s work shirts, women’s work shirts, XYZ brand work shirts, etc. Again, it is very important to only include tags that are relevant to each specific product.
Bad key words are those completely irrelevant to the subject at hand. For example, don’t use the word “nude” as a key word unless your product has a function involving nudity. Some clothing products (e.g., women’s stockings) classify “nude” as a color, so “nude” in that situation, since it refers to an actual product feature, is accurate. Calling the handle of a sledgehammer “nude” as in “naked wood” is inaccurate, causing search engines to reject the listing.

The Google Keyword Tool

One simple, free way to check the effectiveness of your individual keywords and phrases is to run them through Google’s keyword tool.
“The Keyword Tool can help you find new relevant keywords and add them directly to your ad groups. That's important because the keywords you create for a given ad group are used to target your ads to potential customers. In other words, good keywords can help you show your ads to the customers you want, when you want. You can enter a word, a phrase, or a website address, and the tool will suggest relevant keywords for you automatically. Think of it as a keyword brainstorming session!
“Remember, though, that while the Keyword Tool can provide some great suggestions, keyword performance depends on a variety of factors. For example, your bid, budget, product, and customer behavior in your industry can all influence the success of your keywords.”
Simply type in a word or phrase, such as “hats for dogs,” select a category such as “Hobbies and Leisure” and the sub-categories “Pets and Animals” and “Pet Grooming” then click Search. Continue to try various words or phrases until you find a word or phrase where the competition is low but the Global Monthly Searches and/or the Local Monthly Searches is in an acceptable range.
Finding the right search terms is a time-consuming process but one that can be well worth the effort.
The goal is to find the right terms then use them, plus links to product pages on your website, to drive traffic and sales.
Note that while the keyword tool is free, Google’s goal is for you to pay it to use these terms as part of your advertising budget.
This database is one a used bookstore might have.

Your Database

Databases are collections of facts, figures and equations in searchable columns and rows that can be reordered based specific requirements.
Databases come in two main types: flat file (a spreadsheet is an example of a flat file database) and relational.
A list of products from one single supplier can be considered a flat file database. An identical list from a different supplier would be considered a second flat file database.
Relational databases are collections of flat file databases. They allow users to search multiple flat files databases based on common components. For example, be sure that every supplier’s individual spreadsheet has column headings containing the company name, product number, size, style, color, price and description. Having this commonality of design allows you to then search by each heading.
The results will also appear in a query or search window on your website, but only if the information is available to it.
For example, if you have three suppliers of men’s work shirts, you can then search through all three individual spreadsheets (which are flat file databases) and find a listing of those products that meet your specific requirements. Those requirements might be blue, short-sleeved, cotton shirts in size extra large. You or your customers can then compare shirts and find the ones they want.
So how does this database apply to your on-line catalog? Simply by helping people look through it. It allows them to type specific words (think SEO key words but this time inside your site) and go directly to pages that match those terms.
Good database also have other important functions that are critical to your business, but hidden from your customers. For example, you can—and should—have a database listing all important information about each supplier. This should include their contact name, address, phone number, email address, etc.
Your product databases should also include column headings that indicate your cost and the quantity in stock. This way you know to adjust your prices when a supplier raises or lowers theirs. You can also order hot-selling items to keep them in stock or reduce inventories to levels that meet, but don’t exceed, demand.
The critical part of database design goes back to the research phase as it applies to the information you might want at some point. Experience teaches us that it is a lot easier to add all the information you want at one time instead of adding bits and pieces here and there.

The Bottom Line

Any company selling products should have an on-line catalog that functions as both a customer information resource and as a way to generate direct sales. Allow time and manpower to gather this information and present it clearly and logically.

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