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Amazon Too Big To Help Merchants?

Posted on October 30, 2008 by Zach

One of our latest projects, which I have been a part of, is optimizing our Amazon store both for dollars and seller metrics to make it a better channel for us to sell through. Our account has been upgraded a few times and we are in a prime spot to really take advantage of the Amazon Marketplace. As part of that journey I continue to be amazed at two things.  The first is how many sellers, buyers and products Amazon has on its website.  It’s amazing that such a site can exist. The second thing that has baffled me is how hard it can be to integrate with Amazon and the amount of support and partnership that can sometimes be lacking or completely unavailable.

I understand that Amazon is the 10 ton gorilla in this arena but at the same time it seems like there might be some issues and limitations with their merchant model. Just to note a few of the areas we have had issues with are: Their entire integration process (although much of it was finally worked out), product normalization (Amazon has an extreme reliance on UPCs), the feedback system (which in some cases I am still unsure if it is calculating right), and customer metrics (we found out the hard way that these metrics play an extremely important role in how Amazon treats your account.  Not only do they play an extremely important role in how your account is measured and judged by their “Seller Performance Team”, but they just started giving sellers access to this information a couple of months ago.  You would think, and maybe this is just me, that if these metrics are so important to the seller’s account status that Amazon would make the reporting on these metrics readily available to sellers… from the get go).

The highlight of one of my frustrations with Amazon was over the phone with a contact that was helping us with our account. After I explained that the first person who had worked with us to upgrade our account (you know during the courting phase of the account upgrade process) was really helpful and talked up partnership, and a better relationship and process with Amazon.  He proceeded to tell me that there was little he could do with the issues I was asking about and mentioned that Amazon was simply too big to help us in that regard. This made me think, “Is Amazon too big to effectively help merchants and will merchants continue to deal with that?”

 

Free vs. Paid vs. Ridiculous Web Services

Posted on September 16, 2008 by Zach

Recently, one of the SEO tools I use to track SERP's (Search Engines Results Pages) placement has raised its pricing to what, I feel, is an outrageous level. It's quite sad, really; I like the product. I got in on its beta when it was free and truly fell in love with its ease of use and convenience.  When the product went from free to a paid service, I anted up and paid the fee to continue my use of the service.  I am a pretty big fan of free web services, but I paid the fee because I felt the price was reasonable and I really liked the product.  Everything seemed like it was going well, the company was automatically charging me the appropriate amount per month, the service worked great and I continued to enjoy its ease of use and convenience.  I say everything “was” going well because a couple of days ago I received an e-mail from the service with "new pricing" in the title and was horrified with what it contained.  Not only would the service be doing away with its current pricing structure but the cheapest level of service would be four times what I had been paying per month (they were nice enough to offer me a 30% discount but still, the ratio between what I am currently paying per month and what I would be paying per month is ridiculous).  I couldn’t help but ask myself, “Are they serious”?  To my dismay, and what I considered to be an additional slap in the face, they mentioned that they would also be offering a "free" account. I was excited, at first.  I then quickly realized that the free service was of no use to me considering how jank and crippled they made it. 

After reading the e-mail, I downloaded all of the data I could from the account and will most likely discontinue its use and search for a new service.  Don’t get me wrong, I am not against people making money, or charging for web services, (even though, as I mentioned, I am a pretty big fan of free web services) but at some point I have to draw the line.  I consider a 400% price increase ridiculous, especially without a 400% increase in the value of the product.  You would think with the enormous success Google has seen with releasing free products, and their ability to capitalize on them, would make other web services take notes and follow in their footsteps.  Can someone throw me (or them) a bone here?

Below, is the better part of the e-mail, I blurred the name because I don't want to bash them too hard but the service seemed to be working fine!

 

Price update from SERP service

 

Website Improvements: Test Basic Usability Before Advancing

Posted on August 20, 2008 by Zach

On PlumberSurplus.com we sell an awful lot of Delta Faucets and from time to time we need to gather images or research product data to make sure that our information is correct and up to date.  This means that we occasionally have to resort to using the manufacturer's website, if one is available, and that's where this story begins.

My Database Team Leader was telling me about an issue he was having in using the Delta Faucet Company website and I offered my assistance to see if I might be able to help figure out the problem. While using their search, I ran into the same issue he did, a screen full of gibberish with no search results or useful information in sight.

 



While I was unable to help because it was an issue with the Delta website not processing a search properly, I did try to offer some pointers on perhaps getting around this issue.  Before I could finish explaining that Google product search, or finding products by category could be an alternative avenue, I noticed a window pop up.  I assumed it was a standard pop-up either asking me to live chat or displaying some kind of promotion, but the title caught my eye, "Help us improve our website!".  After laughing out-loud and thinking about the irony of getting this survey on a page that was not working, I realized how important basic website usability like navigation and search are to a website.  This is especially true of large websites with hundreds of thousands of pages. I think that is a key point of which all companies with websites, and web based companies should understand: there is no reason to improve your website if the core functionality is not working. If I was a real customer and this happened to me I would probably end up completely frustrated and either fill out the survey in anger or simply leave and never come back.

 

 

Internet Retailing Strategies: Niche Marketing v. Vertical Marketing

Posted on August 14, 2008 by Zach

Recently a fellow coworker sent me a blog about multi channel selling which was basically a "pro niche" piece.

"A highly effective strategy in ecommerce is multiple channel selling. This involves having several niche websites targeting different demographics, displaying specific product ranges. This allows you to create completely focused websites with a high sales conversion rate."

While I understand the niche v. mega site argument (and I also may have my mind set on which I like best both from a customer and retailer perspective) I thought this was an interesting article which highlighted all of the great things about niche websites and none of the bad. I know people say they are great because of the niche SEO value, the ability to really hone in on your marketing campaigns and the ability to focus on a particular product niche. And I agree, those are some great reasons to sell via niche websites. However, I see even more reasons to avoid buying or selling via a niche website. Developing niche SEO campaigns and polishing marketing strategies can be done on a large scale, in a similar fashion to that of niche retailers, by focusing on categories and product types.

I would even go so far as to say that I think that SEO, in particular, can go much further for larger sites.  I say this because a larger site can draw more links, have more authority within an industry and create a community built around an entire market instead of a niche. My next step in the conversation or thought process then usually turns to the ability to cross sell, up sell and convert repeat buyers which is much harder and far less effective on a niche website.  Think about it, how much harder would it be to convince a consumer to buy just one more barstool on a website that only sells barstools, as opposed to a website that sells outdoor furniture who can then up sell on the matching tables, chairs, accessories, and more?

The next thing that goes through my mind, or the next thing I would bring up in a conversation regarding niche v. vertical is operating costs.  Depending on the retailer's level of technological prowess, I also like to bring up the level of overhead with operating several websites v. one. Don't let me convince you, though; several retailers are moving away from niche websites. The Gap recently combined their web properties so that shoppers can simply visit the gap website and shop at all of their stores by means of one shopping cart. There are also several mega sites like, Amazon, QVC, etc. which continue to do well. So, while I lean on the anti-niche selling side of the fence, I believe it can be done in a scalable and profitable fashion. However, both as a buyer and seller, I prefer the larger non-niche sites.

This also brings up a nomenclature issue. I would consider "multi-channel selling" to be either selling through different means (i.e. as a physical store, catalog and online) or through different marketing channels such as shopping engines, marketplaces, and search engine marketing. So the verbiage of the article is also confusing in and of itself. I might consider the means through which products are listed and categorized on a site a "selling channel", but I would probably classify niche websites as a "selling strategy" based upon how the business has decided to sell online.

 

Google Product Search - My Shopping List

Posted on July 22, 2008 by Zach

I was pleasantly surprised today during my morning order audit process to see an order with http://www.google.com/shoppinglist as its referer information. I did not remember Google Product Search having a shopping list feature so I poked around to see if I could find a post on the Google Base Blog or someone else explaining when this feature appeared and how it worked. Disappointingly enough, I could find neither so decided to write a post of my own discussing this neat little feature.

As you can see by the screen shot below, all Google product Search listings now have the "Add to Shopping List" text underneath them which by clicking on it (assuming you have a Google account) lets you save it to a list of products which Google keeps track of for you.

 

Google Product Search- My Shopping List

On the upper right when using Google product search it now says "My Shopping List" which by clicking on it will take you to the list of products you saved to your list. At this point Shared Wish Lists can also be created and shared with friends or family, another neat, friendly, shopping feature.

 

Google Product Search- My wish list

All in all, this is a smart feature and one that I appreciate.  In an effort to keep my shopping list organized, keep a running tally of the great deals I find and a list of the products I might be interested in for the future, having the functionality via Google will save time and enable me to keep my list in one place rather than among multiple retail venues. At this point one of the only gripes I have is not being able to save non Google Product Search products to these lists (but Google Notebook is an alternative for that).  Another option would be to build a feature that allowed retailers who posted products on Google Product Search to let their users add products to the Shopping List directly from the retailer's site.

After talking with a Product Search Rep from Google I found out that these features previously existed in the Froogle search interface and were removed during the transition to Google Product Search. It has been slightly revamped and was relaunched late last week.

 

Using Blog Search Engines

Posted on May 29, 2008 by Zach

Keeping a handle on who is talking about your business or linking to your website can be an awfully large task. Blog search engines are available to help in some big ways though.  Blog search engines aggregate blogs and web pages with rss feeds to index and make their content searchable in an organized fashion. For instance if I am looking for for information on search engine marketing, I can use Google as a resource to find my information or I can turn to a blog search engine to focus my search on only blogs.  I can use their refinements such as the time frame the information was published in.  I can also look for a particular post or an entire website about a certain topic. This can help the marketer or search engine optimizer keep tabs on what people are saying about a website.  This can also help them keep up on who might be linking to a particular website by using blog search engines to search for that company, or other information. Blog search engines have become more and more sophisticated, and nowadays you can do a blog search on a variety of topics.

My favorite blog search engines are Technorati, Bloglines and Google Blog Search; each of these blog search engines let me search for a website name or use a refinement to track what people are saying and who is linking to our websites. All of them also let me bookmark those searches making it easy to check out the latest buzz on each of our websites or a particular topic I am interested in.

For example you can go to Technorati, type PlumberSurplus.com into their search box and see what posts or blogs have the word PlumberSurplus.com in them. This gives me quick, up to date information on what is going on in the blogosphere for whatever I might be searching for. More blog search engines are available in this list of blog search engines.

 

7 Must Read Google Webmaster Central Blog Posts

Posted on May 15, 2008 by Zach

As you can tell I have been on a Google Webmaster Central kick lately. The Google Webmaster Central blog has collected some of their best and most informational posts and created the 7 must-read Webmaster Central blog posts. Seeing this collection has reminded me of some of the search engine optimization and search engine marketing hot issues, some of my favorites being...

Flash Best Practices 

While many were glad to see Google address this, flash has been something that many SEO's stay away from like the plague. While there are several acceptable methods for optimizing a flash website none are particularly easy and sometimes results are hard to glean. There were always questions as to whether the search engines would accept these optimization techniques or whether they would learn to read flash, both seem to have been addressed over time.

The Supplemental Index 

I remember several tools which could be used to see how many pages a website had in the Google supplemental index and I remember even more posts and discussions as to the use of the supplemental index and getting web pages out of it. I think many released a sigh of relief when Google disbanded its use so that website owners had one less thing to worry about. 

Duplicate Content 

The mention of duplicate content and penalties associated with it used to be a huge issue for many, especially those with larges websites which may have several overlapping pages. I was more than relieved when I learned that no penalties were actually associated with duplicate content but simply Google selecting which page to show for related searches. After many have spread the word about duplicate content this is still an issue that comes up and needs clarification. Many SEO's are still addressing duplicated content in that removing it or fixing the problem is great but getting Google to select the right version to show in searches may be more important. 

 

Internship Adventures: The Value Proposition

Posted on April 24, 2008 by Zach

One of the more interesting adventures I have had at work recently has been setting up and managing our six (yes count them six) new interns. While we have had internship programs at our company in the past, it has never been at this scale.  Previous programs were simply for benefit of the students who wanted to learn and gain experience, and to support local universities.  This is by far the most interns we have had at one time. I am a big fan of internships, having completed two of them myself when I was in college.  I think they can provide a great deal of real world experience and they look good on a resume, not to mention they provide inexpensive labor to the company.

The first issue that will arise in putting together an internship program is actually getting interns. Sometimes posters around a college campus or a spot at the local job board is simply not enough. Lucky for us we have Tim, one of our managing partners, who happens to teach part time for a local University. This provides our company with a great avenue to spread the word and wrangle interns for our company.

The second issue is making sure potential interns understand the value proposition and what kind of internship your company offers. This starts with the company itself and the development of the program. It's important for interns to gain something besides a note on their resume. Interns can be integrated into many aspects of a businesses and provide cheap or free labor in return for real world experience, industry knowledge and sometimes college credit. All of which can be leveraged as great value propositions when trying to attract interns.

It's important to also give some thought as to what jobs or projects might be best suited for interns in your business. Some jobs might require too much experience, knowledge or training and others might be to simple or mundane. In our latest internship program, we are training our interns in several aspects of search, marketing, data, content creation and management. We then let them create content for our websites learning centers while teaching them why content creation is important.  Finally, we are tracking their progress. They will also be helping with other SEO, marketing and product data related projects as the need arises and as they express interest in different areas of our business. They have already begun some of their work on both the PlumberSurplus.com Learning Center and the OutdoorPros.com Learning Center with work on our Knife Buying Guide and BlackHawk Videos.  They have also started on manufacturer descriptions such as Gerber Knives and Moen and they will continue to fill out both of those content rich areas of our websites.

A couple of areas to be mindful of for an internship program is management and se tup. If possible it can be a good idea to spread out your interns throughout multiple departments making it so that one person does not bear the brunt of the management or organization. If that is not something that you want to do, getting them to come in at the same time or on the same days can also help. Getting everything setup for the interns ahead of time, such as the list of projects, any paperwork, training and computers can be key so that time is not wasted and your interns can start off on a good foot at your business.

While the interns still have several weeks to go, everything seems to be going well and they are expressing interest and getting excited about many aspects of our business. In closing, remember to never forget that an internship program can also be a great recruiting tool, not only are they great for all of the items mentioned above but they go far beyond the standard interview so that the company gets a better idea of a persons work ethic and personality for potential future hire.

 

Google Sitelinks: Capturing My Proverbial Moby Dick

Posted on April 14, 2008 by Zach

For as long as sitelinks have been used in Google SERPS I have been asked by others, and wondered myself, what they are and how to get them. Sitelinks are extra links that appear below some search results in Google. They serve as shortcuts to help users quickly navigate to the important pages on your site. There is obviously some value in having them, and many have started quests to get sitelinks for their own websites. Sitelinks have been, however, shrouded in mystery and justly so because of how Google describes them...

"How does Google compile the list of links shown below some search results?  The links shown below some sites in our search results, called sitelinks, are meant to help users navigate your site. Our systems analyze the link structure of your site to find shortcuts that will save users time and allow them to quickly find the information they're looking for. We only show sitelinks for results when we think they'll be useful to the user. If the structure of your site doesn't allow our algorithms to find good sitelinks, or we don't think that the sitelinks for your site are relevant for the user's query, we won't show them. At the moment, sitelinks are completely automated. We're always working to improve our sitelinks algorithms, and we may incorporate webmaster input in the future."


So while I have read a lot about sitelinks and heard many theories and questions about sitelinks, I am happy to say that PlumberSurplus.com now has them. All can rejoice that I have now caught my proverbial Moby Dick and added another notch to my SEO belt!

 

PlumberSurplus search on Google

PlumberSurplus.com at the Spirit of the Entrepreneur Awards Banquet

Posted on March 5, 2008 by Zach

In the world of eCommerce we interact daily via the blogosphere, forums, etc.  Every now and then it is nice to get involved in the community and interact with those outside of the eCommerce circle.  Everyone at PlumberSurplus.com loves to go out, get dressed up and attend industry events. Recently we were nominated for the 2007 Emerging Entrepreneur award by the Spirit of the Entrepreneur Awards program, so many of us got suited up and headed to the awards banquet. Some background on the Spirit of the Entrepreneur: In 2003, the Inland Empire Center for Entrepreneurship (IECE) at California State University San Bernardino, The Press-Enterprise Co., and The Business Press launched the Spirit of the Entrepreneur Awards program to honor the top entrepreneurs in the Inland Empire. The inaugural event, with over 600 attendees, was a resounding success, and 2004, 2005, and 2006 have followed with highly successful programs.

A good time was had by all with a huge silent auction, some great food, an engaging student fast pitch competition and of course the awards presentation. Although the silent auction did have some pretty awesome motorcycles up for grabs my favorite part of the event was the student fast pitch competition. As a part of the Spirit Awards program, select students from Cal State San Bernardino's annual Student Fast Pitch Competition are invited to make a 90 second pitch of their promising business venture idea to the audience. During the evening, the audience heard a pitch from five students and voted on the most promising idea. At the end of the evening, just prior to the presentation of the final Spirit Award, the top three student pitches where recognized with the top student pitch receiving a $2,000 prize.

While everyone from PlumberSurplus.com enjoyed the awards banquet and we where hopeful of winning the award, CornerTurn, LLC - of Corona won the award for Emerging Entrepreneur. Our hopes are high though that we will be nominated again next year and bring home a win.

Below are some photographs of our night at the event.


Several of our companies managers and team leaders with their guests.

Spirit of the Entrepreneur Awards Banquet

Our company table.

 

Part of the PlumberSurplus.com Team at the Spirit of the Entrepreneur Awards Banquet

Our Executives Tim and Brian having a good old time.

Here's Tim....

Tim's mustache

And here's Brian!

 

Brian's mustache