WebWatch - The Sportsman’s Guide, In Search of Search
The Sportsman’s Guide, a catalog and internet company based in St. Paul, Minn., was founded by outdoorsman Gary Olen in the winter of 1970. His first Sportsman’s Guide catalog was published in 1976. Since then, the company’s basic philosophy hasn’t changed: It sells only quality items at a low cost. Today, according to SportsmansGuide.com, the catalog and website have more than 8 million customers combined. Here’s a critique of the site:
A site must index and rank to produce results. A key indicator of that is how well it ranks on key category search terms. Sportsman's Guide's left-hand navigation is filled with very broad and generic terms like “men’s clothing.” Searching Google for “men’s clothing” didn’t return this site on the first page of results. Searching for other major product categories listed in the left-hand navigation didn’t produce results either. To index and rank properly for SEO, the terms in the navigation should be more specific to this company’s particular type of men’s clothing.
Having said that, searches at the item level seemed to perform well. A search for “lambskin pistol pouch,” one of the items offered on the homepage, delivered a page one search result.
A deeper look at the site revealed a less than optimal structure that doesn’t support SEO. Page titles and URLs weren't optimized, and there was no evidence of an integrated Google XML-friendly site map or page cross-linking. I also noted that the “Shop By Brand” delivered zero results when particular brands were selected. Why would a brand be listed if none of its products were sold?
The site could be easier to browse and shop, too. I’d suggest adding a top navigation bar to allow shoppers to visit other categories once they’re at the item-page level. It appeared they could do it now, but only through a drop-down menu.
More inviting homepage
A site’s homepage is like the reception area of a luxury hotel. It must be inviting, easy to grasp your orientation and teeming with unobtrusive, nearby assistance to help you find your way. The Sportman’s Guide's homepage quickly communicated what the site was about: deals. It came across as busy, however, and there’s no logical flow for the eye to follow. There’s also inconsistency in the design, layout, color scheme, logo placement, navigation, headers and footers — all of which make it easy for shoppers to become disoriented. While there are multiple calls to action, it’s hard to know where this site wants you to go first. In a word, it’s frenetic.
Internal site search
Many websites return failed search results, which leave shoppers wondering what to do next. Even when shoppers are looking for logical, nonproduct information like shipping costs, sites fail to return helpful information. Sites should handle common misspellings, upper/lowercases and synonyms as this one did, redirecting me to the appropriate page. The real test of internal search, beyond helping you find what you want, is how you're treated when no logical results can be found.
Searching for “necktie” on Sportsman's site returned no search results. That’s understandable. After that message, however, the site showed category photos — none of which were linked- — as well as a lengthy navigation menu. There was no suggestion to search again or ask for help via chat, phone or email. There were no lists of best-sellers, items on sale or anything else to suggest that shoppers continue. Of course, the counter argument is that adding more messages to this page increases the confusion factor and distract shoppers from the page's primary purpose, which is asking shoppers to search again or navigate to the items they want.
To sell effectively online, different products need different presentations. This includes putting items on pages in an order that reflects their relative importance. Template solutions that only allow one or two presentations restrict merchandisers from presenting their offers most effectively, or cause shoppers to go many levels deep into the site to get the product variation they’re seeking. This is particularly true with product lines like industrial parts or, in the case of this site, ammunition.
Users should be able to compare two or more items without having to remember one while going elsewhere to view a different item.
SportsmansGuide.com’s presentation of the various combinations and permutations of ammunition was very confusing. It’d be much better to guide shoppers through a grid presentation and selection of the product attributes all from one page. Also, I noticed there were no customer ratings of its products, although I did see customer comments. Adding item ratings would help merchandise on the site.
Consumers want easy shopping and ordering — three or four clicks should take them to the items they want and allow them to proceed to checkout. The cart must have all the needed information to complete/confirm a purchase. This site does an OK job providing a checkout that’s easy to understand and navigate. SportsmansGuide.com's shopping cart could be improved by adding the following:
- thumbnail photos confirming the ordered items;
- the ability to change ship methods and see auto-calculated shipping costs;
- the ability to clear cart, delete items, update cart, continue shopping and proceed to checkout/payment options;
- a rotating banner with offers that relate to the items being purchased versus the list of “you may also want” items that's currently offered; and
- a “proceed to checkout” button at the top and bottom of the cart page so large, multiple line orders don’t force the shopper to scroll down to find this button.
Proceed to checkout
Like many sites, SportsmansGuide.com provides options to shoppers at checkout. Returning customers or club members have to sign in with passwords, and previous order shipping/billing information is presented to them. Presumably, the company emails order and ship confirmations with access to order history and account profiles, too. This reaffirms the best practice of telling shoppers what’s in it for them before they give you their information and/or register.
As I proceeded to checkout, I had many questions regarding coupons, discount codes, etc., which left me feeling like the only person not getting a discount. I suggest placing those on another page behind a simple question like, “Have a coupon or discount code? Click here.”
SportsmansGuide.com clearly had lots of selection and good prices, but its online presentation would benefit from several best practice platform features. I give it five or six out of 10. Much can be done to improve this site so:
- it can be found easily on keyword searches;
- it’s easy for shoppers to find relatively obscure products and buy them in four to five clicks;
- it’s intuitive and anticipates shoppers’ next questions/steps; and
- site structure, functionality and usability all are focused on maximizing online customer acquisition, conversion to order, upsell/cross-sell and customer retention/repeat purchase.
Terry Jukes is president of Ability Commerce, a Delray Beach, Fla.-based e-commerce website development firm. You can reach Terry at firstname.lastname@example.org.