Consumers to E-Commerce Sites: Simplify or We Walk

Corporate Web sites are becoming bloated bandwidth hogs, which should surprise absolutely no one in high tech. But a recent survey is proving that the reckless use of multimedia, animation, JavaScript and other impressive but non-informational offerings is starting to have a negative impact on site traffic.

The site visitor’s pain from overdesigned or overprogrammed sites—those being two different but equally sinful efforts—is more than mere time-wasting. It can be annoying and distracting, and the fluff can literally make it much more difficult for the site attendee to actually get the information that would allow him/her to make a purchase.

That’s among the findings from an extensive survey analysis by the team reporting to Terry Golesworthy, president of the Customer Respect Group, an Ipswich, Mass.-based research/consulting firm.

The fact that no marketing department ever considered calling itself the Customer Respect Group truly does speak light-years about this research. When did e-commerce and brochure sites start feeling disdain for their prospects and customers? If they’re not guilty of disdainful feelings, at the very least they are guilty of reckless indifference to how customers feel and what their needs are. In a word, they are treating those customers with a lack of respect.

eBay is now encouraging its small-business customers to create their own Web sites. Why is the auction empire doing this, and will it help? To find out, click here.

For example, Golesworthy’s survey found that—again, no surprise—the size of the average Web page has been sharply increasing every year, despite the fact that customer connection speeds are relatively consistent.

Ever since a few years ago when analog modems (aka dial-up) hit their theoretical maximum 56K speed (which, of course, means a true maximum speed in the mid-to-upper 40s), dial-up users throughput have been capped. Broadband speeds have also been fairly well-capped, although at a dramatically faster speed. The only overall speed increase has been the rapid transition of analog users to broadband, but the average speed of the two approaches (dial-up and broadband) have been fairly static.

The fact that Web pages have consistently gotten larger during that period translates into what seems to be slower pages and a more disappointing experience.

Personally, I’d love for states to pass laws that every corporate Web developer must go home and look at his/her work via an analog modem before finalizing the pages. Better yet, they should then have to drive to a Starbucks and try to interact with the site on a smart phone or use that tiny PDA screen.

Cingular has been struggling with getting its information out through its PDAs. To read about those efforts and the troubles some of its customers are experiencing, click here.

When they create it on their LAN and then show it to their executives at Gigabit Ethernet internal LAN speeds, that’s a great way to get approval on a bloated, ineffective site.

Before B2B readers scoff at the dial-up claim with a casual, “Oh, our prospects work for big companies. They all have T1 or better,” they need to ask themselves whether their prospects ever travel or work from home. Does their corporate T1 help them when they’re browsing from the airport lounge? Or when they are in a hotel without broadband support? Or when they are home without DSL or a cable modem?

Golesworthy found that dial-up toleration for page download stops at about 77K. For broadband, that number increases to about 300K.

“Only 13 percent of the Top 100 companies have a page size of less than 77K” and barely 20 percent have pages that would be acceptable even to broadband users, he said.

“Pages are getting bigger and more cumbersome, and the average speed is actually going down,” Golesworthy said. “The home page of ESPN has video downloaded each time. The more technology you have, the more those technologies are used.”

I am personally a big fan of multimedia, but when using it in the most minimalist way possible. Start with audio, and make it as short and small as possible and then move to video only when there is additional information provided by that video that the site visitor truly wants. Is that the lowest bandwidth way to deliver that information?

Usability is not the only e-commerce headache these days. The CVS pharmacy chain is joining the large club of companies stung by data-privacy problems. To read how it happened, click here.

About 10 years ago, I was working for a B2B publisher, and a senior exec there mentioned in a speech that the company was going to support multimedia. A colleague turned to me and said, “Relax. To him, multimedia means that we offer newspapers and magazines.” Ahhh, I long for those simpler days.

Golesworthy points to one of the most popular Web sites to make his point. “Google took this to the limit and created a minimalist site,” which became remarkably popular as a result. “Because you can do something [impressively complex] doesn’t mean you should do it.”

Of potentially greater concern are functionality conflicts due to the fancy-schmancy capabilities.

“One of the sites we viewed had a very nice Flash banner on the home page, with a parrot flying around the place,” he said. “The fact is that it stopped the help menu from working.”

This column has already addressed daily nightmares from the latest pop-up blockers, anti-virus programs, software firewalls and anti-spyware and how they are conflicting with almost every piece of programming out there today. But those straightforward ASCII-text-oriented sites that Jakob Nielsen—my hero—loves also nicely avoid the vast majority of such conflicts.

Next Page: Customers will abandon you when they get frustrated.

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