16 Aug 2016
Transaction Speed Remains Crucial for Successful E-commerce Sites
The longer the time between first accessing a site and the final click-to-buy, the higher the percentage of lost transactions, with any site that takes longer than three seconds to load set to be a big turnoff for consumers.
Speed is vital if you don't want to lose online sales – that was, pretty much, the unanimous verdict of the web marketers attending this year's Internet Retailer Conference and Exhibition (IRCE) in Chicago. Overall, there was a huge emphasis on minimising loading times and reducing the number of clicks-to-purchase. The advice didn't stop once a sale had been completed, however, with many attendees only too keen to evangelise the importance of customer reviews and ratings, as well as the pivotal role of search engine optimisation in customer acquisition.
The keywords this year seemed to be "convenience", "relevance" and "speed", terms that were freely bandied around as some 10,000 internet retail professionals gathered for this year's event. There was also a notably different view of consumers, with many of them now seen as increasingly savvy and demanding, but with far shorter attention spans than in the past. This led many exhibitors to emphasise the need to help users quickly find just what they're looking for or, inevitably, face a dramatic decline in sales.
Another clear trend at the event was the rise and rise of user-generated content marketing. This essentially boils down to encouraging customers to leave product reviews and ratings, then making the best use of those reviews to win an ever-higher placing in subsequent search engine results. Personalisation was also seen as increasingly important. For some attendees this meant not only tailoring online and email content to match users' known interests, but also factoring in time, place and even weather conditions.
For those unsure how they would compare in this brave, new, speed-conscious online world, fortunately Texas-based Mobile 1st was on hand to provide a quick health check. The company specialises in providing a testing service to e-commerce clients, reporting on site performance across a range of different mobile devices.
Chris Strahorn, the company's Chief Technical Officer, was one of many to emphasise the importance of speed when it comes to selling online. He said: "For e-commerce companies, three seconds is the goal. Anything above that, and you face a 10% drop-off for each additional second.
"For our part, we help you gauge how slowly your site is loading. We show you where your 'fold' line is – you always want your call to action to be above the fold."
Rather than using software to simulate how sites will appear on various devices, Mobile 1st has a dedicated lab facility where it tests a wide variety of smartphone and tablets. Strahorn said: "That's part of how we differentiate – we continually keep up to date. We mix the old and the new.
"The iPad Mini is an interesting example. It uses the same hardware as the iPad 2 which is about five-years-old. Currently, it accounts for about 25% of all iPads sold globally, so there are a billion or so of them floating around.
"If you have really image-intensive site, it can take 20 or 30 seconds to load on a Mini and, as a result, nobody's buying anything. We help you to try and identify those problems. At the same time, when the new Samsung S7 or similar comes out, we make sure that your site looks its best on the very latest devices."
Similarly adamant as to the importance of providing the easiest possible user experience was Ram Ramanujam, Chief Operating Officer of Inferlytics, a California-based software company. He said: "When a customer comes onto your e-commerce website, we can help them find the products that they are looking for without them wasting any time."
According to Ramanujam, Inferlytics achieves this by analysing consumer behaviour on individual e-commerce sites, then shaping the content to match buyers' interests, ultimately minimising the time taken from first touch to final purchase. Highlighting his company's approach, he said: "We don't just look at the product catalogue data, we also look at what the customer is doing on the website. We than take all that data and feed it into our relevancy algorithm and then take them to the most relevant product."
A similar view on the combined importance of speed and relevance came from Pandian Paulswamy, a Senior Manager with The Commerce Shop, an Atlanta-based e-commerice consultancy. He said: "We look at the behaviour flow and work out where people could be lost.
"The more you know about the customer, the more you can personalise their shopping experience, rather than just throwing all of your products at them. We can show the products that are the most relevant. This means there is less likelihood of them abandoning the shopping cart or the whole website."
Despite this apparent sophistication, customers' known preferences are not the only inputs that can be used to determine how best to make communications most relevant. Increasingly, marketers are taking into account several other factors in their bid to stimulate the best sales response at any particular time.
Walter Chistoini, Business Development Vice-President for the PMX Agency, a New York City based digital market company, said: "We recently completed a case study for North Face, the outdoor clothing specialist, looking a factors that influenced how they bid on search terms [Online advertisers set automatic 'bid' values for advertising space on internet search results against certain popular search terms]. In a category like theirs, one factor is clearly the weather.
"The weather in Florida today is probably very different to the weather in the Wyoming, but they sell in both states. How they buy media and what they are bidding on then is influenced by the weather.
"I think there will be more real-time decision making based on external data feeds, whether that is with regard to the political environment, the economy or whatever. Nike could change its bids in relation to sports results, for example."
Bidding on search terms, though, is just one way of getting messages onto potential customers' internet search results pages. Another technique is so-called 'natural search' – the process by which search engines, such as Google, rank sites in response to a user query.
Natural search, though, is something of a misnomer, as vast effort and expense goes into securing the highest possible position on search results pages, largely through the process of SEO. Indeed, another widely-discussed topic at the event was user-generated content with regard to SEO, typically in the form of reviews and ratings. Put simply, the more highly consumer-rated a website or product is, the higher up it will appear in search results.
A self-proclaimed leader in this particular field is Utah-based Shopper Approved Local. Kelvin Swanson, a Director of the business, said: "We achieve this by using a pop-up survey widget on the 'thank you' page of the shopping cart. We then send the reviews to Google, Bing and Yahoo.
"We also produce an individual webpage for each review with a reciprocal link and 'about us' information, which gives you great SEO benefits. In the case of 1-800 Flowers, for instance, it has about 300,000 reviews, which means it now has around 300,000 individual pages carrying its 'about us' information and a reciprocal link. The SEO benefits from that are amazing."
The volume, as well as quality, of reviews is important when it comes to SEO. Increasing the proportion of customers who leave ratings can, therefore, dramatically improve a site's SEO. One company claiming a very high response rate for its clients' feedback requests is Israel's Yotpo. Expanding on the company's approach, Events Manager Evgeniya Rashbam said: "We are different from the other companies like us in just one detail – we do not send people outside of the email. You write your review right inside the email.
"Our research shows that 60% of reviews are written on a mobile device via a link that takes you out of an email and onto a browser. That can be quite annoying. Companies who take that route see some 6% of their customers leaving reviews. By cutting out that move to the browser, we can increase the conversion rate to 12%."
Earning enough online reviews to improve SEO can take time, even with sophisticated review generation and propagation. There are, however, some shortcuts available to new e-commerce start-ups. One such shortcut was on offer from Rivio, a Budapest-based software engineering company.
Explaining its proposition, Peter Bakonyi, the company's Chief Operating Officer, said: "If you start a web shop, we can scan our portfolio of web shops. If we find any reviews of a product you stock, then we can make all those reviews available. We can pull them over to your shop to populate your review section.
"This is a solution is for small and medium web shops that are struggling to get customers' reviews and feedback. If you can double or triple your number of reviews, you will do far better when it comes to sales."
As well as users expecting an easier online experience, internet retail brand owners are also coming to expect an easier experience from their own service providers. Matti Ronkko, Chief Executive of Nosto Solutions, an Helsinki-based specialist in personalised e-commerce solutions, said: "Building an online store has become very, very easy; it can be done in five minutes. That puts a lot of pressure on technology partners like ourselves. It is not just about doing the things that we are doing already, it is about making everything easy to integrate and easy to manage."
The Internet Retailer Conference and Exhibition (IRCE) 2016 was held at Chicago's McCormick Plaza from 7-10 June. Billed as the world's largest e-commerce retail show, the event attracted some 600 exhibitors and 10,000 visitors.
James O'Donnell, Special Correspondent, Chicago