Trapped on the Web?

Most e-commerce companies, including pure plays and brick-and-clicks, have come to understand that content is King and that product selection is critical. If a site is poorly designed, however, compelling content and a variety of products do not count for much.

The dominant players know that ease of use is a core value for e-commerce sites — Amazon.com, AOL, eBay and Yahoo! are all easy to navigate. And while these leading sites may lack dynamic graphics, surfers do not get lost or stuck there.

So, why is it that many e-commerce sites feature clunky navigation? The so-called mousetrap — a Web site that traps surfers because hitting the “Back” button takes the visitor right to the same site — appears more often on the Web than one would imagine, and is emblematic of the failure of e-commerce companies to see the bigger picture.

The Great Escape

Certainly, surfers who get caught in a mousetrap can type a new address in their address bar, use their history lists, or re-launch their browser. But do marketers honestly find it acceptable that their customers are forced to use an escape route?

If so, that complacency is symbolic of a fundamental problem plaguing e-commerce: Marketing executives are letting technicians design the company Web site without regard for customer experience. The first lesson of Marketing 101 is to look at a company the way the customer would, but that lesson has been forgotten when it comes to Web design.

Would a brick-and-mortar store design a parking lot with three entrances and only one exit that requires a drive around the block? Would a marketing executive let a printer dictate what goes on the front of a company brochure?

Mouse Hunt

The E-Commerce Times collected the addresses of a few mousetrap sites and asked those companies about the design of their front pages. The answers were all variations on the following explanation: The company did not know about the mousetrap, but when it was discovered, it was deemed technically necessary, so the marketing department made no plan to remove it.

For example, a spokesperson from American Airlines first told the E-Commerce Times that he was not aware of the mousetrap. Then, he said that he was aware of it, but did not know why it was there. In his final communication, the spokesperson cited personalization and security reasons.

Of course, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines have e-commerce sites that offer security without having a mousetrap.

In another case, a spokesperson from Webvan told the E-Commerce Times that the grocery site is not a mousetrap. He later said the mousetrap exists because of a code problem caused by having a site divided into two cities. Ultimately, Webvan’s spokesperson said the mousetrap should be fixed because “we don’t want people to be trapped in Internet limbo.”

Lastly, Youcentric.com said that their mousetrap was not intentional, but was a technical requirement of using graphics on the front page. The spokesperson added, however, that there is no plan to remove the mousetrap because it is “a marketing choice in terms of the look and feel of our site.”

The Real Deal

Of course, it is not technically necessary to have a mousetrap. While some of the technical reasons for a front page that redirects to itself include managing load balance, having a hidden information page for search engines, and having a dynamic graphic on a splash page, all of those functions can be accomplished without trapping users.

The ignorance rationale is even more surprising than the technical excuse. If the marketers are truly not aware of how the front page of their site works, it is time for new marketers. If the marketers are aware of the mousetraps, and think that get-stuck navigation is not a problem, they do not understand that the Internet is by nature a medium of seamless navigation and interactivity.

Ultimately, no matter what the technicians say, it is a marketing decision to allow mousetraps, and it is a decision that illustrates how much power marketers have given away to technicians. At a time when e-commerce companies are facing the toughest challenges of their short existences, it would be wise to remember that e-shoppers want value and convenience, not special effects and trickery.

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