Making Carts Work

Everyone has a shopping cart on their site. Odds are, it’s been 5 or 10 years since the first time you bought something online. You’d think by now, they would have ironed out the kinks. However, year after year, new website owners continue to make the same mistakes. Before you unpack that ASP.NET Storefront or Zen-Cart archive, why not take a moment to plan a strategy for your cart to search and sell well.


Obviously, at Web-Op, we tend to think of search as fairly important. However, even sites which have been well designed often fall apart when you arrive at the shopping cart. While much of this can be explained because carts are often taken as “packaged” system, too complex to re-tool, it’s just as often policy decisions or the refusal to add easily-obtainable addons.

  • Pretty URLs. Nobody likes standard shopping cart URLs. They generally mirror the internal structure of the cart’s programming. is ugly, and ignores keyword-ranking opportunities.

    However, most carts now include powerful extensions, either in the box or as a 10-minute install, to convert that URL into the cleaner, keyword-rich, The fact you can still find many shops– even new ones– with the standard URL just suggests laziness or fear the pretty-URL system may have unexpected problems.

  • Distinct Product Content. It seems so easy to have a cart with 100,000 products. You can often siphon the product data directly from a vendor catalog or data feed, and why wouldn’t you want to stock everything, especially if it’s items which can be drop-shipped? If it sells once, it’s profitable. The problem is content. If your product listings have the same information as everyone else, hot off that easy-to-access feed, there’s no reason for you to rank over anyone else’s page. Such problems even appear at the inside-the-site level, as your text for the 3, 6, and 24-pack versions of a product read nearly identically to Google. With primarily duplicate content, why even bother deeply spidering?

    If you can’t provide something distinct to say about each product, chances are it doesn’t belong in your catalog, or can be presented in a different way. Don’t do 100 pages for “Cardinals uniform: #00” to “Cardinals uniform: #99”. Do one page and make the number selectable, and you’ll enjoy superior rankings.

  • Sensible Heirarchy Depth. Once your product range hits a certain size, you have to start thinking about how to organize it into a heirarchy. However, one thing often ignored is the further the products are, in clicks, from the well-promoted pages of the sites, the less they’ll be spidered and the worse they’re likely to rank. It’s a balancing act– are you going to need too many clicks to find any product, or are you going to end up with pages stuffed with 500 products per category, and overwhelming visitors?
  • Usability

    Once the customer arrives on site, you have to provide a compelling experience if he is expected to buy. I don’t here mean an all-singing, all-dancing, 3D Flash shopping experience, but rather a shopping experience which leaves them with no questions unanswered.

    • Good photos. Often, selling is a matter of providing the right photos. Some of the most common problems with photos are:
      • Too small photo. If you can’t see critical measurements and proportions, the picture is too small. A common related problem is the picture which shows a huge item, but isn’t large or clear enough to display minor but key details: connectors, model numbers, or serial numbers when relevant. Best practices include several photos, or photos with a zoom and pan facillity. A standout here is, whose photo viewer allows you to inspect individual components on circuit boards.
      • Stock Photo. I’ve seen photos where the model number says you’re getting A, and the photo says you’re getting B. If you don’t have the vendor’s catalog memorized, who knows what to expect? In addition, the stock photo can often be mediocre or uninformative– a customer who is visiting you looking for more information may keep shopping til they reach the seller whose photos finally answer their question.
    • Sensible Option Grids. Often, stores provide the wrong choices– or the wrong type of choices– for their products. Checkboxes (seperate optional choices) are often mistaken for radio buttons (mandatory choice of one from several options), and needless options are added but must be acknowledged. It’s worth the effort to regularly review product lines and make sure you’re not retaining options which are no longer relevant or merely add confusion. In extreme cases, it may be simpler to break products down into common models, purchased with one click, and custom orders, with more choices or even directions to call in to order.
    • Browse by meaningful categories. It’s a fundamental question: where is the product I want? While many users will simply resort to search, it’s a fairly hostile option for customers who want to compare several products, or check for an alternative in the field. Grouping by newest arrival or some other internal construct is guaranteed failure– who will know what to expect? Only your employees. Shop by brand only works if the product lines are already narrow. You really need to have enough categories, in a meaningful structure. Think about how your products work together, or how they’re organized by customers.


    Lastly, your cart needs to build trust. In most cases, it’s not so much generating anything new, as much as avoiding the temptation to do things which will undermine trust.

    • No gimmick pricing. Nobody likes it when you play games with them. The most common game is the shipping price one. You can either take a $5 item and slap $15 of shipping charges on it, or you can make promises of free shipping knowing that they don’t apply to most orders, or worse yet, are basically a teaser– free shipping if you’re willing to wait three months.

      Other pricing gimmicks include “$10 off if you’ll sign up for a $200-per-year, difficult-to-cancel savings club”, and “Free add-on, if you’re willing to spend as much as the addon costs in postage.” They do worse than simply looking suspicious. You have to add extra checkout steps to support them, basically forcing the customer to pass through a gauntlet of distrust in order to buy anything. Who’s going to follow through?

    • Accurate Inventory. If you lie to me, even a lie of ommission, then call me back and say “it’s back-ordered three months”, do you really believe I’ll wait it out? No, I’m going to find another vendor. All you’ve earned by not giving me correct inventory data is a credit card processing fee. Full-featured carts generally have inventory built-in, so you can easily give yourself a buffer by setting the product to sell out when there’s like 5 left on the shelf for call-in orders. However, the practice I generally see is “put 10,000 of everything in stock, we’ll handle sellouts when they happen”. Real professional.
    • Accept payments the way customers want to make them. While many small shops like PayPal for its simple qualifications and easy integration into the site, it can often be a liability. Many customers feel they may need a PayPal account to buy something, and having to find the secret route to make a payment without is more effort than they want to take. Supporting normal payment methods first– with PayPal, Google Checkout, and mailing banknotes in an unmarked envelope as backups– gives you the look of a full-sized company, not someone selling from your garage.
    • Fair Return Policies. Most ecommerce is by mail, so customers tend to be especially wary about how they can get out of a purchase which goes bad. Your return policy should be based on a fair understanding of the product being sold, and how it’s likely to be tested and used. If you’re going to have to wait 21 days for the manufacturer to get back with “It’s clearly defective, send it back”, that 7-day return policy is not generous. Moreover, it should be prominent– link it on every page of the site if you want. You can never be too up-front with your policies, and a decent cart will make it easy to put in the template.

    In most cases, it doesn’t take huge technical skills to get the most out of shopping carts. A few new features and strong, sensible policies are really the key to shopping cart success.