Do You Need A Web Site Makeover?

Our experts offer some pointers on getting your e-tail visitors to stick--and buy

What are poor little online stores to do now, in the winter of e-tail? They sure can't offset the market's harsh reappraisal by spending money on advertising. E-tailers must get back to basics, and whether you're a superbrand like Nike or a humble startup like Nick's Garageful o' Sneakers, nothing is more basic than a compelling, user-friendly Web site. Attracting, engaging, and wresting revenues from online customers before they click away has always been a game of seconds. Now it may separate survivors from those bound for the dot-com deathwatch.

Last fall, we looked closely at a design overhaul at CNN/Sports Illustrated, which reorganized its site to clean up clutter. invited Netrepreneurs to submit their sites for review by a panel of top Web designers, who could offer advice about how the sites could serve customers better. We must have touched a nerve: We received hundreds of submissions and have put our designers to work on some thorny, but quite common, problems.

Some sites draw visitors and even get them to stick around--but still sell almost nothing. Others use primitive search engines that fail to show customers the products they want--and so they go away.

We picked two sites to show you out of the makeovers we've done so far. On, we provide more graphics and live links that further illustrate the improvements we suggested. We hope the advice helps all kinds of Web entrepreneurs to serve customers better and turn a profit in the process.

A more delicious design for Virtual Gourmet. In 1999, CEO Megann Rundell proudly launched, intending to sell gourmet food and gifts at wholesale prices. She figured people would think the idea of convenient, fast ordering online was enough to make the goods sell themselves. By the time she went online, she realized she'd also need to sell the steak--literally--after people got used to the sizzle of online shopping.

The problem started on the home page. Instead of showing some tasty goodies, it said simply "," and invited users to click and enter. The rest of the front page was devoted to a search engine that sifted Rundell's stock--but the technology was primitive at best.

The solution: transforming VirtualGourmet's look from catalog-style to something that looks more like a menu of delights. A team led by Josh Feldman, of Sunnyvale (Calif.)-based frogdesign Inc., developed a home page that makes the word "Virtual" in the logo much smaller and plays up "Gourmet." After all, the appeal isn't just that you can buy food online, but that Rundell's food sets her apart. Mouth-watering photographs drive that point home.

Peter Morville, CEO of Argus Associates Inc., an Ann Arbor (Mich.) consulting firm that specializes in the organization of Web sites, explained how a better search function could drive sales. He suggested using an online thesaurus, for example, so a search for "salmon" yields both salmon products and links to other fresh-fish offerings, plus dishes that go with salmon.

Morville says implementing these changes should help VirtualGourmet deliver a more effective experience to the user. First, they provide information about products customers know they want. Second, they deliver what Morville calls "associative learning"--teaching users about products they didn't know existed.

William Willya's site is a bookstore, not a library. Children's book author Skip Masland gets 10,000 hits monthly on It's a site he created to promote his fictional character William Willya, a nine-year-old boy who has a taste for trouble. Masland gets e-mail daily from kids and educators who love the site's games and its other interactive features.

So what's the problem? After five years, nobody has ever printed out the online order form and bought a book. He's sold several thousand copies in bookstores, but Masland is frustrated that his site's traffic and its relatively long average visit haven't translated into sales.

The trouble was that Masland had buried the site's online store capabilities. Our designers, Harold Hambrose of Electronic Ink in Philadelphia and Steven Morris of Morris Creative in San Diego, suggested that's commercial purpose be clear from the home page.

On the old site, the front page didn't mention the fact that there are William Willya books for sale. "The purpose of the site should be clearly communicated by the content on the first page," says Hambrose, who fashioned a new look that does just that. He created a book design motif for every page and more clearly identified areas of the site, such as the store or game area.

He also created a much sharper message that this is a site built around two books you can and should buy. Masland and Scott O. Sheppard, who illustrates the William Willya books, say an overhauled site will appear in coming months. Perhaps by then, even the Nasdaq will warm up to those who have been suffering through the freeze.

In the meantime, our offer is still good: If you need help redesigning your e-tail Web site, email us at

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