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The (new) Anatomy of an Online Store

August 03, 2015

Online stores, c.1999

In 1998, eBay.com looked like this:


Ebay _1998

Very, very bland by today's standards, but not bad considering that the World Wide Web wasn't invented until 1989, and the first web browser not until 1994.

Similarly, here's what Amazon.com looked like (August 1999). Also bland, but font, logo and color scheme look familiar, don't they?

Amazon _1999


There is one underlying theme connecting the very first online stores: the interface, like most of the web at the time, was very text/URL dominated. eBay's homepage has no product photos; Amazon's has five smaller ones scattered across the page. Both websites have navigation bars with small text at the top, two side-panels with lots of links and a central content area with more links and descriptive text. It makes for a usable, but not at all ideal shopping experience - who wants to read through all those paragraphs?

Online Stores, c. 2008

Let's look at the anatomy of the online store nearly a decade later:

eBay, 2008:

Ebay _2008-1


Amazon, 2008:

Amazon _2008


The old adage is true: pictures really are worth 100 words. To modern-day users, these websites wouldn't feel unfamiliar, if a bit outdated - the addition of prominent images and white space does a lot for the eye. Both eBay and Amazon moved their logo to a familiar corner of the page and have search-based navigation bars that span the entire site; the most important site elements (My Cart and My Account) are accessed with direct links/buttons in the top right, and the awkward right sidebar has been removed by eBay and refined by Amazon.

There are still a LOT of links, especially on the left sidebar area. However, both sites are quite effective if you're looking for something specific - just search for it, or click into the categories on the left side.

Impulse Buys

For retailers, however, it's important to attract impulse-buys - items that people buy because they see them, not because they planned on buying them beforehand. Walmart, Costco and commercial supermarkets do this very well - ever wonder why small items like magazines and candies are positioned right in front of the register? Or why children's cereals are placed on lower and middle shelves, only a few feet off the ground or shopping cart height, to be in plain view of young children who might be along for a shopping trip? The strategies go on, ranging from product placement to subconscious things such as store music and the scent of bakery items. Millions, perhaps even billions of dollars are made off of impulse buys.

Outbound Marketing

Billboard -contact -backup _finalwhitebg

Online stores generally try to convert impulse buys with Outbound Marketing, a strategy that pushes items toward the consumer. This can be traditional print/tv/radio ads, billboards, or in the case of Amazon and eBay, plastering their website with popups, banner ads, pictures, links, and descriptions of products - the internet's version of product placement.

Data Overload

This approach has proven to be somewhat successful, but from a UI standpoint, it can be data overload to the consumer. The dozens of links and photos make it difficult to focus on just one or two, meaning that while buyers are exposed to more products, each product is less impressive because of the sheer number of products. This means it is less likely that a buyer will add something else to their shopping cart. A quick glance to Amazon and eBay's 2008 sites can make a current consumer wonder how we ever shopped on such data-heavy sites before.

Indeed, data overload seemed to be the theme of the internet (as well as the fledgling app market, thanks to the introduction of the iPhone) from 2008 until now - developers have been asked to cram as many products as possible onto a webpage.

Online Stores, c.2015

With the rise of Flat and Material Design, the tech world has signified that it's ready to start combating data overload. Both of these new design principles emphasize minimalism (whilst not sacrificing functionality). They revolve around the "less is more" philosophy.

Amazon, 2015:

Amazon _2015

eBay, 2015:

Ebay _2015

Etsy, 2015:

Etsy _2015

Papaya (women's clothing), 2015:

Papaya _2015

ThinkGeek, 2015:

Thinkgeek _2015

H&M, 2015:

Hm _2015

Not bad, right? Most of these websites have only a handful of large, prominent photos that draw the user to one of a few products. Bulky, link-filled sidebars have been done away with, navigation bars have been simplified, and the lead item (the most prominent, often profitable item) gets center placement. For Amazon, this is the fireTVstick, for ThinkGeek the backpack...you get the picture.

Outbound Overload

So we've solved, or at least mitigated, the data overload issue that plagued 2008-2012 websites. But there's still a problem.

Everyday, we are bombarded with so much Outbound marketing in the form of TV, print and radio advertising that a lot of buyers learn to tune it out. (You probably didn't pay attention to the 12th car insurance advertisement on TV last night, right?) This conditioning makes it even more difficult for internet outbound marketing to make an impact.

Online Stores, c. (THE FUTURE)

The MTC Team is always looking to stay ahead of the curve on all things technology. So last week, when one of our programmers stumbled upon minimums.com's new site: Product Hunt, we had to give it a second look. Product Hunt is a website revealing new products/services each day, in a very simple and innovative way. We encourage you to visit minimums.com to look around, but a quick analysis is below:

Minimums.com, 2015:

Minimums _title

Minimums _002

Minimums _003

Minimums _004

Minimums is, in essence, a blog - there are about a dozen "interviews" with people from all walks of life. Each blog features a handful of items that have a story behind them, accompanied by beautiful photography. As you explore the site, you'll find yourself reading the anecdotes behind each item/person. And then you'll see the BUY NOW button.

Inbound Marketing, and the Rise of Content

This is genius, and this is the future. It's also a bit of a revolution in online store priorities. In the data-overload era, a website's design priorities seemed to be this:

1) User conversion (outbound marketing, quantity of products)
2) Content
3) User Interface

Minimum's design has several distinctly different priorities:

1) Content
2) User Interface
3) User conversion (the buy button)

Indeed, Minimums relies on a concept recently defined as Inbound Marketing*. Their website features interesting, captivating content that forges a personal connection with the reader, coupled with elegant photography and a UI to display all of that nicely, with no distraction. At the end of it all, they offer a chance to buy the item that you've read about for several minutes. And people will buy. The goal is not more leads, it's about getting more high-quality, engaged leads.

*(There's a lot more to Inbound Marketing, and HubSpot, the current leading platform for Inbound Marketing management, has more to say here.)

How Yahoo Can Save Itself

So what does this have to do with Yahoo? Right now, Yahoo's website suffers from the two key weaknesses of online stores that we've already identified: data overload and outbound marketing overload. Have a look:

Yahoo _2015-1


It's clear that the Yahoo page of today has some strong similarities to the eBay and Amazon 2008. "But they're a news company," you might say. "They have to blanket us with links and content because people want to see ALL the news."

Yahoo faces stiff competition in the news market from pretty much all major newspapers and large TV networks like CNN, FOX, NBC, and ABC. They are also competing with Google in the search/web services market, where pretty much everything is given away for free with the intent of Ads alongside search results. The company is also launching a new fantasy-sports division, putting it toe-to-toe with ESPN.

Trying to compete with Google, the New York Times, ESPN AND NBC all at once is a daunting task. And is has showed.

But there is a possible solution, albeit one that hasn't ever been done by a large company. If Yahoo can scale up the concept of Minimums - offer great content and redesign the UI to fix data and marketing overload, while quietly becoming an inbound online store in the process - there is a lot of potential for growth.

Closing Remarks

Building the inbound online store will be difficult in that creating and publishing the right content will be extraordinarily hard to do at scale. Minimums succeeds in making people connected with the items for sale by telling stories behind them - almost a mom & pop store, but on the internet. Moreover, Minimums targets a very specific demographic of shoppers - middle/upper class with average/above-average pricing in fashion and accessories.

Yahoo will need to expand its audience while maintaining very high quality of content over hundreds, perhaps thousands of articles/images. If they can do so while integrating an inbound online store into their content, they'll be back and perhaps, better than ever.

Pre 2015 Screenshots from the Wayback Machine at web.archive.org.

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