Friday, February 3, 2012

Tea Company Websites And Online Tea Stores: Consistent Navigation Schemes, When To Have Separate Websites

This post continues my series on best practices for tea company websites.

This post focuses on something so simple, yet very important. It's so simple that I'd think it completely ridiculous to even state it, if not for the simple fact that a surprising number of companies don't do it. The advice:

Have a single main website for your company and online tea store, with a single navigation scheme.

Going into more depth:

  • Use the same header, footer, and navigation bars on different sections of your site. If you need additional toolbars or menus to navigate sub-sections of your site, add these navigation bars on top of the main toolbars, rather than creating a different one.

  • Think carefully before building separate websites. Separating personal blogs of owners and employees is often a good idea (but not necessary if you're comfortable with the person's blog representing the official views of the company). Separating interactive / community websites can also be a good idea. However, separating your online store from your main company website is usually a bad idea, as it can cause you to lose sales.

  • Maintain some sort of consistency in look-and-feel between sites on different domains, and draw clear attention to the relationship between your site and the other websites. This practice gives you free visibility for your brand, as well as maintaining transparency.

As with all my best practices recommendations, this advice represents my own personal opinion, based on my experience both as a webmaster and a web-savvy customer of online tea retailers. While it's not a global statement of fact, I do have reasons for feeling as I do, which I explain below.

Maintaining consistency of navigation:

I find the most illuminating explanation of why consistency is important to be what happens when you don't have it. The following screenshot shows the header on Rishi Tea's homepage:

Now, here is the header on the store section of Rishi's site:

Notice that this is a completely different header...the footer on the page, incidentally, is also completely different. This confuses viewers of the website, and also slows them down. People used to exploring the store section of the site may return to the site by typing in the URL,, only to find an unfamiliar header. Similarly, someone who wanted to click one of the links on the homepage's header may have trouble finding it once they click through to the rest of the site. In the case of Rishi Tea, because most people viewing the site will view both the homepage and the store section, most users will actually encounter this inconsistency.

I think, unless absolutely necessary, it is best to avoid this sort of inconsistency. Sometimes having different toolbars is necessary in different parts of your site, but I think that it is generally better to have a common, base toolbar that is the same on the whole site, and then add additional toolbars to other sections of the site, rather than having a completely different toolbar.

As a side note, I really like Rishi Tea and I think their website is actually quite good: easy-to-use and informative. I'm picking on them in part because I like them as a company and want to draw attention to a company that I feel good about supporting.

Do not build a separate website for your "store":

Not all tea companies sell directly through their website; some brands, like most of the tea brands owned by Unilever and other large companies, have strictly informational websites. However, most tea companies sell tea online. And, if you do sell tea online, through a company-owned online store, then by all means, sell your tea on your main website and do not build a separate site for your store.

Why? People will come preferentially to your company's main website, and you will lose sales if your store is compartmentalized in a separate section or hosted on a separate domain, and not fully integrated into your site. Many people will visit your site and may not even know that you sell things online. Here's an example of a company that separates its store in a way that I think is likely causing them to lose a lot of potential sales. The following screenshot is from the homepage of Equal Exchange, a brand of fair-trade goods that sells tea, among many other products:

Note the small menu item shop in the upper-right-hand corner. How many people are going to click, or even notice this link? A large number of people may visit the Equal Exchange website, because they know the Equal Exchange brand, but may not know that the company sells its products online. And they may visit and explore the site without ever clicking or even noticing that link. They may leave the site without ever learning that this brand sells online.

When actually clicking the "store" link, there is a completely different header:

This header draws attention to the different categories of products for sale, and the little "shopping cart" box in the upper-right hand corner makes clear that this is a retail site.

Although I certainly have not tested this, I have a strong intuition that Equal Exchange would make more sales by integrating its sites so that the sales header and shopping cart appear on all pages of the main website. And, as with Rishi, I have singled out Equal Exchange because they are a company whose mission and values I like, and who I want to support. There are so many examples of other companies, including some companies that sell nothing but tea, who have a similar setup on their websites.

When to separate different sites into different domain names?

Adagio Teas provides a compelling example of when it can be beneficial to run separate sites on separate domain names. Adagio also runs TeaChat and a variety of other sites which, while affiliated with Adagio, are really oriented towards the tea-drinking community as a whole, and not exclusively Adagio customers. In this case, I think hosting the sites on different domains is a good choice. Adagio also uses a consistent (although not identical) look-and-feel across all the sites, and has its logo and name prominently displayed on all sites. This both helps the company gain visibility for its own brand, as well as providing transparency, a win-win situation.

If you're a tea company, and you are running some other tea-oriented websites, by all means put your company's name and logo prominently on your other sites--failing to do so not only is giving up a free marketing opportunity, but risks looking a little shady, which can actually harm your image.

What do you think?

Do you think these recommendations are sound? Can you think of any caveats, or do you have any quibbles with what I say here?

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