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Outdoor Retail & SEO

I used to work at a small outdoor shop in Lincoln, Nebraska called Outek.  Outek filed for bankruptcy a year or two after I left the company.  This was mostly a result of bad business decisions, but the nail in the coffin came while I was working there.  The owner, Matt, came up to me white faced, and said “Our sales will drop 40% next year.”

Outek started as an online retailer of tents, with the URL thetentstore.com.  Later, Matt started Outek (as in outdoor technology) to sell more than just tents.  This was 2002, and to convince outdoor companies to allow him to sell their wares, Matt needed a “Brick and Mortar” store.

I was the 4th or 5th employee Matt hired.  I learned a ton: attending Outdoor Retailer, how to fit a pack, some search engine (SEO), etc.  Two years in, the store front never really took off.  What do you expect?  It was the second tier outdoor shop in a small Midwestern city.  Regardless, the business grew because of the internet.  In fact, at one point we were probably one of the top 10 US retailers of tents (certainly for some brands).

I was shocked by Matt’s sales estimate.  I thought everything was going great, then he informed me, “Google changed their algorithm.”  Just like that, our so called “page rank” dropped, and we appeared lower on relevant internet searches.  Google uses an equation to determine the importance of a site, with variables that including: incoming links & content among others.  Incoming links can be hard to control (these are kind of like referrals).  The one thing that is easy to control is content.

Well, what is content on a retail site?  It’s usually just the individual product pages.  This is where the fun begins.  If the content is the same on each site, how does one site rank above another?  SUPER GOOD CLIMBING BLOG CLIMBING HOUSE BLOG CLIMB .  You get the idea…

Do a search for “North Face Jacket” on Google and check the results.  The first result is TheNorthFace.com, but after that it’s anybody’s game.  Why do sites like US Outdoor Store  & Moosejaw show up before, say, REI (a much larger retailer)?  Look at the site, it’s designed for search engines, not people.

The ubiquitous footer

Check out the footer above.  Here’s a direct quote, “If you want a mid-weight North Face Fleece Jacket, check out the North Face Denali Hoody (or is it North Face Denali Hoodie), the North Face Windwall 2 Jacket, the North Face Denali Jacket, the North Face Women’s Denali Jacket, the North Face Girl’s Denali Jacket, the North Face Boys Denali Jacket, and the North Face Women’s Oso Hoodie Fleece.”

So this footer not only mentions North Face a million times, but also includes misspellings people may search for, and contains about 40 links.  Funny.

Here’s another example, a sidebar for “navigation”.  Who wants to shop like this?  No one.

Shop North Face Today!

To really see the extent of the content manipulation, view the “page source”.  This is the code that browsers use to render the page.  On the US Outdoor Store page, the source code contains no less than 99 occurrences of “North Face” or “Northface”.  Ridiculous.

So what’s the point?  Retailers need to do the best they can, right?  Right.  I suppose I just want to point out that the page rank of a retailer isn’t directly related to their merit, and give a shout out to a few companies I know are good…

Spadout– This company is interesting.  They are not a retailer.  They started by tracking sales of outdoor gear at other online retailers.  Now you can essentially shop for the lowest price on spadout, then click through and purchase the item at the cheapest retailer.  It’s worth noting that I consider all the retailers they work with “proficient”. They make their money mostly through commissions when the user clicks through and buys.  Spadout is a notable exception on the content stuff.  Then recently began publishing pretty nice articles on gear.

REI– The best large outdoor retailer as far as I’m concerned.  They have what they say in stock, and have a no questions type return policy.

Bent Gate and Neptune– A couple local shops that have an online presence.  Although I haven’t ordered from their sites, I have been to both shops, and received good service.

Of course, there are a lot of good retailers, and if you search through a site like rockclimbing.com or Mountainproject.com, you’ll see consumer reviews.  Feel free to post up any retailers you like in the comments.

E

Tyler - Wow, this is really interesting. I’d never considered how search engines work. This seems unfortunate. If you were to try and boost, say, climbinghouse.com’s presence on google, would you be able to create a footer similar to some retailers? Would that be selling out?February 10, 2010 – 7:58 am

Jon - Sell out, Eli.

Sell out.February 10, 2010 – 11:52 am

Doug - When I google “climbing house” this site is at the top of the list.

I’ve used Bent Gate’s online store, good service.February 10, 2010 – 12:15 pm

Eli - I will not SELL out the excellent Climbing blog (super awesome) of ClimbingHouse (sometimes mispelled climbnig bolg) That wouldn’t be good forClimbing or for good blogs. great place Training information on Climbing super strong and good Grip strength.February 10, 2010 – 1:51 pm

Jim - Don’t forget to add the XXX factor in your footer or source code. Who said anything about ethics?February 10, 2010 – 5:40 pm

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