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It’s quite common for luxury brands to apply their strong branding values of exclusivity and differentiation to the online space. However, these values are often applied at the expense of usability and SEO.

This article will show examples of how this desire to be different can prove to be detrimental in the online space and discuss why these luxury brands must acknowledge this if they are to embrace the online marketing channels properly.

The site brandchannel.com gives an in-depth insight into what makes a luxury brand; so it’s important we try to retain these core values whilst improving their website experience.

Common Issues for Luxury Brand Websites

Terminology

First of all, it’s of utmost importance that a brand reflects the terminology that their target market uses, in order to describe their products or services.

The example below is from a boutique hotel site. They refer to booking a room as ‘sleeps’, a more descriptive term would have been ‘rooms’ or even ‘boutique rooms’.

That terminology would be more helpful for a user and it would open up the SEO potential of that page for terms like ‘boutique hotel rooms location’.

User terminology is of utmost importance

Other such examples can be found in luxury fashion there is an insistence on the term ‘ready to wear’ as a collective term for their ‘luxury clothing’ ranges. These fashion houses have historically used this phrase ‘ready to wear’ (born out of the French phrase prêt-à-porter) in order to distinguish that it’s off the peg and not a tailored garment.

In the physical setting at bricks and mortar boutiques, this difference in garment fit clearly needs to be distinguished, however the same cannot be said for the online space.

It would be fair to say that users accept that due to the physical implications of the online setting, the expectation from a user is in fact ready to wear clothing and not tailor made clothing, with neither largely specified within search queries. 

This terminology issue is common across all luxury niches as a well-known luxury electronics firm calls their TV section ‘Picture’ instead of ‘luxury TVs’ or even more luxury qualified terminology such as ‘home cinema systems’.

Use terminology that users search for

Text as images

Using images to display text is common practice for luxury brands. Understandably for luxury brands, aesthetics and customer perception is everything. Back in a time when web technologies were more primitive, you can understand why these brands preferred to use images for their navigation and buttons.

These days however, web technologies have progressed a long way so that using images instead of text should not even be considered.

Using CSS to change how html text is displayed is more than capable of meeting the aesthetic needs that luxury brands demand. Using images hinders SEO and is detrimental to users (especially those with disabilities) because of two reasons:

Readable html content

Google can’t read the text, therefore has less content and context to understand what subject pages are about. Users that depend on text to speech browsers or that have browsers that don’t display images will be neglected.

Page load time

More hi-res images loaded means that the page load time will increase. A lengthy load time of a page will negatively impact the user experience, potentially causing a bounce.

For this reason, search engines use this as a measure of good user experience, therefore slow page speeds could limit a page (or sites) ranking potential.

Example of text being displayed as images

Splash & Flash

Splash screens

These are often used to promote the latest lines and brand image or to channel users into sections of a website (for example, content for a specific country).

In the case of promotion or imagery, some would argue that this is a key part of the luxury brand experience. That may well be the case, however it should be at the users’ discretion whether or not they see the splash screen or view the video.

Splash screen of Versace

A user visits a site to find some information or perform an action. That action may be to absorb the luxury brand experience (in the form of a video or an intro) but that is just one of a number of things that a user may require from their visit. One of which could be to view a range of items with the intention of buying it, or it could even be to directly buy a specific item.

It is not best practice for any site to dictate to a user what they do on a site. If a user decides that they haven’t found the information they want or its difficult to find that information easily then they will exit the site.

Flash heavy

Flash is a fantastic technology when used in the right way to supplement the aesthetics and richness of content of a site that is primarily built on html. Google is getting better at reading flash content and it’s by no means an SEO’s worst nightmare anymore.

The problem therein lies whenFflash is used as the technology to build an entire website or significant portions of a website.

A flash based navigation or intro screen can take time to load and is dependent on having the required browser plugin and bandwidth capable of displaying rich hi-definition imagery.

Luxury brands do tend to be partial to a touch of flash, as this is down to the aesthetic richness that can be produced using flash. 

As mentioned previously, search engines like Google are getting better at reading flash, but it can prove more difficult to read than traditional html.

To improve SEO you must make it as easy as possible for a search engine to read and index your content. If a search engine uses more resource to index your site then it will index less of it. Making it as easy as possible for search engines to understand and index your content is the easiest route to good rankings. In all too many cases it is this over-use of flash that can be a luxury brands downfall in terms of SEO and usability.

Upon entering the Chanel site it appears that its split into a number of mini sites surrounding their product categories. They have yet to adopt an ecommerce capability. Entering the fashion mini-site (which is entirely in flash) it soon becomes apparent that you need quite a fast internet connection, after a one click of the flash navigation the browser plugin keels over.

building an ecommerce site in flash player can hinder usability

Just to show how difficult it is for browsers / crawlers to decipher pages built entirely using flash, here is a snippet showing that Google’s Chrome browser actually thinks the page is in Ukrainian.

Google thinks this page is in Ukranian

Why is all this a problem?

This is an issue for two main reasons:

Findability

Findability is the key. In bricks and mortar retail terms, it’s no good having an impeccable store with marble floors and chandeliers if your store has no shop front and is situated in a Peckham side street (no disrespect to Peckham). In short, if no one can find your store, what’s the point in having one?

Usability

Navigation and usability is the other key point here. Think of this as your shop assistant, they make it easier for your customers to find what they want. If the shop is cluttered or clothes are hidden then it’s difficult for a user to find what they want and they will leave the shop. The same applies in the online space.

The end result is that some luxury brands won’t have visibility in front of their target market within non-brand specific search for terms like ‘designer handbags’. An even worse outcome of this is that users aren’t able to purchase or easily find items when they specify the exact brand in their search query.

For example, the snippet below shows that for a branded query like ’yves saint laurent sunglasses’ in google.co.uk, the YSL listings are for the USA and neither one mentions the term sunglasses. The snippet shows that much more useful and relevant results matching the search query appear in the sponsored listings for resellers.

YSL sunglasses are hard to find in the UK due to findability issues

The result of all this is that the reduced findability and usability is causing search users to either turn to a luxury brand that is more prominent online or buy that particular luxury brands item via a reseller.

Investment of resource to address these two points is advantageous because they are intrinsically linked with one another. If you design and build your site with the end user in mind, then this is also beneficial for SEO.

Summary

It is understandable why luxury brands use these contrasting techniques as a differentiator, and that can work very well in the offline space. However the online world is one where the user experience is key, a more logical approach is needed. Giving users clearly defined options and not forcing them into a particular action.

It seems like all too often as the rest of the web accelerates in terms of ease of use and usability, luxury brands are being left behind. They are constrained by the successful offline marketing principles that are shoehorned into the digital space. Functionality and usability is often an afterthought at the mercy of the all-important branding.

It would be ignorant to dismiss those principles that have defined luxury brands as luxury but in the digital space, it needs to be the other way around; a sound focus on normal best practice digital techniques with luxury branding overlaid.

Users need to be presented with a clear set of options, and information needs to be displayed quickly and in an easily digestible manner. This can be done whilst maintaining luxury perception as sites like Alexander McQueen, Harrods and Matches fashion show.

Luxury sites can be done well and incorporate SEO

Jimmy McCann

Published 28 February, 2013 by Jimmy McCann

Jimmy McCann is Head of SEO at Search Laboratory and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can connect with him on Google+

6 more posts from this author

Comments (5)

Andrew McGarry

Andrew McGarry, Managing Director at McGarry Fashion

Great to see this area covered.

>Terminology
I've had clients say to me "why don't we rank for X, everyone around here uses that phrase, even our suppliers". Then you look at the numbers and even by luxury niche standards it has less than nothing in search.

That's the challenge with luxury brands, "client aspiration" has to be managed with doses of ecommerce reality.

>Text as images
Yes, yes, yes! For the love of god, yes. Suggesting the use of CSS to change how html text is displayed should not mean the under pressure photoshop expert (sometimes known as head of design) stares at you as if you suggested a virgin sacrifice.

>Readable HTML Content
Again, YES! Although companies believe the BRAND is everything and its very name alone should suffice, to search engines that like text pictures alone it's not enough.

This is one of the hardest points to get across when new site designs are being drawn up. No-one wants to hear the SEO guy say:

"Google can’t read the text, therefore has less content and context to understand what subject pages are about."

So the powers that be decide the SEO can be "fixed" afterwards.

No! You don't try to strap on an engine to the side of a F1 car. You build it INTO the car from the very start. Hell, before you build anything, you build it into the very idea of the design.

> Page Load Time

If you're using Magento/Demandware/Hybris/Websphere/etc, you better have devs who know how to make it fast (ask to see their fastest work on the web) or else you're going to lose money.

Of course, you won't know how it really performs until December's peak and it's a bit late then when you fry your servers...

over 3 years ago

Gareth Young

Gareth Young, Development Manager at Powder Blue Ltd

Excellent article; some very familiar situations there.

All too often we've found that luxury brands bring with them (non-web-specialist) marketers and designers - who understand the brand but not the potential impact of their decisions on SEO, speed, accssibility and similar.

There's a level of education and patience required to reach the best balance.

over 3 years ago

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Jimmy McCann

Thanks for your comments guys. It's positive reinforcement for these common issues that other people are coming up against when working with luxury brands.

@Gareth - you're absolutely right in that it's all about about education and patience.

over 3 years ago

Pete Williams

Pete Williams, Managing Director at Gibe Digital

I believe that Luxury brands understand that their consumers are different from the majority of us who are looking for a pair of jeans at the right price. They want to create mystique and a atmosphere which they believe represents their offline experience. Unfortunately this perception doesn't translate into the digital world and as Gareth says a period of education is required to show owners they can get an elite experience by developing new technologies like augment reality, personalisation etc. They also need to understand that they aren't looking for 1000's of hits but instead 50 really quality hits which is much harder to achieve.

over 3 years ago

Ben Potter

Ben Potter, Commercial Director at Leapfrogg

Interesting article.

Whilst I do think there is a degree of ignorance (and therefore missed opportunity) on the part of some luxury brands, their reluctance to invest in SEO, for example, is perhaps based on an understanding of their customers' behaviour (one hopes!).

From surveys we have conducted, those people purchasing very high-end products (from the likes of Chanel, for example) are unlikely to do so online (in fact, many such brands do not even have a transactional website). Instead, the boutique is the preferred channel for both research and purchase.

Therefore, the reluctance to find a better balance between website experience and SEO, may, in some cases, be simply down to the fact that those customers who can afford to spend thousands of pounds on a jacket, pair of jeans or sunglasses, are unlikely to buy online. This is perhaps best reflected in the low search volumes for generic terms, as @Andrew cites above.

It doesn't take away the need to deliver a great web experience (frankly, some of the errors you point out above are 'school boy'). However, high-end brands are perhaps more interested in trying to replicate the store experience online than rank for terms that will drive relatively low volumes of traffic.

over 3 years ago

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