After almost three years of weak sales Gap CEO Paul Pressler has stepped down to enjoy more than £7m worth of severance pay. Why is the 3,100-store company suffering? One look at Gap’s website tells you all you need to know.

With just 107 words of readable text on its homepage, the Gap site is far too fond of pretty pictures for its own good. Being image-heavy isn’t always such a big problem, especially in these broadband-enabled times, but Gap has failed to strike the right balance between pictures and prose.

The main consequence for Gap is rubbish search engine visibility. Is it any wonder that the firm sales are in freefall?

Look at the cached version of the homepage in Google and you’ll see that Gap is preventing Googlebot from doing its work, with its warning about ‘requiring cookies to be enabled’. Make sense of that, Googlebot!

The result here is that Google is only indexing around 85 pages from the Gap website, which explains why the company is totally invisible for relevant search terms. And you can forget about finding deep links straight into product pages.

If it wants to increase sales by attracting new customers then it is time for Gap to take another look at implementing a search strategy. Because I can’t see any search engine marketing in action whatsoever, and that includes paid search (although there are various reasons why I might not be seeing paid ads – I’m based in London, for starters).

How bad is it?

Well just try finding Gap for anything non-brand name related:

Men’s clothes’ – not in the top 100 on, despite Gap presumably generating a healthy percentage of its $14bn-a-year sales from men.

Wool motorcycle jacket’ – not in the top 100 on, despite it selling and labelling a product in this exact way.

Women’s styles’ – not in the top 100 on, despite it ‘optimising’ its title tag for this term.

Despite this, an article published on Internet Retailer from last September reveals that online sales are actually going up, with Gap-owned pulling in the most revenue.

“For Q2 Gap grew its web sales year-over-year 27.1% to $136 million from $107 million. At the same time, the retailer’s Q2 total sales remained flat at $3.71 billion.”

Gap relaunched its website in late-2005 and all sister brands, including OldNavy and newcomers like Piperlime, use the same template. Which would be fine if it didn’t suck so badly.

See, it isn’t just offsite search that is the problem. Try searching for something once you visit and you’ll soon realise that you can’t. Gap’s executives felt that the new website didn’t need an onsite search tool.

Which begs the question: “Are Gap’s executives all smoking crack?”

It is hard to tell, judging by the reasons given by general manager to another fine article on Internet Retailer, from oh, about a month and a half ago. Brace yourself, for I find some of these comments genuinely staggering.

“We don’t want to put up something on our site just to have it,” says Will Hunsinger, who is also a vice president of Gap Inc., No. 24 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide to Retail Web Sites. “A lot of times we see interesting shopping features that come out into the marketplace, and retailers put them on their site whether or not they fit within the experience they’re trying to craft on their site.”

So Gap doesn’t want a site search tool because…?

“Customers trust us for our fashion point of view and for help in putting together an entire look,” Hunsinger says. “We want to make sure our online shopping features are an extension of our store shopping experience.”

What the hell does that mean, exactly? You will only add features to the website if they are an extension of your offline experience? Stark. Raving. Mad. What has the offline experience got to do with being able to find products on a website? Nothing, nothing at all. They are two different - if related - beasts, remember.

That said, we know that consumers think of brands as a single entity, with web and high street amounting to much the same thing. So it follows that a bad experience online or offline will affect the consumer’s perception of the brand as a whole. Hunsinger seems to have gone some way towards making this link, but has failed to grasp that it works two ways – a bad online experience might be one of the reasons why some people have stopped visiting its stores.

About one in twenty of Gap’s (declining) sales dollars are processed online, so while the company has generated significant traction you’ve got to wonder about the opportunity cost of it being blinkered to best practice.

Further Reading:

CEO leaves Gap – Scotsman

The Worst Stock For 2007 – Motley Fool

Online Retail User Experience Benchmarks – E-consultancy (subscriber access)