You Are Not Amazon

By John Cooney moves a lot of product. It processes 24 orders every second. Its 76 million (and counting) unique visitors would make it the world’s 17th-largest country, if it were a country. And just about every person I have ever interviewed for a usability study has mentioned using it. This success doesn’t mean that it’s always smart to copy from Amazon. It’s still necessary to think critically about your content, audience, and goals before implementing any feature from another website, even proven leaders.

Because your business model and visitors are not the same as Amazon’s, your site should be different too. Websites tend to be unique, which means their features and solutions should be tailored to fit their specific context.

Amazon Has a Really Weird Business Model

Recently I was looking into buying a new record player (not everything in a developer’s life has to be digital), so of course I went to While I was on a product page, I noticed something really strange.

Amazon places ads from other companies on their product pages – for the same product! This is crazy, as they are literally encouraging you to buy from a competitor. Except it’s not crazy. Their business model ensures they make more on the ads they sell than they lose in business through these links. Additionally, most users would rather pay a little more to shop with Amazon, because they are so familiar with the brand (and because they know that Amazon provides excellent customer service after the purchase).

Amazon can get away with putting external ads on their own product pages because of their unique business model. Since you are not Amazon, you might want to think twice about employing the same strategy.

Amazon Gets a Lot of Traffic

Mention the idea of online reviews, and everyone thinks of Amazon. In fact, I know people who will go to Amazon to look at reviews for a product they’re going to buy offline at a store. We can definitely copy Amazon’s reviews, right?

Amazon gets millions of visitors every day. It’s a good idea to keep this in mind, because only about one in 1,300 purchasers (not visitors) writes a review – that’s a robust 0.07% of people who bought the product. It gets worse. Amazon actually uses the ingenious “Was this review helpful to you?” question to prioritize its reviews and keep the best at the top, and only about one in 7,300 purchasers (a healthy 0.0014%) answers it. This prioritizing is what makes Amazon’s review system so great – they don’t actually get more informative reviews than other sites, they just get more reviews, and you never see the weaker ones.

Amazon has millions of visitors and therefore a surplus of user-generated content. Since you are not Amazon, you should probably plan for fewer reviews, and even fewer review ratings.

It’s Not Just Amazon

Of course, the caveat about copying from other sites applies to everyone, not just Amazon. Consider Banana Republic, a leading global clothing brand with a robust e-commerce site. Because Gap Inc. owns Banana Republic, the site is actually combined with four other brands—all displayed as tabs across the top of the page.

This solution puts multiple labels together on a single site, while also keeping them distinct. But there is a major potential problem.

If I’m looking for sweaters on the Banana Republic site, I see that there are other brands available, but I only see the sweaters offered by Banana Republic, not those sold by Gap or Old Navy. Suppose I don’t like any of the Banana Republic sweaters (a good bet, for me)—do I know that I’m only looking at a third of the available options? It’s possible that the perfect sweater is hidden on the Gap tab, but I’m going to leave without ever seeing it.

The site designers are clearly aware of this issue, because subtle links to the other brands’ sweaters appear in the right margin. These links don’t show me what these other options look like, or even how many there are—and there’s an excellent chance that I’ll miss them entirely. But I suspect that won’t bother the designers at all.

If I’m on Banana Republic, I’m probably interested in a Banana Republic sweater, not a Gap sweater, and certainly not an Old Navy sweater. Without getting into psychology, these brands are household names and users are likely to enter the site with specific and persuasive feelings attached to each. As a shopper, I don’t mind the gentle reminder that others are available, but I’ll be annoyed if these irrelevant sweaters are mixed in with the ones I want.

Gap Inc. knows that users are informed and opinionated about its labels, so it pushes those brands first, before the actual products. (Users choose the brand they want, then the product; Gap Inc. also offers no help in choosing between the different labels.) Since your brand is probably less of a household name, you’ll want to ensure that your products come first.

Be Inspired, But Still Be Smart

There is a lot to admire on sites like Amazon, and looking at industry leaders is a great way to get inspiration for your own ecommerce website. But differences in business models, audience, and content mean that a lot of what you see won’t work on your site. You are not Amazon—which is great, because you have a chance to be better. After all, Amazon didn’t make a profit until its seventh year in business, and that’s one model most people would rather avoid.

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