Perhaps the most important consideration about the above statement is that I like criticism. Sometimes I even thrive on it, but really that kind of description is unnecessary.
This week Jason Walker published a blog post that was very critical about Tea Trade and focused on our Marketplace. Here is a screenshot of what he wrote (it has since been edited, but the new version really isn’t an improvement):Screenshot source: Jason Walker, walkerteareview.com
Not the kind of public language one expects from someone who tries to position himself as a leader in the online tea community. Certainly not the kind of language I’ve come to see and expect in that same community. I’ve seen many strong opinions, but rarely expressed with such vulgarity.
Is he right?
Yes, he is. Though I really don’t need him to tell me that, much less in the kind of language that makes him look like a really poor ambassador for the tea community. I’m fully aware of the deficiencies of our marketplace, just like everyone else is. Everyone’s opinions matter to me because Tea Trade matters to me, though the respect I had for Mr. Walker before his post has greatly diminished as has my thinking that he shows leadership and wisdom for tea lovers. While I find his criticism relevant, I find his language and manner repugnant.
There are a number of things that are well overdue for an overhaul, and I’ll go through them shortly. There are also some other things that exist as part of early decisions we made about setting up the Marketplace. Before I do that, I want to make one thing perfectly clear. The Tea Trade Marketplace is a ground-breaking piece of innovation, not only in the online tea world, but also in various web development circles – specifically, WordPress. To date, Tea Trade is the oldest WordPress multisite e-commerce network online today. We launched using a different e-commerce software in January 2010. Later, in the summer of that year, we transitioned to a newly released WordPress multisite e-commerce package that enabled us to convert ordinary blogs into full fledged stores. The added benefit was that we could display global products from across the network on the central Tea Trade main site. This display became the Tea Trade Marketplace.
We launched our new Marketplace using this new software only one month after it was released, complete with bugs and all. Since that time, we’ve maintained a close relationship with the developer of that software and have have contributed feedback and ideas for the improvement of it. Because of my experience with the software, I contribute regularly to help other users of it and have even been approached to develop other WordPress multisite networks in other commercial niches using the same program.
What is wrong with the Marketplace?
Here is a short list of some things I’ve identified as issues, click each heading to expand my explanation of it:
[toggle title=”The browsing experience is incongruent.“]The main display lists all the products from across the Marketplace and you can sort by tea types. When you click on a product, you are taken to the product page on the seller’s website, in a new browser tab. I configured that behavior intentionally because previously, it used the same browser tab and took you away from the Marketplace. The intent is that you will look at the seller’s product and begin to browse their site and shop from it, but I recognize that is what Marketplace shoppers don’t want to do, they want to browse a marketplace, not a store.
When you switch back to the Marketplace tab and select another product, it loads the new page in the same tab that was just previously opened. This forces you to loose your place in the store you were already looking at. [/toggle]
[toggle title=”The product names are truncated.”] The product names are cut off automatically after a certain number of characters. This was originally done to accommodate the grid layout I chose to use for the Marketplace. This is a simple styling issue and one that I can generally fix with about 10 lines of style code and about 30 minutes of time. I haven’t done it, I’m guilty.
There are two approaches I have looked at for this one is to simply remove the product names and display the images only, but this relies on high-quality images from the sellers, which is not always possible. The other is to overlay the product names on the image and using word wrap to display the full length of the name. The downside to this is that in my testing, when the longer product names obscure more than a third of the image, it just starts to look bad. [/toggle]
[toggle title=”Not enough product information displayed.”] Along with the truncated product names, there is no other information for a visitor to go on. The additional product data that is currently able to be displayed in the Marketplace (but I have chosen not too, for visual clarity) are the product descriptions (too long) and the price. I would like to display that seller’s username, but have not investigated yet how to code that in as a new piece of what is called metadata. [/toggle]
[toggle title=”The overall visual experience for browsing and shopping is confusing.”] This is a major sticking point. Clicking on a product takes you to the seller’s store, which is a completely different website. By this I mean, it has it’s own unique URL, theme, look, layout and content. Some of the seller’s have even paid us for a white label service in which I remove the Tea Trade bar from across the top of the their website. This alone has a tendency to break the flow of browsing because it feels like there is no way back to Tea Trade. This was a decision I made early on and I struggle with it.
A model for Tea Trade is Etsy, but on Etsy, sellers are forced to use the website and design that Etsy gives them. Our WordPress framework, however, gives the sellers more power, control and flexibility – here they can have their own website – fully branded and controlled by them and because we use WordPress, there really is no limit to what can be done. The look and feel of their site is only limited by their imagination and their finances. Knowing that we could provide that flexibility, I opted to allow our sellers to build out their own sites as they see fit instead of constraining them to a single template. In some ways this decision haunts us because it breaks the rules of a web browsing shopping experience by lacking visual consistency.[/toggle]
How did it get so bad?
It didn’t get bad, it’s just not developed. What you are actually seeing is the Marketplace with little enhancement since I set it up when we started. Did I make a mistake in not making the Marketplace a priority? Absolutely not. Tea Trade is a community. We host, maintain and provide support for a social network of nearly 100 websites (both blogs and stores). At any given time, a third of them are active and being used (even the inactive ones need maintenance). I respond to support inquiries 7 days a week and Jackie serves as an charming and intelligent host and is around here even more than I am. We prioritized the blogs, the forums and social networking aspects of Tea Trade in order to build a community. The actual Marketplace sat back and watched as dozens of independent blogs and tea websites were created over the last two years – all of them on our network, on Tea Trade – all connected together.
It was an operational decision that Jackie and I made together to focus on the community-building aspect instead of the Marketplace itself. The result has been fabulous, friendships and relationships have been formed even to the extent that members have enjoyed meeting each other in person in a series of international trips. We host the single most prolific tea review blog on the internet. We’ve enabled a homemaker a conduit to a startup tea business online (I’m proud of this one because I’ve seen at least a dozen online tea ventures start and fail since she started yet she still chugs along nicely). We also host six websites to channel to six different markets for an Australian tea seller. Not to mention the dozens of active blogs and forums that support.
Running a website network of this size requires a lot of work and expense. No, we’ve not focused on Marketplace because we were focused on other things. Perhaps this year, I’ll get some time out of our other projects to enhance the Marketplace, recruit some new sellers and help someone else get started in a business online.
I do agree that Tea Trade’s Marketplace is not perfect, but it is also not complete. Tea Trade itself is an ongoing project, something that I learn by doing. The project is not over, and I have no intention of walking away. I think we all will enjoy a great 2013 and we will see what innovations I can come up with.
Thank you for reading this rather long-winded, first of 2013 post. If anything in this missive gave you anything to think about, please share your thoughts in the comments below. Remember, I love useful criticism!