Amazon Isn't Always Worth Copying


March 18, 2006

Today, a colleague paid me (and my designer) the ultimate website compliment. He asked if he could copy my website structure. “I figured you had it all worked out,” he wrote.

There was a lot of truth in this — enough that I could feel good about telling him to go ahead. I really did try to work in best practices, because I had to. How can I tell customers with lead generation sites to put a contact form on every page if I don’t do it? How can I tell them to link to their privacy policies right by the email field if I don’t do the same?

On the other hand, I didn’t win every battle with my designers and still have a lot of work to do on my own. For example, I don’t have a great 404 error page, so that’s still on my list. I don’t have on-site search that can handle spelling errors and stemming — if you type in “emarketing” instead of “e-marketing,” you get a No Results page. (It’s a nice No Results page, but plain old Results would be better.) I didn’t have enough negotiating capital to get my navigation below the banner, where people would actually see it.

Which brings me to my point. Big companies like Amazon or a small web conversion company like mine aren’t always worth emulating. You assume they’ve tested everything — but maybe they haven’t. Sometimes the politics of an organization force upon companies sub-optimal solutions that everyone can live with.

Because my colleague wrote to me first, I was able to point out one change that would improve his site based on the experience I had with my own. But if you’re copying Amazon — well, the employees at Amazon are better about keeping secrets than the CIA is. Even if you do have a friend at Amazon, she won’t tell you anything. In that case, you have to measure and test, test and measure.