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FutureNow Article
Tuesday, Mar. 31, 2009

Does Online Browsing Bend the Laws of Scent and Relevance?

By Jeff Sexton
March 31st, 2009

So your friend shows you this book he can’t stop raving about. After giving it the old dust-cover/random-flip-through examination, you pretty much decide to buy it.

Now, when you arrive at, my question is: are you at all interested in the book recommendations that Amazon has for you?

Absolutely not, right?  Or at least not yet.

You came to buy a specific book.  You’ve already got a task in mind and browsing random books aint it.  You’ll likely blow past any and all call-outs, recommendations, and other assorted distractions until you’ve found the book you came to buy.

And if Amazon ends up not having the book in stock, you’ll go elsewhere.

But AFTER you’ve found the book you wanted, recommendations are welcomed. At that point you’ll actually pay attention to other books Amazon recommends and bundles with your searched-for book.   You’ll even look at what other Amazon shoppers eventually bought after viewing your friend’s book.

Task Orientation Defines Scent

This Amazon thought experiment exemplifies the task-orientation common to most online visitors.

Visitors arrive at your site with a goal in mind.  They already have a task, and your website either helps them accomplish that task or it gets dumped.  And that goes for every page on your site – either it contains the content the visitor wants, or it provides a link to it, or the visitor leaves.

But what about people just wanting to browse?

This is a question posed to me in a recent comment.  As the commenter put it:

“… when I’m browsing through Amazon – with no other goal than to pass the time – I get converted to buy stuff all the time.

‘People who bought x also bought Y’ And if the book or cd Y is something I’ve been interested in – it triggers a purchase.”

His point was that browsing is a task-less online activity that eliminates the importance of scent.

And it’s an interesting question/thought.  To answer it, I’ll first have to distinguish between early stage shopping and true browsing.

Early Stage Buying vs. True Browsing

In the early stage of the buying process, the visitor is aware of an itch he’d like to scratch, but isn’t quite sure exactly what purchase will best scratch that itch.  Let’s say our shopper is vaguely aware of wanting to get in shape, and is kind of wanting to do Yoga.  But he’s not sure if he wants to do Yoga in a dedicated studio, or take classes in a more general, multi-purpose gym, or just buy some tapes for home workouts.

This Yoga shopper is still task oriented – it’s just that the task is researching rather than buying.  And a home-workout themed website or Yoga Studio website that helped her do the research stands a far better chance of getting her business than a Website exclusively focused on late stage buyers.

This is one reason we highly recommend catering to early stage buyers and developing a content strategy for them.  And for more info on how to do that effectively, check out David Young’s excellent video series: Hunting for Early Bird Persuasion

Browsing is different.  Browsing means the shopper isn’t even clearly aware of a product desire yet. They’re not even focused on research.  If asked, the shopper couldn’t even describe the itch they’re looking to scratch.   And yet, they could buy if presented with the right product.

Browsers are still task-oriented

Despite appearances, browsing isn’t task-free.  Even though a specific object hasn’t (yet) catalyzed their free-floating desire, browsing visitors are still driven by desire.

Browsers are seeking novelty and possibility: the possibility of finding something different and better than they’d have imagined.   Browsers are as goal-oriented as any other shopper – just with different goals.

And as is true with every goal-oriented shopper, any website that fails to deliver on those goals gets dumped.  In fact, most shoppers only browse on sites that have already proved themselves capable of delivering novel products.

People browse not because it presents them with recommendations on the home page, but because Amazon masterfully presents them with interesting possibilities of new books that are similar to and possibly even remarkably better than books we’re already impressed with.  This is why the commenter I quoted from recalled the ‘People who bought x also bought Y’ quote rather than a “view Amazon recommendations” quote.

So how does a site plan to deliver on this search for novelty and cooler-than-expected items?

What it takes to be a browsing-friendly Website

Apart from bargain-priced rotating-inventory sites like bluefly, or, the top three e-tailers most noted for browsing-friendly design are:

  • Amazon
  • Zappos
  • iTunes

Here’s what they have in common:

They sell “impulse-buy-friendly” and “most-people-own-a-bunch” items.  Think about it: books, music, and shoes are all things we buy a lot of AND things we buy on impulse.  So each of these sites have a lot of repeat visits/visitors AND a fair chance at luring visitors into impulse buys.

They make it easy to sample the items in stock. iTunes lets you actually listen to the song.  Amazon lets you read the dust cover, table of contents, and a few passages from the book.  Most reviews also give you a flavor of the book.  Zappos gives you the best product photography to be found and provides expedited shipping both ways, which is a way to eliminate the pain and friction of customers trying on and “sampling” the shoes.

They routinely get new items in stock and make it a point to stock huge inventories. If browsers want novelty, it helps to be able to provide it, both with new stuff and with stuff I’ve never heard of before. has all sorts of weird titles I’d never find at my local Barnes & Noble or even imagine existed.  Same thing with iTunes and Zappos.  Browsing shoppers know that novelty is only a click away.

They have solid user reviews set-up. Amazon and Zappos make up for limited sampling through user reviews, making it no coincidence that they have the best and most solidly established review communities on the Web. iTunes lags behind the others when it comes to reviews, but makes up for by better sampling, lower average price point, and better than average recommendations.

They make it easy to sort by regular categories AND by loose associations. Amazon let’s me see cool webs of connections between books, and look at user generated lists.  Zappos provides great filtered navigation options, so that I can not only sort by black men’s dress shoes, but also by black cap-toe lace up oxfords that cost between $100 and $150.  And many of the revues compare shoes, even to the point of recommending alternatives.  iTunes allows users to sort music by genre, decade, and browse with the aid of since-you-bought-that-you’ll-like-this recommendations.  For even better filtered, or faceted, sorting, check out this Get Elastic article as well as their thoughts on using user filtering and sorting preferences to personalize visitors shopping experience.

They’ve eliminated or greatly reduced buying friction. I can buy shoes on Zappos and get them next day or by 2nd day for free shipping.  With Amazon prime, I get 1-Click buying, and free 2nd-day shipping.  iTunes allows me to enjoy my music within seconds of buying.  And I know I’ll never have a problem with billing or customer service with these e-tailers.  There’s simply no friction to buying and a good bit of near-instant gratification – important factors for inspiring impulse buys.

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Comments (25)

  1. I think it’s interesting how people will look at other books only after they’ve made the purchase they intended to. It’s funny how we have such one-track minds, and we are completely aware that getting sidetracked in any way will not bode well for our original quest. But do people look at other recommendations after the purchase is made? I can’t help but think that most of the Amazon recommendations generally just get ignored. It doesn’t seem to be the same for brick-and-mortar bookstores, though. Even if someone knows exactly what book they want, they are still likely to browse other books before taking that one to the check-out.

  2. “They’ve eliminated or greatly reduced buying friction.”

    In most cases this is something you only know afterwards.

  3. Awesome article, Jeff. (And not just because you linked to me, LOL).

    One thing I love about iTunes is the Genius sidebar that suggests to you even when you’re not in the iTunes Store! You can even preview the song without going to the store, and buy right from your player/iPod/iPhone. It would be awesome if Amazon could plug this into the Kindle – you’re finished this book and ready for another – here are some suggestions and you can download your book right from your kindle while you wait for your wife to finish shoe shopping.

    As for Zappos, this kind of on-the-go recommendation is a bit more challenging :) Perhaps create an iPhone app using its visual search?

  4. I think books review is very help me to choose books in amazon.

  5. The appropriate word for you, Jeff – the writer, is constricted NOT designed. Apple is the only one of the three which even makes an honest attempt at design. Try not to use big words next time.

  6. constructed, that is, commentator – me

  7. Apple does the same thing with the Shazam app, integrating the ability to purchase a song right after it identifies it.

  8. Great article Jeff.
    While I agree with your breakdown about what makes the sites browser-friendly, I think the focus on design is an important one. Up until last week I would’ve said that Zappos was the only one that’s thriving despite a keen attention to UI design, but I recently discovered their Zeta site ( Which tells me that they think enough of it to adapt and improve their UI design as well as functionality, even though they’ve been wildly successful without it already.

    Thanks for the insight!

  9. I own an extra bookshelf due to Amazon’s free shipping on orders over $25 coupled with a great recommendation engine.

    That free shipping makes it very easy for me to justify the emotions to buy more products when browsing related products.

  10. Hi Jeff

    Sorry the video is a dead link any chance you can post a live link to the “David Young’s excellent video series: Hunting for Early Bird Persuasion”
    Thanks Stan


    This is one reason we highly recommend catering to early stage buyers and developing a content strategy for them. And for more info on how to do that effectively, check out David Young’s excellent video series: Hunting for Early Bird Persuasion

  11. Stan,

    You can find the new and improved embedded video here:

    - jeff

  12. Great article! I’d also mention how adding incentives for one product shoppers will transform them from one stop shoppers to browsers. This happens to me all the time at Amazon. I put one book in my shopping cart and there’s a special offer that says if I spend a little more I get free shipping. Then I end up browsing similar books in my cart and buying an additional book.

  13. Matt,

    You are absolutely right. And you should absolutely join Amazon prime ASAP so you never have to worry about that again ; )

  14. Regarding to the relevant items that other people bought on Amazon:

    Its an amazing marketing tactic that has an amazing conversion rate, because the related products instantly get one’s attention who will most probably buy a similar product “just for the kicks”


  15. Interesting to see how technology is changing advertising.

  16. ^^^ definitely, it will be cool to see what happens to advertising in the years to come.

  17. Ya its nature whenever people cant find what they are looking they will go related product that’s what happen in amazon.

  18. What I have been doing the last couple months, is clicking on the “people who purchased this item, also purchased these” links. And have went on to make quite a few purchases. I find this type of product filter produces the most relevant products to what I am looking for. They are the most relevant products because they are generated by real purchases by real people. So it will be neat to see what the future holds in filtering relevant products to the end user at the time of a purchase.

  19. you’re finished this book and ready for another the most relevant products y real people. awesome if Amazon could plug this into the Kindle –So it will be neat to see strategy for them. And for more info on how to do that effectively because they are generated by real purchases b

  20. Independent expert product reviews are very importantant for buyers.

  21. It is interesting on how linear we are. If we have something we know we want, we will go directly for it (though there may be some that might get temporarily distracted). Though when it comes to internet browsing, and especially on retail sites like Amazon those cases are few and far between.
    I personally love how you can get recommendations or get to view other lists of items that similar clients are purchasing from. I usually do that with music and fictional books, but in the marketing industry in general it’s a great way to branch yourself out.

  22. I believe that despite appearances, browsing isn’t task-free. Even though a specific object hasn’t (yet) catalyzed their free-floating desire, browsing visitors are still driven by desire.

  23. I would like to say that people always focus on what others had buy and rated. Because they believe that folks always rate a product for its quality and not for its beneficial purpose.

  24. whenever people cant find what they are looking they will go as per product reviews and rating

  25. Yes, you’re right. When I’m looking for a specific product I only focus on that. Only after the purchase will I consider looking at other recommendations.

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Jeff is a Persuasion Architect, Web copywriter, blogger, and instructor of FutureNow's Persuasive Online Copywriting workshop. Follow Jeff Sexton on twitter

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