Archive for the ‘websites’ Category

Rebranding – Part 1

December 31, 2008

Building Vertical Communities

Single Artisan, Product Focused Website

In November 2006, we launched the online marketplace to introduce a single artisan, Terra Keramik of Switzerland, to the North American marketplace. Because we represented exclusively Terra Keramik, we created the initial website under the Terra Keramik brand with a focus on its 12 tableware products. The initial online marketplace was organized around beverageware, dinnerware, and a section called studio.

Business Challenges

We faced several business challenges with that product centric approach. For example, to launch the Terra Keramik coffee beverageware in North America, we had to build a premium brand from ground zero that appealed to the professional and home barista markets. We wanted to differentiate ourselves from the numerous online stores that sell $5 white and brown, machine-made, porcelain coffee cups displayed on “catalog pages” with little information about the product and no other subject relevant content or advice.

Rich, Relevant and Interactive Content

We wanted to provide useful information about the product, show how the products are used by professionals and home consumers, and provide a rich, interactive browsing and buying experience with relevant information about the entire coffee trade (growers, roasters, baristi, cafes, consumers). In effect, we wanted to build vertical online communities without duplicating the content and features already offered by successful online coffee communities such as coffeegeek, home-barista, coffesnobs, baristaexchange, and coffeed. We wanted to provide some of the basic and necessary information and tools that these much larger communities may lack, may be hard to find, or present them in a more user-friendly format.

Multiple Artisans, Vertical Communities

In late 2007, about a year after launching the Terra Keramik tableware, we introduced a second Swiss artisan, Glasi Hergiswil and its lead-free, mouthblown crystal glass products, to the North American market. This was followed by the launch of Café Kultur of Germany and its handcrafted espresso accessories. We now faced a third business challenge, how to convert from our online marketplace representing a single artisan with few products, to multiple artisans with potentially hundreds of products, each with its own distinctive brand and product lines. It reinforced our desire to build vertical communities and also compelled us to start thinking about creating an independent brand that would represent and support multiple artisans.

Rebranding – Part 1

In the summer of 2008 we began to organize our online marketplace around four vertical communities:

  • Coffee & Tea
  • Wine & Beer
  • Dining
  • Home Décor
  • The following screen shots show the online marketplace as of December 2008, organized around the above vertical communities.

    Home Page

    Home Page with neutral gray, top navigation bar showing the 4 communities and the studio (about us, etc.) tab.

    Coffee & Tea

    Coffee & Tea Community, highlighted in green on the top navigation bar. Pages with a 3-column CSS layout.

    Wine & Beer

    Wine & Beer Community, highlighted in red on the top navigation bar. Pages with a 3-column CSS layout.


    Dining Community, highlighted in orange on the top navigation bar. Pages with a 3-column CSS layout.

    Home Décor

    Home Décor Community, highlighted in light blue on the top navigation bar. Pages with a 3-column CSS layout.


    Studio tab, highlighted in cobalt blue on the top navigation bar. Pages with a 3-column CSS layout.

    My Account

    My Account section, accessible with the “Account” button above the top navigation bar. Pages with a 2-column CSS layout.


    Gift and Wedding Registry section, accessible with the “Registry” button above the top navigation bar. Pages with a 3-column CSS layout.

    Stay tuned for details on building out the vertical communities


    We’re BAAACK!!!

    October 21, 2008

    We’ve been busy the past 6 months growing and expanding our online marketplace at and although we continue to be busy (especially with the holiday season only a few weeks away), we are excited to share with you some of the things we’re doing on this blog. We’ll be posting in the next few days, so check back! Thanks.

    Update: search or “pay to play”

    October 10, 2007

    We posted on December 17, 2006 (6 weeks after we launched our online marketplace) that to drive customers to our site and create brand and product awareness, we wanted to be included in the major search engines and to advertise both online and offline. However, because Google did not rank us (at that time) in the top 1000 results for several of our keywords, including espresso cups, cappuccino cups and fondue pots, we decided to participate in “sponsored search”. We were aware that sponsored search is expensive and our early experience indicated sponsored search resulted in primarily low quality visits. So we asked the question: “Should we be patient and wait until we move up in the Google search results, or do we continue to spend on the Google Adwords program knowing that it doesn’t bring quality visits, product sales or even long-term customer relationships?”

    We’re pleased to provide an update. The two screenshots below show that as of today, Google organic search ranks our website in the top 15 results (middle of page 2) for espresso cups (2,350,000 results) and top 20 results (bottom half of page 2) for cappuccino cups (1,940,000 results). For fondue pots (1,580,000 results), we rank in the top 90 results (bottom of page 9).



    To achieve this impressive keyword ranking on Google, we have continued to improve the search friendliness of our website as per the earlier post and we have been very patient. We worked and waited almost 12 months!

    To improve the site, we have focused especially on page layout using Divs rather than tables (whenever possible – obviously for tabular data, tables make perfect sense) and ensuring that the site uses valid HTML and is CSS compliant. For example, it does matter where your content with keywords is on the page. If you use CSS and have column layouts, the search engines read left to right and top to bottom and give more weighting to content that appears on the top left vs. the bottom right. Also, the search engines cannot read images so you should use alt tags that contain keywords. HTML validation and CSS standards do impact on search rankings, i.e. it is important to understand that search bots that crawl your site are “blind” and do not visualize your site but instead “read” your HTML markup. Bad HTML or unecessary or messy code will negatively impact your ranking. Good HTML like using tags for titles will help Google boost the importance of the title (useful if the title contains your keywords). Using Div tags to lay out your pages rather than tables will help the search bot “read” your page faster because there is less “clutter”, which will also improve your ranking.

    You can find advice and tools that should help you to structure your site at Also read Google’s FAQ for webmasters and Google’s Webmaster blog with great advice and news about coming features.

    The key (pardon the pun) now is to maintain those search rankings. Our competitors can view our keyword rank and keyword usage using a variety of online tools. We are redesigning our navigation to use a pure CSS based navigation bar, instead of the current navigation bar based on HTML tables, javascript and jpg image files (although we do use alt tags). We’ll post about that later.

    Honorable mention in eCommerce contest

    October 3, 2007

    For all the time we put into creating our online marketplace and the website that supports it, for all the late nights and weekends, for learning how to code using PHP, javascript, HTML and CSS, it’s nice to get a little recognition. Read on.


    WebAssist announced the winners of its 2007 “Do More / Win More” contest, and was awarded honorable mention (4th place) in the “best eCommerce” category.

    WebAssist is a leading vendor of software solutions for the Adobe Macromedia Dreamweaver platform. The contest was open to all websites that incorporate certain of WebAssist’s products., running on an Apache/Linux/PHP 5/ MySQL 5 platform, leverages WebAssist’s eCart (shopping cart), DataAssist (database integration), Universal Email, Cookies Toolkit, Validation Toolkit (both client and server side form validation), and SecurityAssist (registration and authentication). WebAssist products are available for PHP, ASP, and ColdFusion. WebAssist’s product suite is supported by first-class tech support as well as professional services for custom implementations.

    WebAssist has some cool new products and tools, including a tool to help create CSS compliant websites in collaboration with Eric Meyer (recognized CSS guru), and tools to integrate Google apps, PayPal, Skype and PlayStream video.

    A thank you to WebAssist for recognizing our work!

    We have been featured in…

    April 13, 2007
    TraditionalHomeApr2007 TRADITIONAL HOME

    Traditional Home featured our Terra Keramik tableware in its April 2007 issue (1/2 page). Pictured are our cappuccino cups [not the espresso cups as indicated], candleholder and teapot. We appreciate the wonderful article and beautiful photos! Thank you Traditional Home!

    Traditional Home is the largest “upscale shelter magazine” based on paid circulation of 950,000 (compared to House & Garden, House Beautiful, Architectural Digest, Metropolitan Home, etc).

    ctcottages_apr20071.jpg CONNECTICUT COTTAGES & GARDENS

    Connecticut Cottages & Gardens (CCG) Magazine featured our Terra Keramik beverageware and dinnerware in its April 2007 issue (1/2 page). The April issue is dedicated to the “green” theme, i.e. eco-friendly buildings, interior design, and landscapes. Pictured are our espresso cups and dinner plates. Thank you CCG for the beautiful spread!

    Connecticut Cottages & Gardens and Palm Beach Cottages & Gardens are sister publications (both featured our products) that cover the “gold coasts” of Connecticut and Florida.

    FreshcupMagazineFeb2007 FRESHCUP

    Freshcup Magazine featured our Terra Keramik beverageware in its February 2007 issue. Pictured are our espresso cups, cappuccino cups, coffee mugs and tea mugs. We appreciate the announcement of the opening of our online marketplace! Thank you Freshcup!

    Freshcup is a speciality beverage magazine focusing primarily on the coffee and tea trades. About 15,000 retailers subscribe to Freshcup.

    APARTMENTTHERAPY.COM (AT) featured our teapot on its blog on March 20. During the first hour of the posting, we received more than 500 visitors to our website! Thank you AT for blogging about our teapots!

    AT is an online community which helps people make their apartments better places to live and connects them to the resources they need to redecorate their homes. AT ranks as one of the 500 largest blogs according to

    COFFEED.COM featured our espresso cups and cappuccino cups in response to a question about cups for the upcoming US Barista Championships on May 4-7 in Long Beach, California. We really appreciate the posts from Matt Milletto and Mark Prince, as well as comments from others. Matt is consulting director of Bellissimo Coffee Group, director of the American Barista and Coffee School, and founder of Mark is the founder and editor of and a retired barista championships judge (see our earlier post about Mark and Thanks everyone! is an online community for espresso and coffee “professionals and fanatics”.

    We have superimposed Matt Milletto’s post, which actually appears further down in the post, after the first post to show it on the same screen shot.

    We met Luca Costanzo through the online community and sent him a couple of Terra Keramik cappuccino cups for “testing”. Luca is a barista at First Pour (espresso bar) at Veneziano Caffe (coffee roaster) in Melbourne, Australia (also the home of David Makin, the 2006 Australian Barista Champion). Luca blogged about our cappuccino cups at



    January 3, 2007

    Building a business is not possible without the help and advice from people we like to call subject matter experts. One of the many rewards of building and running a business is to be able to meet people who are subject matter experts and freely offer their vast wealth of experience and expertise to a new business like ours. We have been fortunate, and are very appreciative, of the many people who are helping us build something very exciting! In a series of posts we would like to acknowledge a few of our friends…

    We wanted to launch a special promotion (10% savings on all tableware purchases) for a local bank’s customers and needed to add a feature to capture and validate a coupon code in our shopping cart. Although WebAssist’s eCart shopping cart does have a couple of tutorials for discounts, it does not have one for coupon codes. We searched their user forum and found Kevin R. Rounsavelle’s excellent coupon code demo, which is accompanied by a well-written tutorial and a forum thread. Kevin is President of, which assists clients with the design and implementation of websites and eBusiness applications.

    The demo and tutorial are written for WebAssist’s eCart shopping cart, but can easily be adapted to other shopping carts. The ASP and PHP versions of the coupon code can be found in the tutorial and forum thread, respectively.

    Kevin’s demo and tutorial was a lifesaver! We completed the coupon code in a matter of a few hours. To resolve a couple of issues we experienced, we contacted Kevin and he agreed to quickly assist on a Friday evening between two client applications that were scheduled to go live. He was headed out of town on Saturday, and promised to continue with the help if we needed it upon his return (which was not necessary as his initial advice helped us fix the issues). We have since contacted Kevin with a question regarding a Web Assist tutorial for volume discounts in shopping carts, and he has been equally responsive and helpful.

    We appreciate Kevin’s help on a couple of critical feature implementations (coupon code and volume discounts), and recommend his firm to anyone who is interested in eBusiness applications written in PHP or ASP. It is people like Kevin, and their participation and sharing in user forums and with demos and tutorials, that greatly benefit people like us who are building new businesses.

    We have reproduced below a few comments/suggestions we have made to Kevin on his wonderful coupon code demo and tutorial.

    1. Please include the PHP discount_process code in the tutorial for those of us who do not use ASP. I did find it by searching all threads, but it would be nice to package it in the tutorial.
    2. Regarding the PHP discount_process code, any chance this could be updated for PHP 5 (no longer uses CHAR VARS). And in the redirects, I tried to use dynamic URLs, but it did not work. My reason to want to use dynamic rather than static URLs is that these pages are secured with an SSL certificate on my production box, but I don’t have an SSL certificate for my development box. It is a little cumbersome to have to manually change these URLs each time I move the files from development to production.
    3. Would be helpful to point out that session cookies have to be added to the header of each page that contains a shopping cart. I have an editable shopping cart (where customers input the coupon code), followed by the customer info page (billing/shipping info), followed by the read-only shopping cart for customer to confirm purchase. I also have a quick cart in the nav bar on every page.
    4. Another enhancement to the coupon tutorial would be to show how to create multiple coupons for marketing campaigns running in parallel.
    5. BTW, Kevin mentions an “advanced” tutorial that includes expiry options for coupons – has this been published and where? Would love to get my hands on it.


    We received an immediate and very kind response from Kevin Rounsavelle to our suggestions, which we would like to share.

    “To have multiple coupons, you just add multiple coupon codes to your discounts table in your database. You can then add either a rules table or custom code to specify if a customer can apply multiple discounts codes at the same time. I also use an ACTIVE field in my discounts table.

    I haven’t had time to finish the advanced coupon code tutorial mostly because I have been working night and day on a retail ecommerce application that includes more discounts and merchandizing features than any other application on the market right now. I plan to release in around March 1.

    However, expiration and start dates are really simple. You just have to add a startdate and enddate field to your discounts tables and then add some conditional code on your discounts processing page to only process records in the table that are between the two dates.

    Example in ASP:

    <% Dim TodaysDate, StartDate, EndDate
    TodaysDate = Date
    StartDate = DiscountsTable.Fields.Item(“StartDate”).Value
    EndDate = DiscountsTable.Fields.Item(“EndDate”).Value
    IF TodaysDate >= StartDate AND TodaysDate <= EndDate Then %>
    <% Coupon Processing Code Goes Here %>
    <% End If %>

    Using the logic above, the coupon code(s) will not be processed unless today’s date falls between the starting and ending dates of the campaign.”


    Search or “pay to play”

    December 17, 2006

    To drive customers to our site and create brand and product awareness, we wanted to be included in the major search engines and to advertise both online and offline.

    There is plenty of SEO (search engine optimization) research explaining how Google, Yahoo and MSN crawl the web to find and index sites. We have read a lot of it, and we advise “buyer beware”.  Some SEO companies profess to know the Google search algorithm and for either an upfront fee or a monthly charge will “optimize” your site for search listings. A few of these SEO companies promise (or even “guarantee”) a top 5 search result for your site (meaning your site will show up in the first 5 listings when someone searches for a keyword like “coffee” or “fondue”). Website owners complain because they are not listed for several months despite tremendous efforts to optimize their site for search listings. In response, SEO experts claim that Google “sandboxes” (excludes from search results) new websites for 6-9 months.  Many sites set up so-called link farms that contain nothing but links from other sites to their site because search engines will improve the page rank (which position in search results a site will appear on) if the site has a lot of incoming (and outgoing) links. Exchanging links with other sites is not an option for us because we do not want our site to contain dozens of links and banner ads, nor do we want to engage in the dubious practice of setting up other sites as link farms that would point to our main site.

    In order for us to achieve our short-term goal of a search listing on the first three pages with the major search engines, we had to focus on website best practices, including: good site layout, easy to navigate (no broken navigation paths/links internal to the site), relevant and constantly updated content, well-structured home page, simple file structure with appropriate naming convention, sufficient (but not overstuffing) keywords in titles and text, some incoming links, clean and lean code, tags on images, a file (robots.txt) specifying for the search bots what they should and should not crawl and index.

    In the short term we decided to participate in “sponsored” search until we would appear in the organic search results.  Sponsored search is the practice of bidding on and paying for relevant keywords and waiting until customers click on our ad that appears adjacent to search results for that keyword. In November, our first month of operation, we spent about $500 on sponsored search at around $0.50 per click on average per keyword (or about 1000 clicks). Given the click-through rate was somewhere around 2%, that represents 50,000 searches for our chosen keywords in one month while our sponsored search was “turned on” (there were days/times we turned it off because we did not believe we would attract the target demographic or visits would be low quality).  Here’s what we got: for the Google Adwords program (sponsored search), average pageviews per visit was 1.75, compared to 3.8 p/v for Google organic search (more than twice as high), and 4.15 p/v for direct visits (users who accessed our URL directly).  The Google Adwords referred visits are not what one would consider quality visits.  And the Google Adwords program generated few sales for us.

    During November and December, we improved content, added features and optimized the website to make it more “search engine friendly”.  Several search bots index our site daily (including Google, Inktomi/Yahoo, and MSN) and we monitor our progress closely.  As of the date of this post, Google does not rank us in the top 1000 search results for several of our keywords, including espresso cups, cappuccino cups and fondue pots.  MSN ranks us in the top 5 for cappuccino cups, top 10 for espresso cups, and top 12 for fondue pots. Even when adjusting for the fact that MSN indexes fewer sites than Google (345,000 search results for cappuccino cups vs. Google’s 1.3 million), it still does not explain why MSN ranks us and Google does not.

    So should we be patient and wait until we move up in the Google search results, or do we continue to spend on the Google Adwords program knowing that it doesn’t bring quality visits, product sales or even long-term customer relationships?


    December 15, 2006

    Building a business is not possible without the help and advice from people we like to call subject matter experts. One of the many rewards of building and running a business is to be able to meet people who are subject matter experts and freely offer their vast wealth of experience and expertise to a new business like ours. We have been fortunate, and are very appreciative, of the many people who are helping us build something very exciting! In a series of posts we would like to acknowledge a few of our friends…

    We have been fans of (CG) long before we launched In fact, we frequently visited their online community and read many of their articles, product reviews and forums to learn about espresso and coffee, growers, roasters, baristas, espresso and coffee enthusiasts, equipment manufacturers and distributors, and so on. Although there are several other good online coffee communities, we believe CG is by far the largest, most active and highest quality. Mark Prince, its senior editor and uber-coffee-geek, brings to mind Robert Parker and Hugh Johnson (apologies to the wine aficionados for borrowing Messrs. Parker and Johnson) in terms of his knowledge, credibility, passion, vision and influence.  He and his team have created a coffee community numbering more than 500,000!

    When we were ready to go live with our business and website, we contacted CG to explore how we could join their community. CG encouraged us to market our espresso and coffee-related items on their site and within a few weeks invited us to participate in their holiday fund raiser and silent auction to benefit the Coffee Kids: Grounds for Hope charity. We mention this because it demonstrates the values and power of an online community (CG) and the recognition by participants in the coffee industry that they must give back to the larger coffee community (through charities like Coffee Kids) to nurture, sustain and grow that coffee community. CG managed to assemble an impressive list of 30 sponsors for the silent auction, which kicked off Thanksgiving week and will end mid-January. contributed a set of 2 orange espresso cups with saucers and 2 light blue espresso cups with saucers (each set costs $56 plus shipping). The espresso cups are handcrafted in Switzerland, available in 8 funky colors, accented in platinum and signed by the artisan. Bidding for the orange set closed at $75 and the light blue set is being auctioned by 7 pm on Dec 16. Although our contribution is modest, reflecting the fact that we are the new kid on the block, we are nevertheless proud to be able to participate with CG and the entire community. And we thank Mark Prince and CG for inviting us!

    Since joining the CG community, we have met several interesting people who have offered their advice and help to us. We’ll introduce them in an upcoming post.

    Outsourcing webhosting

    December 15, 2006

    We built our own development and testing environment by installing and running XAMPP (which includes an Apache webserver, PHP 5 server scripting language, MySQL database) on a Windows XP PC.  Total cost = $0.

    As mentioned in a previous post, we decided to out-source hosting of our website. Webhosting has become a commodity service with feature sets being largely the same across the dozens of service providers. What really differentiates webhosting companies is price, performance and service levels.  It was important that our webhosting company own the data centers and not act as a reseller for someone else, invest in state-of-the-art hosting infrastructure, be reasonably priced ($10 or less per month), and have 24/7 live, competent technical support.

    We selected Bluehost located in Orem, Utah as our webhosting provider.  Bluehost’s main challenges have been managing incredible growth (including that of Hostmonster and Fastdomain, two affliates) and not investing in new capacity and more support engineers to support the fast pace of that growth.  While we were developing and testing the site this summer and early fall, Bluehost’s performance deteriorated and we almost moved the website to another webhost.  Just before launching the website, we upgraded from a shared IP to a dedicated IP (an additional $30 per year). That change, combined with Bluehost resolving their performance issues, has improved performance to an acceptable level.

    Now we wish that Bluehost would become more customer centric (less feature-driven) and improve its communication with customers.  One example would be to consult with customers about proposed changes before implementing these. Now we recognize that not all customers will agree with proposed changes, but if one applies the 80/20 rule, that should be good enough. Consulting with customers could easily be done through a blog (their CEO has one but it is not interactive) or their user forum. It would be a smarter approach to business to assess customer impact and reaction to major changes first rather than react once customers express their views and possibly move their business somewhere else.

    Catering to different user behavior

    December 15, 2006

    One of the key design objectives for the website was to provide several different ways for users to browse/search the site. Although at present our site is not large, it is important to recognize that different users will navigate a website in different ways and therefore the site should cater to different user behavior. Equally important is to make any page on the site easily and quickly accessible. We did that in several ways:

  • Horizontal navigation bar with two levels
  • Contextual links embedded in text
  • List related items in right side column – items are clickable
  • Integrate a site search engine above the navigation bar
  • Minimize number of clicks to reach any page (max. 3)
  • Optimize page load speeds
  • We are using several free “web statistics” tools to track and learn about user behavior to continuously improve the user experience (our site does not collect any personal information about users unless explicitly stated, e.g. to enable the shopping cart). One of these tools, Google Analytics, allows website owners to track and analyze how users enter, navigate and exit the site, what content they view, how long they spend on the site, whether they return, and if they transact on the site. Note: Google Analytics is absolutely free, and can be used with or without Google Adwords or any other marketing/advertising campaign. It does require you to copy and paste a code snippet on every page you wish to track. Goggle Analytics is a fantastic analytical tool, but our assessment is that it is a works-in-progress (Google doesn’t label it “beta” but probably should) and some of the stats deviate more than expected from Awstats and Webalizer.

    We also would like to explain our thoughts about site search. You may question site search for a small site, but we thought that if someone came to our site looking for red cappuccino cups or yellow dinner plates, they may be more inclined to type the search phrase into a search engine rather than using the navigation bar. Or they may be looking for a cheese fondue recipe or how to make a caffe latte, in which case they may again prefer to search. Our decision to incorporate site search was also based on implementation cost (license fee plus time to integrate and configure). We found Wrensoft’s Zoom search engine to be the answer. A free version (with no advertising) is available for small websites up to 50 pages. For larger websites, you can purchase either the standard version ($49) professional version ($99) or the enterprise version ($299). Zoom is easy to install, configure and maintain (ours was up and running in about 30 minutes) and runs on javascript, PHP, ASP or CGI. It is capable of full text searching of static and dynamic files (including PDF and Flash). And it supports foreign language search. You can modify the CSS and seamlessly integrate Zoom into your site (e.g., add to the navigation bar). The search algorithm is open and configurable for the experienced programmer. The search results page is configurable, and we included a quick shopping cart at the top of the search results page. Wrensoft has just released version 5.0 of Zoom. All in all a great package!