I would say that on an average day, 20% of my time is spent making sure the new content I’m creating is keyword laden. It’s no secret that sites try to game search engines, and it’s not secret that it’s a difficult balancing act between creating solid readable content and falling into the oblivion of crap squatted domains. What makes this suprisingly difficult is that every couple of weeks a new site will pop up, vying for that coveted first spot on google’s search results for “barcode scanners“, “homing pigeons“, or “words ending in q.”

Last week we dropped off the first page, and our best guess was that the product spotlight feature was not adding to the overall SEOness of the page. It was a few images with links to complete solutions with no real content. So it was up to me to hammer out a few paragraphs about some products that are fancy and try to pepper it with our keywords. Normally it takes me a couple days to pick the products, find an angle, and then write about it. Around Groundhog Day, I wanted to do a whole thing where I wrote a description then repeated some text. Apparently that joke was too esoteric for mass appeal. Though claiming our product listing scheme involved trying product names to homing pigeons and racing for what gets top nods is okay.

I’m extra worried at this point but manage to hammer out something in about an hour that makes sense to people and is still seasoned with keywords appropriately. I was proud of that speed, I’m really putting my Math background to good use. The day after the content is put up on our local site for review purposes, I notice we’ve jumped back up where we were in google rankings. I’m stoked about that. Extra stoked. Turns out one of the sites taking up two spots (I still want that sub-link below our main listing on google. That’d be so rad.) had identical content to yet another site right above it. Suffice to say, it fell off pretty quickly.

But I would be remiss to leave my 3 hours of work off the site, so there’s a whole deal on cordless barcode scanners up on the site. Pretty sweet deal, they use RF or BlueTooth to give you extra range from your equipment and to prevent you from tripping or getting into a wicked game of double-dutch. So if you got heavy products and don’t want to drop a nut, or if they’re hard to reach, Costco Employees, these cordless scanners provide a fair bit of convenience.

And, as a sidenote, in the couple days it took me to write this, our position went from 10, to 5, to 9, to 6, and now to 8 on our preferred keyword.

Motorola Scanvisor

April 20, 2008

Given my position as glad hander, manufacturer buddy, and product manager, I get to see a lot of the new stuff manufacturers are trying, generally on the day it’s released.

The Motorola Scanvisor is a pretty new thing from our Motorolian/Symboliotic friends. Motorymbol’s doing a lot to help the customer tell the difference between their product line and intended uses, and I know our sales staff and the end user are going to really dig it. For instance, it doesn’t seem like there are huge differences between the Symbol LS4208 and LS3008 aside from the paint job. Bright yellow=industrial, btw. The scan engines are comparable, they have similar warranties, but the LS3008 is designed for environments needing sterile equipment and can be cleaned with no ill harm. I kind of want to toss one in the dish washer and see how it fares.

I know this just from hacking through data sheets, spec information, and putting the products on the site. Customers aren’t going to have such an intimate knowledge of barcode scanners, and maybe our categorization doesn’t match their industry properly. The ScanVisor now lets them search by industry, environment, and myriad other uses as well as let them compare products. And it’s all in flash, which, as we know, is one of the many ways to tell if something’s high-tech.

I’d really like to apply a similar technique to our product review data so customers can find the right scanner with minimal work. Maybe have some input fields for different values, such as scan range, wireless capability, seal specification, etc. So then if they need a barcode scanner that can read from contact to 8 inches and has bluetooth capabilities, they can get a Metrologic FocusBT or Symbol LS4278.

Regarding the request for video of barcode scanner chucking, it’ll have to wait until I can find our Hi8 camera. But it should be awesome. Really really awesome.

Product Reviews

April 13, 2008

About 8 months ago, I had the wicked idea of writing up comprehensive reviews of the products we sell. It may work to parrot the data sheets, but I always like to have more in depth information regarding a potential purchase, especially when it could set me 500 dollars.

The biggest hurdle we had to overcome was accessibility to products. I don’t have easy access to products from the marketing arena, and shipping gets mad if I make the stuff we sell less than mint-in-box. So, with hat in hand, I get to call manufacturers and cajole them into sending some demo units out for our perusal. Many were hesitant at first, mostly because we had no proof of these reviews up on the site to back our claims. But with time, manufacturers have come around, and less work is required to get products in my hands.

I’ll talk about the barcode scanner review process this time around, mainly because we’ve reviewed a ton of them, and they’re the most easily quantifiable in terms of skills for bill paying.

The first round of testing involves functionality and form. We check the balance on the scanner, general ergonomic feel, and may pass judgment on it’s aesthetic. Normally that’s the ice breaker that stays out of print. I don’t really think it’s polite to refer to a scanner as “something only a mother can love,” and it’s just, like, my opinion. Next up we check out what barcodes it can scan out of a few sheets with varying densities, widths, colors, and damage. Most of this helps peg scanners as being good for retail, health care, or locations where barcodes are obfuscated or nearly shredded.

Next up we work on optimal scanning conditions, including range and light resistance. For these we always use a 100%-sized UPC-A barcode. It mostly helps keep everything standard and is a pretty easy to read barcode. Optimal range is pretty straightforward, we just hold up a tape measure and see how far back the scanner can go before reads become inconsistent. For light resistance, we use a 150 watt bulb and measure how close it can get to the barcode before reads become inconsistent. If it does alright, or we’re not convinced as to how much light it resists, we’ll take it outside and give it a shot. As a sidenote, scanners with class II lasers or ccd imagers with advanced scan engines will generally be light immune. Light immunity is the shit, especially if you have a lot of sidewalk sales.

Finally, our favorite portion of the review process, and the one that makes manufacturers cringe on occasion, takes place. Durability testing is where we separate the wheat from the chaff, the rugged from the chinsy, and see to what abuse these scanners survive. Our current method is not quite as awesome as the previous videos I linked, but it’s still fun to learn. So far we do 5 drops at 3 feet, 10 at 6 feet, and 5 at 13 feet. And so far, only three scanners have survived the damage, the HHP 3800g, IDTech Econoscan, and POS-X Xi1000. I’ll argue that losing the audible response doesn’t take away from the Xi1000’s skill. With the Econoscan, we were able to throw it across a warehouse about 5 times without it breaking at all. We had a few extras of the Econoscan so we weren’t as hesitant to break it.

So that, in a very large nutshell, is how we figure out what scanners perform better or worse than the competition.

Intermec CN3

April 8, 2008

This is why you have engineers make your videos but not your product spec.

The Intermec CN3 has an advertised IP54 seal spec, which means it can be splashed with rainwater and that’s about it. They also rate it at resistant to drops of 5′ to concrete. I know it’s good to exceed spec, but people really need to know how beefy equipment is before they make a purchase.

I’ve always dug on really showing  what products can do, it’s way more impressive than just saying they’re durable. Muting the audio may be preferable for those who are violently allergic to Fred Durst. The Symbol/Motorola (Symbolora? Motorymbol?) MC9000 is what you see doing price and inventory checks at big box stores like Target.

Big Pushes

April 4, 2008

Hey, so aside from one random post that took 3 weeks to publish, I’ve been pretty silent the past month or so. Near burnout. I don’t think I’m ready for big pushes for releases yet. We just unleashed a few new products on the site, complete systems for barcode label printing and inventory control. I’m pretty sure these were kind of thought up the week after I got back from Austin. So the kids kicking around the ideas had a few days to think about it and then the I was a zombie from late flights and early mornings at work the next day and went along with it. These systems come with a computer, monitor, the stuff you normally get when you buy a PC, as well as a barcode scanner, some sort of software, and other equipment that’ll get you doing advanced data capture or barcode labeling or other industry catchphrases that sound cool.

So yeah, the Barcode Printing systems are out there for people who may already have a point of sale setup, but it doesn’t print labels for them, or maybe they’re creating products and want to slap UPC’s on them for distribution. It’s also handy if you have twins and can’t tell them apart. The systems come in two flavors: Value and Preferred.

Value’s designed for people who just want to label their products. They may want some basic stuff but they’re not going to use a label bigger than 2″ wide. It’s got software that’s pretty easy to use and can make solid labels for whatever.

Preferred has a bigger printer, 4″ wide is pretty wide for label stock, and it can print in direct thermal or thermal transfer. Thermal transfer won’t fade or get discolored from heat. It also uses beefier software that provides more methods for hooking into pre-existing databases. Either way, you can label a ton of stuff with this gear.

As for Inventory Control Systems, that was all me. I spent about 3 weeks pouring over the products we sell, looking at the pros and cons of each mobile computer, every piece of software, until I could figure out a way to get a full rig set up that would do what customers want and not put them in the poor house. Three flavors there: Value, Basic, and Premium. I stayed away from Preferred or Essential or other terms that put a useful quality because these setups are all awesome for somebody. And, much like a parent, I’m not going to say I like one more than the other.

Value has all you need for light inventory control. The software is pretty laid back, and it comes with a cordless barcode scanner. The range on the scanner’s about 50 meters, so this is for a small to medium-sized single warehouse. A Costco was not the Value system’s intended target. Probably not a Target either.

Basic Inventory systems take the inventory control a step further, implementing a PalmOS based mobile computer, but using the same software as the Value System. So now you’re not tethered to RF ranges or PCs, so you’re set if you have multiple locations, or want to double check inventory while you’re at home or something.

Premium systems go a step further, using much beefier software that is designed specifically for multiple locations, vendors, and order systems. It has really advanced hooks to connect to pre-existing databases, and uses pretty rad mobile computers. The software scales a lot better than the Basic or Value software, and so you can rock huge databases without too much trouble.

In all, I would say the systems help fill a niche, and provide a solution for questions we tend to get fairly often. And at the very least, we can tell customers that we know this stuff works because we had to go through the learning process already. It’s not as ambiguous as “it should work fine” or “I guess you could do that.”

This is also the first time we’ve rolled stuff onto the front page that has its own style. I like it, it’s a departure from blue and green on white and really ties the promo together as a unique entity. Unfortunately for me, or fortunately for the company, if you know my photoshop skills, I did miniscule work for the promos and brochures for the systems. It was all the work of our new Marketeer. I don’t know what to call her title. She does a ton of design work for us, but she also does marketing bookkeeping and stuff. And Marketeer sounds cool, like she’s got a brass helmet and rocketpack or something.

So four of us worked on setting this up for the past… month and a half, with the past three weeks being taken up almost entirely by this one project. I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but I know these systems inside and out. And now I’m ready to take a week off and go watch cartoons in my pajamas.

The art of the SKU

April 4, 2008

Being Product Manager means I’m inundated with products that are all totally awesome and all do everything perfectly. I don’t mind that, it’s actually fun seeing people really excited about printers that also read checks. They’re either tremendous liars or insane. Regardless, it’s a great show.

Recently, I worked on getting a industrial barcode printer from Zebra up on our site. It’s the S4M, and rocks 6″ per second print speeds and looks like it can take a hit from a howitzer and keep printing. It’s also been in my “put it on the site” queue since July and I’d be remiss to put it off for a full year.

This would probably be as good a time as any to outline the process I take for listing a product. It’s just so efficient and rad that I feel I must share it with you. Before I even start full on content creation (read: overusing verbs like utilize and provide), I trawl the manufacturer’s site for their description, data sheets, drivers, and big images. Big images are important. Nobody likes to look at blurry stuff on the internet. It’s just not done. Once I find the info, I dump my haul out and start in on part number wrangling and pricing. For most products this is the easy part, just rote data entry on 3-10 part numbers.

Once that’s squared away, I pour over the data sheets and manufacturer’s description to pick out what I want the customer to know is most important about the product. And thus begins the fun of using my math education skills to write descriptions that tell the customer about the product and highlight the best parts of it. I haven’t created the equation yet, otherwise I’d just dump all the terms into excel and have it create the sentences for me. Finally, I format the imagery for our reqs and dump it all onto the site. An average product takes the better part of an afternoon to create, and about 40 minutes to list.

But sometimes there are products that throw a wrench in my system such that it takes 3 solid days to get everything together. The only images available are 20×20 thumbnails, the descriptions are single sentences of “This is a barcode scanner. buy it”, or there are so many variations on the product that 5 hours are eaten just in squaring away part numbers and pricing.

The S4M, with the 50 part numbers I’ve found so far, falls into this category. This is special territory, and puts it in ranks with the Symbol MC70 and Intermec CN3. It’s not bad that there is this much variance within a product line, oftentimes it prevents consumers from paying for features they neither need nor want. I can see where it could cause problems for newer or less immersed consumers. The last thing I like when I’m researching a relatively major purchase is to have 5,000 slightly different choices. And now, as a quasi-shiftless Product Manager, it turns a quick product listing into a 3 day job.

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