The Real Problem with Borders Books is Search

Borders Books is struggling, with Distribution Centers and Stores closing. The General Counsel and Secretary of the company resigned at the start of the year. Talks about restructuring the chain are filling the news, and the bookseller is starting to open new stores that look to products other than books to attract customers.

I prefer shopping for books in person, and my local Borders is an inviting place, giving me the chance to browse at my leisure, sit in a comfortable chair and skim through books, or grab a cup of coffee while I decide what I might want to buy.

I rarely see the Border’s website in search results when I’m looking up a book. I don’t see their main competitor, Barnes & Noble, in search results as well. I decided to compare search rankings for Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Borders Books for a number of books.

I chose 40 fiction books at random which appeared prominently on the New York Times bestseller lists from last year. I performed a Google search on the Books’ titles, and their authors’ last name. While it’s a small sample size, these were pretty popular books.

I’m not sure how much analysis the following table actually needs. It’s pretty clear that Amazon recognizes the value of ranking well in search results, ranking in the top three results for the majority of the books, with 27 number 1 results. Barnes & Noble outranked Amazon for only one book, and while all of the Amazon results were on the first page, a good percentage of the Barnes & Noble results didn’t break the first page. Borders Books only had one first page result, and the remainder of their books were buried so deeply in Google’s results that there was a good chance that you would see 2 or 3 additional Amazon listings for each book before you were likely to see the Border’s listing. I couldn’t even find a few of these best sellers in the top 300 results from the Border’s site.

It’s possible that Borders is a victim of growing ebook popularity. It’s possible that they may have made some bad decisions regarding store locations, or deciding which books to carry in inventory. I think the following table points out one of the biggest problems Borders faces though – they aren’t being found on the Web for the books that they offer.

Book Title – Author Amazon Barnes and Noble Borders
61 Hours – Child 1 33 44
A Mighty Fortress – Weber 1 18 46
A Secret Affair – Balogh 1 10 13
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter – Grahame-Smith 2 7 56
American Assassin – Vince Flynn 1 3 36
Angelology – Trussoni 1 7 68
Big Girl – Steel 1 2 30
Breathless – Dean Koontz 1 6 161
Caught – Coben 1 4 170
Changes – Butcher 1 95 71
Crescent Dawn – Cussler 1 3 2
Cross Fire – Patterson 1 6 44
Dead In The Family – Harris 1 20 41
Deliver Us From Evil – Baldacci 1 4 47
Every Last One – Quindlen 2 14 108
Fall Of Giants – Follett 1 3 73
Fever Dream – Douglas Preston 3 12 72
Flirt – Hamilton 1 83 55
Ford County – Grisham 1 9 33
Frankenstein: Lost Souls – Koontz 1 29 14
Freedom – Franzen 8 35 79
Full Dark, No Stars – King 2 3 40
Getting To Happy – Mcmillan 3 10 67
Heart Of The Matter – Giffin 1 112 >300
Hell’S Corner – Baldacci 1 4 39
Innocent – Turow 1 9 228
Kisser – Woods 1 8 >300
Last Night At Chateau Marmont – Weisberger 2 3 36
Lowcountry Summer – Frank 1 12 46
Matterhorn – Marlantes 2 10 112
No Mercy – Kenyon 1 16 18
Pirate Latitudes – Crichton 1 15 83
Room – Donoghue 2 23 126
Roses – Meacham 1 3 76
Safe Haven – Sparks 1 3 211
The Girl Who Chased The Moon – Allen 4 2 30
The Man From Beijing – Mankell 1 38 62
The Postmistress – Blake 1 4 190
Towers Of Midnight – Jordan 2 35 34
Wicked Appetite – Evanovich 3 6 139

This is a problem that Borders can fix. Without restructuring. Without bankruptcy. Without selling things other than books.

It wouldn’t hurt Barnes & Noble to think about their internet marketing approach either.

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55 thoughts on “The Real Problem with Borders Books is Search”

  1. Wow, you are absolutely correct! Borders (and Barnes & Noble) definitely need to get up to speed on their internet marketing. Amazon is blow them (and other bookstores) out of the water in this area. Great post!

  2. Thanks for the post, Bill. This is a great illustration of how success or failure in search can significantly affect a company’s overall success. In this case, being in the top results leads to real dollar figures.

  3. There are two reasons that I shop at Amazon.com and not at other online book retailers. The first is that I can look inside many of the books on Amazon and the second is that they have inexpensive shipping in Canada. No one wants to offer inexpensive shipping except for them (from what I can tell) and that’s why I go with them. Also, Amazon prices are substantially less then a lot of the local booksellers here. SEO work might benefit Borders a lot but there may be other issues that are affecting their popularity as well. I think a lot of retailers would do better if they got their shipping costs down and didn’t have a problem with shipping internationally.

  4. Hi Bill,

    This is a great start to a quite complicated analysis. In the end it’s about the business issues. Amazon sees itself as a seller of content regardless of form and channel. Barnes & Noble and Borders still see themselves as book stores first, rather than sellers of content regardless of format and channel.

    Like all search marketing issues, there is a large amount of senior business leadership and operations process that needs to be transformed if it is to be successful. This is becoming my area of specialty – realigning companies to maximize senior level strategic business outcomes.

    To be clear, this isn’t just a book industry issue, it affects all industries to some degree and it’s about time that we start to transform organizations so that they may survive.

    Thank you for your efforts to further the start of a much needed conversation.

  5. Bill you have created a metric that is crucial to the patient diagnosis. Border’s goal is to sell content(inventory). The Internet is a channel and becoming a very significant channel, especially for books. Your metric is validating the observation that Border’s (and B&N as well) are failing to see what is obvious. Failing to measure the effectiveness of your channel and not take corrective action appears to be management short coming.

    Thank you for the insight.

  6. Great site, this is my first visit but not my last :)

    Could Amazon’s success also be attributed to its wide-spread affiliate schemes such as the one you have on the left there? As far as I know, Borders and B&N don’t offer the same advertising/monetization service to websites that Amazon do, and surely this has an impact.

  7. Well, those results certainly are conclusive. I once saw a commercial where someone stated that the internet is now where the world’s commerce takes place. These numbers really solidify that argument.

    Bill, how would you like up pick up that SEO account? One page optimized for every book title in their inventory. That site would be huge!

  8. Well something definitely going wrong with Borders and I think they need to point this out unless it would be too late for them.

  9. Bill,
    Great observation and research! I work with a lot of small businesses that have operated on “word of mouth business for years”. Now that the markets are changing we try to guide them to get online and meet their customer in a new way. Doesn’t mean the brick and mortar has to go away, but integrating the two could even launch them ahead of Amazon! Best buy seems to have gotten onboard with the combination of online and offline, though I haven’t done the research like you would:-)
    Thanks,
    Jamie

  10. In the UK Borders closed because of many bad business choices.

    They decided to widen their product base – this meant when you went in looking for books or CD you’d suddenly also find plant pots (nice ones, but all the same). This was upsetting to the majority of loyal customers.

    Private Eye reported that during their closing down clearance sale you could buy kitchen utensils, plant pots and other such gubbins at remarkably cheap prices – much to the annoyance of soon-to-be-redundant staff.

    You could suggest that the management became concerned about the wide product base of online stores like Amazon and tried to compete (but with brick-and-motar issues).

    Had they stuck to what they did very well (providing niche magazines, university text books, backed up by knowledgeable friendly staff)they might still be kicking around today. I believe the fear of the internet strangled Borders UK more efficiently than Amazon ever could.

    All the best,

    CjEggett

  11. Great piece of research that truly highlights a problem. Now the question is how many components contribute to this problem?

  12. I am a regular visitor on your blog, have never commented before, but just felt like I should give you a shout out for the mere mention of two books in the list: Matterhorn – Marlantes and Towers Of Midnight – Jordan :-)

  13. It’s incredible that some companies have not caught up yet. It seems massive chains just hoped the internet wouldn’t change the way business is conducted. Take Blockbuster for example. They are struggling. There is a similar story to yours Bill at http://pirati.net/blockbuster-dying

  14. Hi Wagner,

    I wondered when I wrote this post if it was fair to compare what Borders Books and Barnes & Noble have failed to do with SEO and internet marketing with Amazon’s efforts since Amazon had such a substantial headstart on them in terms of both years and focus.

    I put that concern aside pretty quickly when I considered that if either Borders or Barnes & Noble had allocated their budget so that rather than opening and maintaining one new store, and instead put that money into improving their internet marketing and websites that they would likely be doing much better with their online efforts.

    Borders Books and Barnes & Noble have completely failed to understand the value of the Web as a channel to attract and keep customers. How do you not optimize for books that are on a best sellers’ list like the NY Times list? How can you justify, in Borders Books case, that a couple of those bestsellers don’t even rank in the top 300 on Google?

  15. Hi Keith,

    Thanks. Borders and Barnes & Noble have effectively ignored one of the most useful and pervasive marketing and direct sales channels around. How do you run companies of those sizes and fail to even try to compete on the Web? Especially since the cost of SEO for their sites is likely one of the most cost effective methods that they could follow.

  16. Hi Ira,

    There’s no denying that Amazon is pretty savvy when it comes to the Web. They almost completely abandoned advertsing on television way back in 2002, and instead started discounting the cost of books instead. At that point they were ranking well in search engines, and their search positions guaranteed that their prices for books were being compared by web shoppers to other sites that were offering the same books.

    Borders and Barnes & Noble might have to make other changes to compete well with Amazon if they improved their online marketing, but at least they would be competitiors at that point instead of ceeding online booksales to Amazon the way they are now.

  17. Hi David,

    I’m hoping that this post does help to start a conversation. One that goes beyond just the lack of vision by these particular booksellers.

    It is about the business issues. The biggest and most valuable bookstores that Borders and Barnes & Noble have is the one online. Imagine if they treated customers on the Web the same way that they treat them in their bookstores. Imagine if you could chat with someone from their websites who loved books, who could make personal suggestions for you about what you might want to consider reading next, who knew which books in a series were the first and the latest? Who could help you pick the idea book for a particular 5 year old. Who embraced the unique and quirky, and was fun to interact with?

    Why can Borders do that in their stores and not in their .com?

    It is a question of senior management not understanding search and the Web and the potential effectiveness of the Web as a channel to reach out directly to customers.

    Thank you.

  18. Hi Terry,

    Thank you. I thought that choosing books that have identified as best sellers was a good start, since any serious bookseller should be emphasizing those books. Even a small local bookstore would likely include a “best sellers” section in their storefront near their front door and easy to see and find. Borders actually does that in their physical storefronts – why don’t they make those easy to find in searches on the Web?

    Why wouldn’t a Borders or Barnes & Noble be paying attention to how well they might be ranking for books like these, and making corrective actions? They may be compiling information like this into reports that may end up getting dusty on executives’ desks, with no action taken on them.

  19. Hi Louise,

    Thanks for you kind words.

    It is possible that Amazon’s affiliate approach is one of many reasons why the company does as well as it does. They’ve come up with a number of strategies and tactics to get people to find their website, to encourage people to browse pages, and to make it more likely that a visitor will become a customer. Borders makes it comfortable for people to come into their stores, to browse through books, to sit in comfortable areas and compare books. Imagine if they tried to do the same thing on their website?

  20. Hi Mark,

    I like visiting my local Borders, but before I do, I’ll often look on their website and check to see if any books I’m presently interested in might be available at their store by checking on their website. So, in some ways their website is helping to drive sales in their stores. If they were more easily found on the Web, that might happen a lot more…

    It would be great to work with Borders on their website. I wrote this post in part because I’d like to see them stick around longer.

  21. Hi Shailender,

    It might be too late for them. But, if I were any of the companies that Borders owned money to at this point, I would insist that Borders transform the way that they market on the Web before making any changes to the way that Borders might pay them.

  22. Hi Jamie,

    I think there are issues here that small businesses should be taking into consideration. I know that many might feel that the Web might be too complicated, or too competitive, or possibly not as reliable or comfortable as the print and radio and local television advertising that they may have been doing, or the word of mouth advertising, but there are plenty of steps that they can and should take, from simple things like verifying their business in Google Maps to doing some SEO on their websites.

    It might be difficult for a small business to rank for a term like “Books” but it’s definitely a lot easier to rank well for “warrenton books” or “manassas books.”

    It might take some work for Borders and Barnes & Noble to compete in search listings with Amazon, but the effort and cost is likely to be a lot less than expanding their offerings beyond books and music, and possibly even less costly than opening a new store.

  23. Hi CjEggett,

    What would inspire Borders to broaden what they offer beyond books and music and videos when they aren’t doing all they can do to sell their core offerings? It’s hard to say, but the business cost of expanding product selections has to be considerably more than if they worked to make the sales of their core products more effective.

    Borders core strength for years had been what you call “knowledgeable friendly staff.” It’s a shame that they lost sight of that, and didn’t try to bring it to the Web.

  24. Hi Jim,

    Now the question is how many components contribute to this problem?

    That’s a good question. By increasing search rankings, Borders would at least be a viable competitor in the distribution of content like books and music and videos. There are other steps that they would have to take, but they aren’t even bothering to position themselves to take those steps.

  25. Hi Rabin,

    Thanks for being a regular reader, and for adding to this discussion.

    Matterhorn looks like a powerful book – I may have to keep an eye out for it. I haven’t pick up Towers Of Midnight yet, but I’ve gone through the rest of the series, and it’s only a matter of time.

  26. Hi Mike,

    I get the feeling sometimes that many senior level managers would prefer that this internet thing never happened, and are more than happy to ignore it, even if doing so dooms their businesses to failure.

    Blockbuster had a great run for a number of years, even if they did sometimes do things that didn’t leave their customers happy. In many ways, theirs was the only competitor in town. New business models and new ways of distributing digital content, from online streaming from places like netflix to vending machine rentals from places like Redbox have transformed their business, so that they aren’t the only option, and often not the best option.
    Thanks for sharing the link to the article about Blockbuster.

  27. This is fairly typical of bigger businesses who don’t see the web as a distribution channel (revenue stream) but rather see it as a marketing channel (resource sink). Amazon started online and is an online company. Borders made money through physical offline supply chain management, not marketing.

    The silly thing is these businesses could just as easily sell online, and facilitate sales through their physical stores… but I just don’t think they see the internet that way.

  28. great article bill,.

    anyways i’ve always enjoyed reading your post from time to time.,

    keep up the good posts.

  29. Bill, my sister is an ardent Borders fan. She was frustrated though during the holidays with the online ordering process. Your article hits home the fact that their demise can be related to not taking advantage of what online search can provide.

  30. Bill,
    We just had both our downtown Borders and Barnes & Nobles close here in Santa Barbara, California, but I think the primary reason was the locations had very high rents…
    From your table it is obvious that Amazon is crushing Borders when a person searches for a book title online…
    but I’m guessing if most people are like me, they don’t look for a book on google and then go to Amazon. Instead they start at Amazon and look there. I think, as long as Amazon continues to keep people happy, most people will start their book searches at Amazon. Thus, I don’t know if better rankings would really help Borders that much… does this make sense?
    Amazon defined itself as the place to find books online, and someone has to “undo” that definition.
    Steve

  31. I might be misinformed but I’m pretty sure that there was talk here in the UK of Amazon taking over all the closed Borders retail shop units with their distribution/pick-up centres. Talk about rubbing salt into the wound!

    I agree that Borders should have at least featured on page 1 of the SERPs for bestsellers (even more so for the more obscure titles too!) but it lacked the ability to firstly, recognise the potential of online sales in its marketing mix and secondly, to take the necessary steps to move the juggernaut.

    Management must have been under tremendous pressure from the banks with a property-heavy balance sheet and dwindling high street sales. Perhaps whilst trying to fit a square working capital equation into a round hole, they were blinkered to the flashing *online* cursor just around the corner.

    Would they still be in business here if they were competing online successfully? I doubt it. One of Amazon’s advantages over offline traditional businesses is it’s reduced cost base in comparison to them (not forgetting a long-established affiliate program). Online sales might have extended their life but in essence, only slowed down their rate of death.

    Good discussion all.

  32. Bill – I too have been watching the news and been hearing a lot about Borders closing their stores. However, you bring up a great point that they are probably not utilizing web to their advantage.

    From looking at your table, Borders doesn’t stand a chance in this internet driven age if they don’t begin to make their presence felt through search engine rankings.

    I’m sure it wouldn’t be too hard for a big company like Borders to hire a team to improve their search engine rankings. Thanks for bringing this to my attention Bill, this is definitely an eye opener.

  33. Hi Bill,

    Thanks for the thoughtful analysis. I too enjoy a few hours spent at my local Borders for lots of reasons, both social and personal. I’ll often do my search on Amazon and then mozzy down to Borders for a leisurely look around.

    I hate to think that printed books may soon go by the way-side as the digital wave penetrates further and further. Wouldn’t it be great if Borders were to expand upon their success as neighborhood stores to become neighborhood libraries where you can browse, search, display, sample, project and share content? Our society is a mix of private and public and it works. I’d love to see them try to expand upon the idea.

    Keep the interesting posts coming!

  34. Hi Robert,

    I think you nailed it here:

    The silly thing is these businesses could just as easily sell online, and facilitate sales through their physical stores… but I just don’t think they see the internet that way.

    I actually like the feature on the Border’s site that lets me know whether or not they have a book I’m interested in within their present inventory at a location near me.

    Now, if they customized and localized, so that I could see information on their site about book signings and other events happening at my local Borders (and some surrounding ones), they could make me a lot happier. My local Borders also carries some books about the region that I live in that they sell for less than they are available for at Amazon by a good margin. Again, customizing their site for my location so that I can find out about those makes a lot of sense.

    Borders may not have started out as an online company the way that Amazon has, but for them to put very little effort into marketing online and SEO is seriously myopic.

  35. Hi Bill,

    I’ve never ordered online from Borders. But I have looked up many books on their site, and driven to either one location about 5 minutes away, or another about 25 minutes from me to pick up a book that I know they have in inventory. I’d like it if they didn’t go out of business.

  36. Hi Steve,

    I know that Borders is trying to focus upon renegotiating leases at many of their locations, and that the cost of rent in high volume areas can be more costly for many businesses than they might be able to bear, and it’s unfortunate that the locations that you are writing about had to close. Could better marketing on the Web have helped them handle those costs.

    Amazon isn’t a bad place to begin a search for books, but I suspect that when many people hear about a new author or book their first intent isn’t always necessarily to go to a site where they can buy. I’ll usually try to find out more about the author, see if they have a website, see if I can find reviews about the books. While Amazon is a great place to read reviews, there are also some great sites online that focus upon specific niches, like mystery or science fiction, etc.

    I think there’s also a decent percentage of people like me who will search for information online, and purchase offline if possible (and the differences in prices were reasonable). I don’t mind waiting a week for a book to be shipped to me, but if it’s something that I’m really interested in reading, I might want to rush out to the store to buy it. If Borders results ranked up there with Amazon, it would be more likely that more people would face that dilemma – do I order online, or do I drive over to the bookstore and have it now?

    The first step towards dethroning Amazon is being seen in searches…

  37. Hi Lincoln SEO,

    I hadn’t heard of the possibility of Amazon taking over the closed Borders locations in the UK. I have been inside one of Amazon’s warehouses in Delaware, and it was pretty impressive.

    Would they still be in business here if they were competing online successfully? I doubt it. One of Amazon’s advantages over offline traditional businesses is it’s reduced cost base in comparison to them (not forgetting a long-established affiliate program). Online sales might have extended their life but in essence, only slowed down their rate of death.

    I wish this was something that we had the opportunity to have found out. Competition is good for all of us.

    I’m not sure how Borders justifies their inability to have taken advantage of the Web, but I don’t think that it’s too late for them to start turning things around.

  38. Hi John,

    I’m sure it wouldn’t be too hard for a big company like Borders to hire a team to improve their search engine rankings.

    They already have a website in place, the inventory, and some kind of distribution chain. I think what they lack is a vision of how best to use the assets that they already have.

  39. Hi Donna,

    There’s something that I enjoy about holding a book in my hands, carrying around with me, and skimming through pages. I haven’t tried out a digital reader, but I’ve read plenty of pages on the Web. They just aren’t the same experience.

    The library concept is interesting. I understand one of Border’s greatest strengths when they started out was having knowledgeable people working there who would help customers with recommendations and suggestions. If not local libraries, imagine if they tried that approach on the Web, and made it much easier to find their pages. I think there’s a place for that kind of approach.

  40. Hi Bill,

    Would love to see a post on the “growing e-book popularity” itself. Can’t stand the things vs. hard copy – I love being able to jot down notes in the columns and margins of books whilst I go along – much like a well known German leader of the early to mid 20th century I hasten to add lol.

  41. My sister sent me a Kindle two weeks ago. I downloaded “Dreams from My Father” and I WILL NEVER GO BACK TO BOOKS! Never! It’s sooooo over! Magazines, yes. Books, no.

  42. Hi Matthew,

    I’ve had an ebook post on my mind for a while. I enjoy handling and holding books, and I haven’t tried using an ebook reader yet, so I don’t know how much I’d like it.

  43. Hi Christina,

    I know I like reading a newspaper much more than reading the news online. I’ll have to try an ebook reader and see how much I enjoy it.

  44. That is ridiculous. I had no idea they ranked so poorly. That’s a perfect example of a major company putting in barely any effort. It amazes me how these companies can miss the mark so badly. Did they not see this coming over the last 10 years?

  45. Hi Ryan,

    Borders has implemented some things on their site that make a lot of sense, but they seem to miss a lot of opportunities. SEO is only one of those.

    For instance, I have Borders member card, and I get emails from them which include coupons and discounts, but I’ve never seen one of those mailings indicate that you can set up a wishlist on the Borders website, and share that with others. Why not? I’m not sure.

    The Borders website could be their biggest and most useful marketing channel, but it misses so many opportunities that it should be taking advantage of.

  46. Is it true that borders is going into administration? if it is true could there poor online sales have a huge amount to do with it?

  47. Hi Craig

    Borders filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which means reorganization rather than shutting down for good. I don’t know if they are going into administration, effectively having someone other than the people running the show determining how best to move forward. Most of the news that I’ve been seeing about the bookstore lately involved the impact of individual Borders Books stores closing down on the communities and shopping centers where they’ve been located.

    I truly don’t believe that Borders recognized the value that their website could bring to their business, and the impact that having an aggressive online marketing approach could have made.

  48. I think its much more likely borders are sufferering from increased competition from ebooks that traditional online sellers. Borders is a classic destination location and consumer buying habits for traditional literature are still centered towards buying from physical locations than online (although in the next 2-5 years this is subject to change dramatically). I guess regardless, unless borders change their approach to sales or product (think HMV and Virgin in Europe) to cope with changes in consumer behaviour they will forever be a sinking ship.

  49. Hi Andy,

    Borders has their own eBook reader and sell ebooks as well, but they likely are suffering from the increased competition of a digital distribution model.

    There may possibly be a number of approaches that Borders could take, including a more hyperlocal approach where they make it easier to browse for something online and pickup or find the instore locations of what they are looking for offline. I really like the idea of a “knowledgeable” bookseller who can offer recommendations and suggestions in person, and think that’s something that Borders was known for, and could take advantage of in the future. The question is whether or not they will makes changes like you suggest – I’m not sure that they will.

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  51. The websites of Borders are selling for twelve dollars. A Court hearing is set to happen on December 20, 2011 where the court will determine what will happen with the websites. The sale of the websites will likely go forward if Arin (American Registry of Internet Numbers) commits to the sale.

  52. Hi Joseph,

    Thanks for the update on what will become of the domain names held by Borders. I would guess that the actual content of those sites wouldn’t be up for sale itself at this point.

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