Website Optimization Tips

Optimizing a site can mean many things.  If you’re an eCommerce site, probably means optimizing your landing page, hiding your navigation so as not to distract, and pushing visitors toward the goal of a transaction receipt page.  For small business and service professionals, it may mean getting someone to fill out a form.  Or if you’re a publishing site, it very well might mean something nearly opposite of those two focused goals – perhaps you actually do want visitors to traverse your navigation, discover and engage with your content or community.  No matter how you describe it though, these things all have one thought in common:  you’re looking to maximize the value of each visitor to your site.

Although this practice is typically referred to as Website Optimization, Landing Page Optimization (LPO) or Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO), it is part of much broader schools of thought.  Many universities now offer interdisciplinary programs called Human Computer Interaction (HCI) that combine the study of Psychology and Information Systems, to better understand how to create systems that do a better job of servicing and assisting the humans that the systems were built for.  Usability and User Experience are two more common terms now used in design circles, to describe how to improve a user’s interaction with a system or website.  In many ways, landing page optimization and conversion optimization are applied marketing concepts, as much as Usability and User Experience are applied design concepts; but they’re all drawing up HCI which simply seeks to create better interfaces that accomplish the goals of the system. For the purposes of this blog post, I’m focusing on the marketing prerogative, but many of these thoughts can be applied to overall system design and usability as well.

Improving Efficacy
So how does one maximize value from their visitor? For the purposes of this discussion, let’s assume we’re talking about the easy to understand and quantify, eCommerce model.  With eCommerce, there’s typically a large spend on PPC and that spend is usually in pursuit of directly-quantifiable direct sales; not long-term fuzzier metric brand building. So our goal in this case would be to get users to our site for $1 and get as many of those visitors to buy something as possible, to increase average profits above the dollar we spent to acquire their attention.

Website Optimization
We’ll ignore the efficacy of the ads themselves for this conversion and focus purely on what happens after they arrive at the site.  Onsite, there are really two things that matter:

  • Focusing attention in the direction we want them to go.
  • Reinforcing trust and removing doubt and fear.
  • Keep attention focused and directed at the goal line (the receipt page).

If we keep those strategic goals in mind, the tactical implementation is relatively straight forward at a high level.  Obvious optimizations would be:

  • Remove the navigation bar on the landing page
  • Use very large submit buttons that are hard to miss
  • Use simple bullet points for details, not long-form text
  • Don’t present too many choices; match exactly the one product they searched for.
  • Use a headline that excites the user.
  • Use trust signals such as testimonials or credential logos on landing and checkout pages.
  • Minimize extra steps that could be hurdles to checkout such as the always-favorite required membership signup.
  • Remove barriers such the form that goes blank and requires refill if one piece of required information is wrong.
  • Don’t ask for more information checkout than is absolutely necessary.
  • For God sake, do NOT use Captchas!

Beyond those basics, there are a number of more subtle opportunities for optimization that simply require a “feel for the art” of it all, and proper domain knowledge, to match the culture of your users.  Catching their attention is key but authenticity and trust are also very important and cannot be sacrificed for a cheap thrill, or they’re not going to give you their credit card number.

Tactics that might work well would include using a larger checkout button with appropriate messaging.  Perhaps something exciting such as “Check it Out!” works for an entertainment product but a move conservative “Get Started” is more appropriate for insurance or financial institutions.  Color choices, images and titles work the same way.  Focus on finding a way to grab attention and infuse emotional excite, without compromising authenticity or trust.

Testing Methodology
As with any advice, there are many half truths in optimization.  What works well for many sites may not work for yours.  A lot of this comes down to culture and the issues f authenticity and trust I mentioned above.  For this reason, you may start with certain known principles as described above and broader usability heuristics, but the only way to truly know what works best for your own audience, is to test.

Testing in fact, is at the basis of most sophisticated online marketing operations today. We should start with a humility that we never absolutely know truth, we can only approximate it, and should always seek to evaluate truth through objective and empirical evaluation.  As such, most online markets today user an iterative approach to their online marketing and optimization strategies.  Continual testing and revision is baked into the on-going process.

To test your overall conversion funnel, you just need to setup goals and funnels in your analytics tools to be able to track and observe where bottlenecks are and results of changes. The efficacy of a specific landing page however, is better instrumented with a tool specifically designed to track changes of that one page, and track the goals against those changes.  There are tools such as Unbounce, Optimizely, and the free Google Website Optimizer (WSO) for that; WSO optimizer in particular is handy due to its one-click Google Analytics integration.

There are two types of tests that you might consider running for landing page optimization – an A/B test, or a Multivariate test.  An A/B test compares two or more separate pages, to determine which is more effective. This is a simple test to setup, requires less traffic, and is great for comparing entirely different versions of page layout.  If you instead want to focus on testing more subtle changes within a page such as title messaging, or button color, or featured image, a multivariate test would be appropriate.

A/B Testing
Using a tool such as Google Website Optimizer (WSO), you’d either setup redirection for the randomly served variants of yourA/B test, or you’d embed a few JavaScript hooks so that you can manage your variations from the WSO tool, if running a multivariate test.  Once setup, just wait for enough sample data to collect and let WSO do its thing.  Over time, you’ll see a percent-likely determination for which page is more successful. For example, “This page is 95% likely to outperform”.  Once you reach around 90-95%, WSO will determine the variant to be a “highly significant” improvement.  From there, you’ve confirmed which variant is more effective and can make your changes, as well as consider the next round of tests based on your findings.  This process can be repeated enlogica as you focus more and more on exactly what works.

For anyone new to optimization, I cannot stress enough, how important these methods are; you’re likely leaving a substantial amount of money on the table.  If you’ve never thought about optimization before, its quite likely that you can increase your Return on Ad Spend (ROAS) by 100% or more. I personally have had experiences in which small changes such as making a checkout but big, green and changing the messaging on it, with a single test, increased conversions by almost 40%.  So, while this form of methodical and detail-oriented optimization may not be the most sexy part of running your online business, it could easily be one of your most important!

Tech Innovations That Are Creating New Opportunity

There is a common expression in tech entrepreneurship – do things that weren’t possible 3 years ago.   The reason for this is the accelerated innovation and thus the accelerated commodization of technology.  A product might go from ground-breaking and unique to absolutely commodity in 10 years or less.  If you accept that, then you must assume competition starts spiking by around year 5 and your ability to to build a bran and break through the noise, will be diminished thereafter.  You also will have less than half the window remaining to capitalize on your investment.  So if you get started around year 3, then you’ve at least got momentum and have built a brand before peak competition is reached.

So that said, what are a few innovations that we could possibly leverage that only only 3 years old, as of this writing.

1. Cheap bandwidth – It use to be that hosting accounts metered your account and limited you to 100s of megabits per month.  Now you can get unmetered pipes (as much as 100 mbps) for a mere $100 per month. Imagine how that might pave the way for streaming and online storage.

2. The Cloud – Everyone knows about the cloud and how this is changing business models such as software which is changing to a software as a service model (SaaS), in which you pay for the service per month, instead of buying it up-front.  Remote sharing of data is now easier than ever too.  What impact might this have?  Remote location, remote collaboration, and better use of corporate capital/cashflow come to mind.

3. Smart phones – Perhaps the single biggest impact of the smart phone revolution has been the GEO-intelligent ‘apps’.  Now you can find anything, anywhere, anytime – relative to where you are.  Imagine the future impact of this upon advertising and device intelligence.

4. Social graph – Facebook as proposed an open social graph which is perhaps the first and most ambitious application of the semantic web. Their goal is to tie together all of your interactions, comments, locations etc, into one single usable data stream.  This is both scary and full of possibility; especially when combining it with GeoIP smart phones.

5. SaaS Business Model – I mentioned this one above but ‘cloud computing’ has given rise to an entirely new software licensing model in which the use pays per month rather than an up-front fee.  This is innovative from a financing perspective when you consider how cash-strapped many startups and small businesses are.  But more interestingly, many SaaS companies are beginning to position themselves as hybrid *services* companies that automate a service for their customers; not simply virtual product vendors. That’s a major philosophy change in what software businesses are, and a huge benefit for small business.  This is likely the beginning of the adoption of  automation tools by small businesses en masse.

6. Tech Startup Incubators (Y Combinator) – Mark Schuster made an interesting point recently about how massively much less capital is now required for a startup and how this is driving the exponential rise in small business startups. We went from millions of required capital (hardware, software) in the late 1990s, to $10,000s, or even $5,000 in some cases now.  That is the lowest cost in history to start a small business, which is good seeing how high unemployment currently is!   It will be interesting to see how those two converging trends shape the future.  But layer on top of that all of these startup incubators now such as YCombinator, TechStars, The Foundry, Founders Institute, etc – and it is enabling young entrepreneurs to get access to capital and mentorship like never before!  Actually, for me considering startup of a small business, I find this to be a real concern frankly; an explosion of competition!

7. Information Overload – Google has succeeded in indexing billions of records and making them easily accessible to the masses.  Search engines are not new, but having ready access to all this data any time and from anywhere (smart phones) and taken for granted even by high schoolers now, should surely have some near-term future impact. I personally believe that this commoditization and saturation of data is what will drive the coming Semantic Web movement.  When documents are properly and semantically tagged, we will enable software and appliances to consume the data automatically and this will automate much of our lives.  So this secondary effect of search and information innovation I think will give way to yet an even bigger *applied* impact.

8. AdSense is Saturated – I hear there are over 400,000 websites joining the Google AdSense network every month now.  And that gave way to the explosion of ‘junk’ content and networks that creative junk content on massive scale, that Google has recently been trying to defeat with its Panda update (aka “Farmer”).  I think this business model of creating massive content to generate ad revenue is at a near-term end. But that creates a vacuum – what is it?  All those site owners will be looking for a solution.

9. Interest in Optimization (CRO/LPO) – Starting in 2006 it seemed like webmasters all woke up to the power of SEO at the same time.  A huge new consulting niche was born overnight.  In 2002 an explosion of PPC advertising was born and it took 3-4 years thereafter, for ad cost to catch up with their value.  Now we’re in a mature market for both of these ‘easy money’ search advertising options.  The free organic traffic people are now binging on Social media as a sort of SEO 2.0, and meanwhile PPC is finally discovering landing page and conversion optimization by which they can dramatically increase their ROI by improving how their site intakes visitors, creating a sort of Renaissance for them too.  The consulting world seems ripe for both Social and Conversion Optimization at the moment.

As I look around, I see plenty of changes and opportunities but ironically I am a bit underwhelmed by the opportunity.  I feel like we are in the remnant phase of some pretty massive innovation from 5 or 6 years ago. What I’m seeing now are mostly secondary effects of innovation that first occurred a few years ago. I recall there was a lull in innovation that seemed to occur in 2000-2003 and it feels similar to then, to me.  I wonder if this is a natural cycle and we’re in the lull just before the next major innovation opportunity?  Mark Schuster recently suggested we’re on the precipice of the Internet television revolution for example.  Now THAT could be interesting.