Copy Vs. Design: Which Is Most Important To Conversion?

To better understand some of the fundamental principles of conversion science, I’d like to offer a case study. Two websites, both owned by the same business, targeting the same demographic, getting about the same search traffic, but with different conversion rates.

According to owner Tom Jackson, was “dated, awkward, wordy, but it’s working.” On the other hand, he said, was “newer, looks better, better organized but way underperforming in lead gen.”

The question—why would the clunky older site outperform the shiny newer site? (Disclosure: Heliski is one of my clients).

Business goals and conversion goals

A primary goal for Tom’s business is have a visitor book a helicopter skiing trip through him. Even though he often saves his customers money on the total cost of a skiing outing, each trip earns him a nice fee. Trips cannot be booked on the site, so a conversion is to have the visitor call, request an information packet, to sign up for alerts or to request a custom package design.

Both sites were live during his last peak season.

Before I tell you how these two sites performed, let’s take a look at how they use design and copy differently.

Design from a distance

From a distance the two home pages couldn’t look more different. uses non-standard layout. Text is knockout white on blue, usually considered more difficult to read than’s black on grey.

Newer has the traditional BAH (big-ass header) and top navigation above the content. It uses a brochure style of home page layout popular with designers today that puts offers in boxes at the bottom of the page. This pushes these offers—what Bryan and Jeffrey Eisenberg call “conversion beacons”—down toward the bottom of the page, and often off of the visible page altogether.

For navigation, older uses three bright icons and well-chosen labels in an unusual place in the upper left. This is the first place the eye falls when a visitor comes to a page. The contrasting orange-on-blue icons coupled with the position works.

Lower on the page, the image of three skiers carving through virgin powder with a helicopter hovering above tells the story with beautiful imagery. A designer may scoff at the placement, but the copy turns the visitor into a scroller, and this amazing image delivers them to a bulleted list of benefits that lay below the image.

Somehow, it all works.

Copy that converts

The copy on HeliskiingReview doesn’t mess around. The value proposition is right there at the top, stated in plain language.

Differences in navigation and value proposition

Navigation and value proposition are very different

The newer site uses a more “image- or brand-oriented play, establishing its value proposition as “the ultimate heliskiing destination.” Unfortunately, you can’t heliski on the site, so this is an empty promise.

The body copy couldn’t be more different in approach. uses plain language with specific, value- and benefit-oriented points in easy-to-scan bulleted format. Specifics are almost always important for conversion.

A designer might say that the big star with “send me info” was “too TV.” However, it certainly does draw the eye to an important call to action. has value-oriented copy uses more puffery, asking “Ready for the ultimate adventure, indulgence and untracked powder?!” In trying to be persuasive, the copy succeeds only in being difficult to understand.

Tom’s target audience is wealthy, older men who already ski and want something more adventurous. There is probably little need to persuade them that it is an adventure. Plus, the statements are presented with no proof that the site is an authority. Contrast this with which declares, “10 Years of Experience.”

As Dr. Flint McGlaughlin of MarketingExperiments says, “clarity trumps persuasion.” In this case trumps tries too hard to persuade the reader

The in-copy links aren’t as benefit-oriented as, and the call to action with the most action, “sign up for heliski news” isn’t even a link.

The accidental landing page

Tom has accidentally designed the home page as a landing page. It is a page designed to weed out browsers and appeal to buyers.

Here are the characteristics that define it as such:

  • It has no ancillary navigation to carry the visitor away. All of the information needed to take action is provided on the page.
  • Clear calls to action appear on the page.
  • Proof and risk reversal are provided.
  • Imagery is relevant, not brand-oriented. It doesn’t feel like stock photography. is designed to maximize engagement, with a number of content items for the visitor to dig into.

It turns out that engagement doesn’t pay the bills in this case.

Here’s a surprise: has more content than focuses on the locations, offering packages for specific parts of the world. However, the “heliski finder” focuses on the operators who provide the trips. Apparently, the latter is less enticing to Tom’s audience.

A good set of personas would have uncovered this distinction.

And the conversion champ is… had a conversion rate of 2.27% vs. at 1.99%. That’s 14% better. However, delivered much more qualified prospects. Tom was able to book trips for 15.29% of the leads. had a close ratio of only 1.33%. That’s 1146% more bookings and tens of thousands of dollars in sales.


I recommended that Tom optimize the site for search engines, and make this the entry point for his marketing efforts.

I then recommended that he use an email strategy to stay in front of tire-kickers until they are ready to book. The content found on may be the bait he can use in his email messages, but needs to do a better job of getting ready buyers to bite. It needs a good copywriter. has some obvious problems that I believe could be dampening his conversion rate, especially on the money page: the lead form. Tom’s working on that.

Ultimately, I believe that with qualified search traffic and some gradual “serial” testing or split testing, he can have converting at 10%, 15% or more.

What the rest of us can take away from this

Too many designers are trained in a visual communication style developed by the brand and image marketers found on Madison Avenue, who cut their teeth in broadcast advertising. The web is different, and too many “web” designers are bad for conversion.

The designer who emphasizes that your site be “unique;” who seeks to use images to “evoke emotion;” who wants your pages to be “open and fresh” is not right for a business that lives or dies by online leads and sales.

The designer who talks about “drawing the eye to offers;” who wants to leverage “prime screen real estate;” and for whom landing pages are not an after thought is a keeper.

Designing for conversion is hard.

Don’t let your designer write your copy. Hire a direct marketing copywriter and trust them, until you discover that their copy doesn’t deliver results.

Tom’s greatest asset in all of this is that he knew his numbers: visitors, leads generated, calls and bookings. You should also know your numbers and watch them.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Analytics | Search & Conversion


About The Author: is the Conversion Scientist at Conversion Sciences and author of Your Customer Creation Equation: Unexpected Website Forumulas of The Conversion Scientist. Follow Brian at The Conversion Scientist blog and on Twitter @bmassey

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn


Get all the top search stories emailed daily!  


Other ways to share:

Read before commenting! We welcome constructive comments and allow any that meet our common sense criteria. This means being respectful and polite to others. It means providing helpful information that contributes to a story or discussion. It means leaving links only that substantially add further to a discussion. Comments using foul language, being disrespectful to others or otherwise violating what we believe are common sense standards of discussion will be deleted. Comments may also be removed if they are posted from anonymous accounts. You can read more about our comments policy here.
  • Shari Thurow

    Hi Brian-

    Outstanding SEO article on copy vs. design. If there were an SEO award, I would nominate this article.

    BAH cracked me up….and I’m a designer/developer! A new term to add to my vocabulary. I cannot even begin to tell you how many people want the BAH design right now because, “It’s hip, it’s hot, it’s cool, it’s current, it’s [fill in spin-doctored adjective of choice].”

    I have known for years and years that the seemingly ugly design works…it converts better. And it’s important to always test the seemingly ugly designs.

    Nice work!

  • Brian Massey


    There is a natural tension between the copywriter and the designer that makes Web sites better. However, copy is usually a line item on the design process.

    Copywriters need to get better at defending their copy. I think a focus on conversion provides that defense. It lets the say, “I wrote the copy this way this because it will generate more leads or sales.”

    Thanks for the kind words.

  • Sandra Niehaus

    Great article, Brian! a good reminder to never sacrifice conversion basics for mere decoration. Of course, I’d like to believe there’s a middle ground – that the site design can be updated to be more beautiful AND to support, not work against, the copy. Love to hear more about this project as it progresses.

  • ezra

    This example just further supports the necessity of more then just one skill set a website development project. Copywriting, marketing, design and technical developers all need to be part of a re-design process. In a recent article I wrote on the topic of what comes first design or content, which emphasizes how important goal focused content is to the successes of a website.

  • Brian Massey

    Sandra and ezra,

    I certainly wouldn’t be so hard on designers if they didn’t dominate the development process for so many sites. All are skill sets are needed. All contribute to success. However, the current state of development over-emphasizes design, IMHO.


  • Karon Thackston

    Exceptional job, Brian! I couldn’t agree with your assessment more. I’m a recent blog subscriber of yours and have learned a great deal from the articles I’ve received so far. Keep up with good work ;)

  • Hayden7913

    Great article, Brian. While I don’t dispute your results, I think that sounds like a company and sounds like a 3rd party review site–unrelated to your client’s business–so it looks like the result of p.r. rather than web promotion. Some could argue that it’s deceptive, but you don’t claim to be a neutral reviewer. Overall, great lessons.

  • mark.aldrich

    I’ve always wondered which was more important – the design or the copy, and this article perfectly highlights this – in the end, it’s still going to be the marketing, not the design that gets the conversions.

    Great post, thanks!


  • Brian Massey


    You raise an important point: quality of traffic. The URL definitely will draw people looking for a “review” of heliskiing tours and sites. If those looking for reviews are closer to the buying decision, then more “ready to buy” visitors would find heliskiing”review”.com.

    The site delivers a lot of information about many tours, so the site delivers on its promise. This isn’t deceptive.

    None-the-less, all of this attention to copy and layout may in fact be secondary to the quality of the traffic coming.

    I think three things are teaming up to make better:
    1. “Ready to buy” traffic
    2. Home page that gets the visitor in faster
    3. Reviews of tours. starts with the providers, not the locations, like HeliskiingReview.

    Thanks for commenting.

  • Brian Massey


    Design was important for both, but it wasn’t the kind that designers are delivering — and, in fairness, that clients are asking for.

    Good designers draw the eye to important messages and calls to take action.

    Thanks for the comment.

  • noelx99

    Great article! Rarely do we get to see such a specific example.


Get Our News, Everywhere!

Daily Email:

Follow Search Engine Land on Twitter @sengineland Like Search Engine Land on Facebook Follow Search Engine Land on Google+ Get the Search Engine Land Feed Connect with Search Engine Land on LinkedIn Check out our Tumblr! See us on Pinterest


Click to watch SMX conference video

Join us at one of our SMX or MarTech events:

United States


Australia & China

Learn more about: SMX | MarTech

Free Daily Search News Recap!

SearchCap is a once-per-day newsletter update - sign up below and get the news delivered to you!



Search Engine Land Periodic Table of SEO Success Factors

Get Your Copy
Read The Full SEO Guide