Evil Conversion: When Optimization Goes Too Far

As online marketers and conversion experts, we want our sites to be effective. No, it has to be said: we want more than that—we want to turn our sites into kick-butt conversion machines, leaving competitors in the dust with our screamin’ throughput and sales. But when does conversion optimization go too far? When does it stop being useful and become, well, evil?

Most of you know what I mean, because you’ve experienced the evil firsthand. Maybe you’ve even designed it. Experiences like these litter the internet, raising blood pressure around the globe:

  • We click on a free offering, only to discover later there was a recurring charge after 14 days.
  • We click on a product link, only to find something completely different—and more expensive— pre-selected on the next page.
  • We try to purchase something, only to be assaulted with page after confusing page of upsells.

I first started writing about evil usability back in 2007, with a short series of blog posts, and since then the techniques have only gotten… more. More sophisticated, more frequent, more aggressive and above all more optimized. It’s rather annoying, because I know it’s partly my own fault. All my work championing the causes of usability and conversion, and what do I get in return? An increasingly predatory web experience that leverages the very techniques I’ve advocated, but uses them to conceal, mislead and cause me to accidentally purchase crap I don’t want or need. That’s irritating.

A definition of evil

Let me step back for a moment and explain what I really mean by “evil.” I’m not talking about truly malevolent interactions like phishing and malware, that actively aim to harm users. And I don’t even mean pushing a ridiculously misleading product like this one:

Evil in the conversion sense is more a mismatch of goals, along the lines of this hackish definition:

evil: adj. As used by hackers… evil does not imply incompetence or bad design, but rather a set of goals or design criteria fatally incompatible with the speaker’s (goals or criteria).”

So conversion evil-doing has more to do with business goals, the degree to which they differ from user goals, and how vigorously a company tries to forge an agreement between the two.

Take Facebook, for one very public example—the recent furor over privacy changes on the site illustrates a broad misalignment of goals. The goals of Facebook users are pretty simple—they want to share funny cat photos and play MafiaWars. They wouldn’t have cared much about Facebook’s ambition to be the uber-hub of the web, except that the path to that goal railroaded right through their online privacy.

Evil conversion is more active and granular—it misdirects individual user actions in order to meet a business goal, with or without the user’s understanding.


Let’s take a look at a few examples of evil conversion I’ve run into recently, and examine how they twist conversion principles to the dark side.

Example #1: RealPlayer—Evil button prioritization

Quick disclosure: I despise RealPlayer. I’ve despised it for years. But that’s a long, painful story I won’t go into here.

Last fall, I had to reluctantly re-install it for a client project that included RealPlayer content. I searched for “free RealPlayer”, and below is the page I found. Can you tell me where to download the truly 100% free version of the product?

If you guessed either of the large orange buttons labeled “free download,” you’re wrong! Your reward? A surprise monthly charge after two weeks. Here’s the correct link, up in the far top right (I’ve added the red arrow so you can see it):

This is an evil interpretation of a conversion best practice I’ve often touted:

“Prioritize and differentiate your buttons.”

Yes, it usually helps visitors if your important buttons are prominent; other buttons less so. In this case RealPlayer certainly has a clear grasp on their priorities, but the page design guides visitors to take an action they may not have intended. It provides only the illusion of user choice and control.

Addendum: since last fall, RealPlayer has updated this page to be much more user-friendly. See the improvements here.

Example #2: Kodak—Aggressive, unclear up-selling

Also a few months ago, I succumbed to Kodak’s claim of cheap, planet-saving ink, and purchased one of their newer printers. Their mini-site provided several examples of evil conversion.

To begin with, after adding a printer to my cart I had to wade through three up-sell pages before reaching the “real” checkout page. These included an especially creative offer of a second printer identical to the one I was purchasing:

Now these pages weren’t necessarily evil in and of themselves. Offering related items can be valuable and helpful for the visitor. But on each step the path to avoid purchasing more things was visually de-emphasized, hardly even looking like a button at all:

While less evil, in my view, than the RealPlayer example, the result is still likely to be user confusion and a number of unintentional purchases. Again, the path is being tipped to benefit the company, not necessarily to aid the visitor.

Example #3: Uhaul—Forcing opt-outs to avoid a purchase

My colleague Lance Loveday first mentioned this example to me over lunch, complaining of the “terrible” rental experience he’d had on Uhaul.com. And though it turned out he was more offended by it than I was, I had to agree with him on principle.

This site takes aggressive up-selling, adds evil button prioritization, and mixes in forced opt-outs. Below is one of several participating pages:

If you’re not careful here, you’ll mistakenly rent the pre-selected dolly and furniture pads, adding $17.00 to your total.

Not so evil, you say? The next page was even worse, pre-selecting nearly $50.00 worth of rope, gloves, and tie-downs:

This is a twist of the conversion principle “Make It Easy To Do”. Oh, yeah, it’s easy to purchase all these additional items all right – but the optimized action, again, is more beneficial to the business than to the visitor. On both pages I managed to avoid the large, conversion-optimized buttons and find the top-right “I DO NOT need these items” text link fairly quickly, but I’d been pre-warned by Lance. I had to wonder: how would an average Internet user fare?

The real question: How far should conversion optimization go?

Probably the real irony in this is that I often find myself learning as much from evil conversion as I do from “white hat” resources (to use an SEO term). As a conversion practitioner, I can admire an especially well-done page layout and notice why it’s so effective, even if its goal misaligns with my own. I can even wonder whether a similar approach might benefit a client, and how to tweak it to match a different business model. I can feel the pull of the dark side.

Two things counter and balance the attraction:

First, evil conversion techniques have a short-term viewpoint and short-term payback. The underlying mindset is “It’s OK to manipulate the user, because we don’t need her after this transaction.” Companies that I prefer to work with don’t share this opinion. They understand the value of trust, and long-term customers, and know it’s not in their best business interest to earn their visitors’ hatred.

Second, as a user, I can remember the frustration, irritation, and yes, disgust that such techniques cause me. It makes me a better conversion specialist, one who can (usually) see the trick, understand the human impact, and bring that insight into my reviews, teaching, and designs.

Where will evil conversion lead? Probably to a continued escalation of coercive techniques, until poor business results, lawsuits or regulation force a retreat. Until then, we’ll each have to balance business goals with those of users, and decide what the right optimization path is. Those of us who pride ourselves as being true user advocates have an interesting time ahead.

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 co-author of the popular book Web Design for ROI and VP UX of Closed Loop Marketing, an online marketing agency that's been making websites more profitable since 2001.

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  • http://blog.protocol80.com Josh Curcio

    Great article! I love the examples you gave. As a purchaser I often overlook these things, maybe because of my comfort level of online shopping. It has almost become a routine to make sure that I am not purchasing unneeded things, signing up for newsletters, purchasing extra insurance, etc.

    As a marketer, I tend to think of every optimization strategy with usability in mind. Working with smaller businesses, clients are not always considering things from a usability perspective though. Sometimes think that what they are doing is to help the customer as opposed to upselling. At times, I think they are correct, but this article could certainly give them a new perspective on the situation. Especially if they overlook these situations when they are shopping online for themselves.

    Thanks again!

  • http://www.rimmkaufman.com George Michie

    Terrific piece, Sandra.

    I anticipate a pendulum effect. The web has made price/offer comparison trivial and fast and eroded customer lifetime value for advertisers. Advertisers react to this decline in value by focusing on maximizing the short term revenue and wringing as much as they can from a customer the first go-round. At some point the pendulum will swing back, I think. Companies that take the long view and consistently keep the customers interests in mind will rebuild customer loyalty and reap the benefits of word-of-mouth and increased profits.

    Here’s hoping the pendulum swings back sooner, rather than later.

  • http://searchengineland.com Sandra Niehaus

    Thanks, Josh!
    I agree, sometimes a company is sincerely trying to help the user. For example, U-Haul could easily argue that most people NEED furniture pads and dollies – and they may even have the rental stats to prove it. However, there’s one point I didn’t bring up in the article: Lance swears that when he first rented his trailer, the top “I DO NOT want these items” link was NOT on any of the pages. It was added later. If that’s indeed the case, I can’t help but think U-Haul had some irate customer feedback to prompt the change.

  • http://searchengineland.com Sandra Niehaus

    George, I couldn’t agree more about the likely pendulum effect, and the recent economy has certainly increased business fears and exacerbated the swing. There will always be predatory companies, but I’m with you – crossing my fingers that the general trend is more positive.

  • http://ConversionScientist.com Brian Massey

    Sandra, Godaddy.com knows how to market online, but I’ve accidentally renewed domains and bought services because of their aggressive use of button prioritization and upselling. As a result, I won’t consider them as I look for a new host for my Web sites.

    Too often “evil” is defined by damage to the business, not the visitor.

    Loved the examples.

    Brian Massey

  • gstreamerdev

    It seems that you have an agenda and a story to tell. I havent searched for RealPlayer in a long time, but I did after I read your story. It went to a link that didnt look anything like the screenshot you show. Also, no sign of Superpass anywhere. I clicked on the most prominent link, it downloads the free player, and installs without doing any “evil” things that you talk about in your article. In fact, after using it for a couple of hours (hey, I can download videos from that evil youtube website see http://www.youtube.com/t/terms ) I feel this is something I can live with for a while.

    Long story short, I feel you have somthing to say, valid or not, but your examples seem to be not living up to your argument.

  • joeweller

    Hi Sandra,

    I work at RealNetworks, and I appreciate your perspective on this page. For what it’s worth, this is a page that was developed years ago, and since Fall of 2009 we have stopped using this page entirely, for many of the reasons you’ve listed here.

    If you search for “free RealPlayer” now you’ll see a page that is focused on the Free RealPlayer. There is an option to upgrade to RealPlayer Plus, however the big green button is clearly for the “Free” RealPlayer, while the upsell link is much less prominent. (here’s the url: http://www.real.com/realplayer/search)


  • http://searchengineland.com Sandra Niehaus

    Hey Brian, I did exactly the same thing just a few weeks ago – accidentally purchased domains I didn’t mean to. I almost included GoDaddy here, but I’ve covered them before. It’s almost comical how deliberately evil they are.

  • http://searchengineland.com Sandra Niehaus

    Hi “gstreamerdev” and Joe – valid point, I should have checked for a more recent version of the RealPlayer example, or identified the time I captured it more closely. I’ll see about making that edit to the article.

    However, last fall it was an actual live landing page (thanks, Joe), and the argument is still valid even if the page has been updated since.

    Joe, giant kudos on the new page. You’ve added a few points of goodwill.

  • ryanpryor


    Thanks for this post. Helpful to think about this stuff, and glad to hear you calling such practices as “evil.” I completely get that because as I was reading down the article I was thinking “Man, I need to tell her about that F-ed UHaul site.” and then you had it in the article and i was happy to see it. that site had me so confused i walked through the whole process 3 times just to make sure i hadn’t missed something, since AFTER all the funnel crap, it STILL wasn’t clear if my truck return was to be a specific place, etc. and calling in to the store only got a snippy reply #poorcustomerservice.

    venting over.
    thanks for the article :-)


  • http://searchengineland.com Sandra Niehaus

    Hey Ryan, that’s funny and ironic — glad I could help! :)

  • David Szetela

    Sandra – great article and writing style (as usual) – thanks!

  • http://unbounce.com OliGardner

    Real have always been on the unfortunate side of having absolute no business model. So I try to laugh when they release new stuff.

    Their conversion must work on some folks (you know who you are), but really: is it free or is it not?

    Conversion trickiness afoot for sure.

    I hope they do well, but I wish they’d learn some solid UX.

  • http://searchengineland.com Sandra Niehaus

    Thanks, David! And Oli, I have to agree about Real not seeming to have a clear business model. Are they a hosting/streaming provider? Editing software? Media destination? Ad platform? And if they don’t know for certain who they are, then how can they possibly have a clear understanding of their target audience or formulate a unique value proposition toward that audience? Good UX will help, but can’t fix the foundational issues.


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