Five years ago, few people paid any attention to conversion rate optimization. Today, everyone is jumping on the conversion optimization bandwagon. I believe that there were two main factors that changed search marketers perceived value of conversion optimization:
Google Website Optimizer. In October 2006 Google announced the release of its website testing tool, Google Website Optimizer. While the tool is not as powerful as some of its commercial counterparts, it allowed the average smaller to mid-size website to integrate some sort of A/B and multivariate testing into their marketing initiatives. After working with hundreds of clients on many different software platforms, I can say with high confidence that Google Website Optimizer satisfies the needs of 90% of websites out there.
The bad economy. As the economy tanked in 2009, many online marketers started to pay close attention to new ways to convert their existing traffic into revenue. So, while net visitors still mattered, conversions mattered a lot more.
Of course the concept of conversion is not unique to the web. Print media has been using the terms response rate and conversion ratios for over forty years. Most snail or junk mail campaigns convert at a rate of 1% or less. And the truth is that most websites report conversion rates close to those of junk mail. Data reported by Shop.org reflects a continuous decline in online conversion rates. In June of 2007, Fireclick index reported an average ecommerce conversion rate of just 2.2%.
In 2007, the majority of Fortune 500 companies allocated less than 5% of their online marketing budgets to conversion optimization. Based on the current trends, I expect that by 2012 most companies will spend close to 15% of their online marketing budgets on conversion optimization. These numbers are not where they should be, but nonetheless, that is a significant increase.
And while it is great that many companies are finally paying attention to conversion optimization, there is a new reality many companies are starting to deal with. Based on talking to nearly 200 companies who tried conversion optimization in the last year, over 60% of them report no significant improvement in conversion rates. This data should concern anyone who is considering conversion rate optimization (CRO) as well as companies considering offering it to their clients.
There are many reasons why these types of projects do not produce the intended results.
Client expectations are not set correctly from the start. Conversion optimization projects require clients to invest time and resources to make modifications to their websites. While some optimization companies try to get around this issue by implementing changes themselves, this approach does not scale. It might work if you are a small company dealing with few clients. In the last count, we provided recommendations to clients on over 40 different platforms. Can you imagine the amount of resources we have to maintain to support all the different clients?
Starting points aren’t obvious. While attempting to encourage companies to start conversion optimization, too many consultants play down or simply do not understand that value of creating a conversion optimization roadmap. By a roadmap, I mean a plan for which pages or processes should be optimized first. Simply saying “start with your pages with highest bounce rate, or pages with the highest exit rate” oversimplifies the planning stage, and in many cases will result in failure. Creating an optimization roadmap requires careful analysis of analytics and website personas.
The guessing game. Assuming the consultant uses a good methodology to create a conversion optimization roadmap, the next big question is what changes you should make in the target areas. Give a usability or conversion consultant one screen, and they can give you hundreds of changes to that screen. But how do you know which of these changes will work? The typical answer is to test any changes. I think that misses the main point. Testing ten or twenty changes on a page is a good thing. But what about the other hundred-or-so possible changes? Are you going to test them all? Do you even have enough traffic to test these changes? At this point in the discussion, many will fall back to best practices. They will tell you that best practices will guide which elements to test. And yes, best practices might help, but it does leave you with a large vulnerability.
The fallacy of best practices. I do not discount the value of best practices in conversion optimization. However, I take issue with companies who make them the cornerstone of their practice. The reason? For as many usability best practices that exist, there are as many exceptions. I think those who disagree with my assertion simply have never run into these exceptions, for one reason or another.
Conversion optimization is harder than SEO. In SEO you deal with search engine algorithms. While you are not privy to how these algorithms work, experts deduce their logic by making changes and observing how a search engine responds. We follow the same approach in conversion optimization, by making changes and trying to observe how visitors respond. The problem is that humans are a lot more complex than search engines. Humans tend to act in a non-linear and complex fashion.
The more complex your website, the more pronounced each of the above problems will be. Some companies can guarantee a 15% percent uplift in conversion rates for a single landing page, but they would not be able to achieve the same results with an entire ecommerce website. My goal is not to scare you from considering conversion optimization, because the results can be quite profound. But before you jump into conversion optimization, you must be aware of some of the challenges you will face. I will address how to mitigate each of the above risks in later posts.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.