Breaking the Rules (of Web Awareness)

  |  November 13, 2012   |  Comments

When an e-catalogue site hides its products.

Last June, at the Chicago Conversion Conference, I spent an hour doing live landing page reviews for attendees. Generally speaking, in just five to 10 minutes I can usually identify several key barriers to conversion that, if fixed, could substantially alter the bottom-line revenue for a company. Months after the review I often hear from participants who have made strong conversion gains based on something they learned during the live review session.

But here's a spoiler alert: this story does not have a happy ending. I recently noticed that one of the sites I reviewed back in June, Magnet Street, has not changed a single thing about its site. Magnet Street is an online stationary company, and its site is essentially a catalogue for its product. I consult with a lot of e-commerce pros about how to squeeze more revenue out of their sites, and the problems that the Magnet Street site displayed are very common. Here are the main points:


The Purpose-Driven Website

The first thing I ask volunteers when I review their websites is, "What is the purpose of your landing page?" You probably know by now that a website without a purpose is a website doomed to failure. However, it can't be just any purpose. A common mistake is to assume that the site owner's or marketer's goals are the same as that of end-users. They are not, although there should be an intersection.

In the case of Magnet Street, its users' goal is to buy some sort of unique stationery design on which they can personalize a message, and the company's goal is (presumably) to generate revenue selling stationery. So consider this: when I started the Magnet Street review, I asked the audience for a show of hands if they thought this was an online catalogue site, and only 10 percent of the hands went up. That's because Magnet Street's home page doesn't even attempt to show visitors the range of stationery products that the site offers. The only way visitors can get a glimpse of what products are offered is by sitting through the rotating banner of promotional messages and hoping that the product category that they are looking for is one of those in rotation. The user's goal is not easily met, because it isn't clear from the onset that the company offers anything more than magnets and calendars. And if our audience is any indication, 90 percent of Magnet Street's visitors are missing the point of the site, completely unable to complete their goal.

The Rules of Web Awareness

I know these big rotating banners are a design trend right now, but if you've ever shopped online and encountered them, you'll know what I mean when I say they're causing usability problems. I've previously written a post on my beef about image carousels/rotating banners. The Magnet Street site affirms what I've been warning folks about rotating banners: that they are a source of frustration for users and get in the way of your visitors' attempt to make a purchase.

Imagine, for instance, that you were looking for a unique business card and landed on the Magnet Street home page. Can you easily find what you are looking for? I doubt it. You'd probably initially get distracted by those big, moving pictures, and then scan the page for the word "business card" or an image of it. If you're persistent enough to read the tiny text on the left-hand navigation, you might eventually find what you're looking for. Unfortunately, with 72.7 million results on the search term "custom business card," most users will simply click the back button and move on to another site if they don't immediately find what they're looking for on yours.

Thinking is expensive and the brain is, by nature, lazy. It doesn't want to have to figure out how your website is simply decides in a fraction of a second to stay or go. So the lesson here is this: if visitors can't find something quickly, or if they experience any delay in goal achievement on your website, they will bounce away to the next site until they find a desirable set of simple and obvious choices.


As a parting note, I am keenly aware that digital marketers often encounter organizational friction when trying to implement conversion-related strategies. And yes, I know how difficult it is to find any fault in a website or landing page you had a hand in creating. But, especially for an e-commerce or catalogue site, letting internal obstacles like these get in the way of better usability can be the difference between profit and loss. In a competitive market, even a little user friction can cost a company hundreds of thousands in lost revenue.


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Tim Ash

Tim Ash is CEO of, a landing page optimization firm that offers conversion consulting, full-service guaranteed-improvement tests, and software tools to improve conversion rates. SiteTuners' visual attention prediction tool can be used on a landing page screenshot or mock-up to quickly identify major conversion issues. He has worked with Google, Facebook, American Express, CBS, Sony Music, Universal Studios, Verizon Wireless, Texas Instruments, and Coach.

Tim is a highly-regarded presenter at SES, eMetrics, PPC Summit, Affiliate Summit, PubCon, Affiliate Conference, and LeadsCon. He is the chairperson of, the first conference focused on improving online conversions. A columnist for several publications including ClickZ, he's host of the weekly Landing Page Optimization show and podcast on His columns can be found in the Search Engine Watch archive.

He received his B.S. and M.S. during his Ph.D. studies at UC San Diego. Tim is the author of the bestselling book, "Landing Page Optimization."

Connect with Tim on Google+.

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