Caution: Internet Chaos!

Jared Spool, of User Interface Engineering and I were discussing a blockbuster research study he’s been conducting for the past two years (more about that next week). We’re interested in uncovering the “Business Topology” of successful sites. I’ll let you in on what we spoke about, but first some background.

Henri Poincaré made history at the end of the 19th century, when King Oscar II of Sweden offered a cash prize for an answer to a longstanding question: is the solar system stable? His body of research made Poincaré the intellectual pioneer of several subjects still of interest to present-day problem solvers.

The question led Poincaré to “analysis situs” or what’s now called “topology” –the science of categorization according to shape and/or configuration. He won the prize with his publication of “On the Problem of Three Bodies and the Equations of Equilibrium.” Poincaré came to understand that infinitely complicated behaviors could arise in simple, nonlinear systems. Without the benefit of computers, utilizing only his keen intuition and mathematical insight, Poincaré was able to describe many of the basic properties of deterministic chaos. Stay with me — it gets easier!

Deterministic chaos (often just called “chaos,” as in ‘chaos theory’) refers to the generation of non-random yet unpredictable behavior from a simple but nonlinear rule. The nonlinear rule contains no “noise,” randomness, or probabilities. Instead, it’s through the nonlinear rule’s repeated application that long-term behavior becomes complicated.

In practice this meant the reason nobody could predict with certainty the orbits of more than two gravitational bodies (think Earth and Sun) is that a third gravitational body (think Moon), affecting both, infinitely complicates things. I’ve touched on this principle before. Ever seen a picture of a fractal? As you zoom in or out, you discover infinitely repeating patterns. In this sense, non-randomness “emerges” over time. Think of the ups and down of business, ocean waves or even the effectiveness of your online business.

Your business is not linear. There are many facets, or topological elements, to consider in designing an effective online strategy to maximize your conversion rate. Your conversion rate is a reflection of marketing and sales effectiveness and your customers’ satisfaction. Every time we speak, we get requests for averages and benchmarks on conversion rates. This is the same type of linear behavior problem Poincaré warned about. We always advise against comparing your own conversion rates with “norms” or “averages.” These are drawn from sites that don’t have the same traffic, product or any number of characteristics as your own situation. There are a lot more than “three bodies,” or variables, influencing your equation.

If we were dealing with just a couple of variables, life would be simple. We could answer questions like “how many pages should a Web site contain?” or “how many flavors of ice-cream there should be?” Digging into Jared’s research, no universal conclusions can be deduced. There are no significant differences between B2B or consumer sites.

The only variances with some degree of validity were looking at data across parallel industries. For example, if you’re an online apparel retailer, look at what the top retailers’ Web site best practices are; if you sell CD’s, books and videos, look at the leader there. One word of caution: be careful what you copy. Many companies try to emulate more successful competitors without really knowing what they’re copying, because they’re unaware of the variables.

Where are we looking for answers? Jared and I think it may lie across “content types.” Maybe it has as much to do with the understanding of both the buying and selling processes, and how they influence the presentation of products and services on Web sites. What do you think?

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