When Landing Page Optimization Isn’t Enough

As I was preparing for my SES Extreme Makeover session, analyzing the lucky businesses that were chosen for a free makeover, I became fascinated with a particular e-commerce site.

There was no question that the pages on this site performed exceptionally well. Bounces were under 20 percent and the exit rates were very low. I also knew this company had been testing using Google Website Optimizer.

Clearly, this company was dedicated to continual improvement and working hard to improve its conversion rate. The analytics shouted proof that someone was minding the store.

So why was its overall conversion rate painfully low?

I dug deeper into the analytics, going back and forth between the numbers and the site. Then I knew exactly what was wrong. I was curious if my staff would be able to see exactly what I saw.

As much as I’d like to brag about my staff for being brilliant (they indeed are), I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, they’re trained to look where others don’t. Without hesitation, they saw exactly what I saw.

All Is Well…on the Surface

The marketing was good and relevant, the site was well designed, the landing pages and product pages were sticky, and traffic seemed to move through the site with ease. Even the checkout process was good. Instead, the site suffered from a severe persuasion scenario problem.

The site attracted interested prospects and gave them enough big call-to-action buttons and shiny products to browse, but made it difficult, even impossible, for prospects to gain any resolve to buy the right product for them. This is a site with a slow drip. Prospects are falling off one by one in hundreds of different places. It’s proof that landing page optimization isn’t enough.

Moving Beyond Best Practices, Usability, and Testing

Joel Spolsky best summed up this site’s dilemma in “User Interface Design for Programmers“:

Usability is not everything. If usability engineers designed a night club it would be clean, quiet, brightly lit, with plenty of places to sit down, plenty of bartenders, menus written in 18-point sans-serif, and easy-to-find bathrooms. But nobody would be there. They would all be down the street at Coyote Ugly pouring beer on each other.

The site is nice, well lit, well run, but not selling. So how do you begin fixing the problem? First, you have to understand it a bit.

We created a simple, one-dimensional persona who was early in her buying process. She knew she needed a certain product but didn’t know where to start. The site sells sporting recreational goods with the average price point in the hundreds of dollars. This isn’t an impulse-buy type of site.

We clicked through the site as this persona and, no matter where we started, we ended up hitting a virtual brick wall, confused and frustrated. The site seems to have good prices but little guidance on what products are best for the beginner. The site even offers packages to make it easier for the customer.

Yet it didn’t help the persona answer the question: which is the right package for me? Even when we were a persona further along in the buying process, we still had a heck of time sorting and finding the right products for our need.

Simple persuasion issues not addressed on product pages and category landing pages are the Lilliputians sucking the lifeblood out of the site’s conversion rate. Proof again that too many sites spend way too much time and money on best practices and page performance to the detriment of site performance.

The Good News

This site will get a makeover that will undoubtedly stop many of the drips. Some solutions are as simple as adding a little copy to category pages, creating several pages specifically addressing the needs of different buyers, and leveraging some great content already on the site.

The site can serve as a lesson to those of you who have come up short on your optimization expectations. It can remind you to optimize not just for better page performance but also for the actual visitor using those pages.

Here are a few steps you can take if you’re suffering from a slow-drip persuasion scenario problem:

  1. Start with a simple persona, putting her in a typical buying process for your product or service.
  2. Click through the site as that persona, doing your best to pretend that you don’t know where the content she needs is. Is it easy for her to find? Did she get distracted by something else? Does the content do what you intended it to do: does it move users forward through the site and give them greater resolve that they have found or will find the right product for them?
  3. Run a usability test. Sometimes it’s hard to see your site with fresh eyes; you may need to bring in some help.
  4. Remember that site engagement metrics, like bounce and exit rates, click-throughs, and time spent on site, are important key performance indicators. If your site’s engagement metrics look healthy and your conversion rate remains low or unchanged, you must now focus on selling and persuading the customer, not designing the right button or searching for a better hero image on a landing page or even finding better qualified traffic. You will likely need to create some content that will help visitors find the product they need and want. That’s a persuasion issue, not a usability or best practices issue.

Are you spinning your wheels, looking at your site analytics and running out of things to optimize or test? If you’re willing to share your situation with my ClickZ readers, tell me your story. My staff and I will select one or two sites to look under the hood of and share findings in a future column.

Related reading