Conversion Rate Optimization: A How-To Guide for Better Results

Paul Boag

For many organisations, conversion rate optimization is the key to online success. This how-to guide takes you through the process used to maximise the effectiveness of your website to convert.

Many organisations are dissatisfied with the effectiveness of their website and seek to improve things through a cycle of periodic redesigns. That approach rarely works. Instead, companies need to instigate a program of ongoing conversion rate optimization, designed to improve the performance of key metrics over time incrementally.

In this post, I want to introduce you to the process of conversion rate optimization and set you on the path to improving the effectiveness of your website over the long term. That journey will include:

But, before you can undertake conversion rate optimization, you must first decide what conversion looks like.

How Do You Decide What to Track?

Finding the right metrics to monitor for conversion can be challenging if you are not running an ecommerce site. For example, if you run a service business and track people who contact you via an online form, you may well miss out on those who picked up the phone or dropped you an email.

Even with ecommerce sites, things are not always as straightforward as they would first appear. For example, tracking the number of sales isn’t much use if the products that truly sell have razor thin margins.

How then do we decide what conversion metric to follow? Let’s begin by looking at tracking on ecommerce sites.

What to Track on an Ecommerce Site

When considering conversion rate optimization in ecommerce, there are many metrics that you should be tracking beyond the number of orders placed. These include:

  • Sales conversion rate. What percentage of those visiting the website goes on to convert? That will help you judge the persuasiveness and usability of your site.
  • Average order value. What is the average value of customers purchase in a single visit? That will help evaluate the site’s ability to up-sell additional products to a customer.
  • Customer lifetime value. How much does the average customer spend on all their purchases from the website? Their satisfaction with previous purchases will influence this metric. Repeat orders are more cost-effective as they often have a lower cost of sale.
  • Revenue by traffic source. Which of the sources that drive traffic to the site generate the most returns. For example, does the revenue generated from pay-per-click justify the amount you spend on it compared to other channels?
  • Customer acquisition cost. How much does it cost to win your average sale? Raising your conversion rate is not enough if the cost of winning those sales is too high.

For an ecommerce site, this is all relatively straightforward. You want to focus on increasing conversion of high-profit products using traffic obtained through a low cost of acquisition channel. But things become more complicated when you look at non-transactional sites.

What to Track if You Are Not an Ecommerce Business

Not all non-ecommerce sites are going to struggle to identify key performance indicators. For example, I work a lot with charities where donations are a crucial metric they track. However, even here there are nuances. For example, monthly donations are more valuable to a charity than a one-off gift, while legacy donations are more valuable still.

That said, for most non-ecommerce sites, knowing what to monitor can be a tricky exercise and one that is impossible to make watertight. But, that doesn’t make conversion rate optimization impossible.

Tracking actions like contact form submissions, downloads or newsletter signups is not going to give a complete picture of the site’s effectiveness. However, generally speaking, tracking something is better than tracking nothing.

The key is to ensure you do not fixate completely on these metrics, but recognise they are only one part of assessing a site.

So what metrics can you track? Contact form submission is an easy starting point. But, you might want to have a dedicated phone number and email address that only appear on the website in case people contact you via these other means. That way you know the call or email originated on the site.

That works well for tracking lead generation, but that is not the only role a website fulfils for non-ecommerce sites. Your site might also exist to improve brand reputation or customer support. How do you track these?

Often it takes a little imagination to identify metrics you can track. But it is possible, even though these metrics will not be perfect. For example, if your site exists in part to support customers, you can track the rate at which customers get support through other channels such as the phone. If this declines, it is an indication that the site is proving more effective.

You can of course also survey users. That works particularly well for knowledge bases on a customer support site. Just asking ‘did this page answer your question’ will give you a good indication of site effectiveness.

A single question survey can help with more difficult metrics such as customer satisfaction.

For sites that exist to improve brand perception, you can monitor the tone of social media mentions or the number of times users share website content. You could also track newsletter signups, as that is a good gauge of the value people see in a site.

In short, it takes a little imagination, but it is possible to find valuable metrics to track even if they are not perfect.

An excellent place to start is with your company strategy. Most companies have one, and they tend to be full of lofty goals, but are lacking in detail. Take those lofty goals and apply them to the website. For example, a company goal to increase revenue may translate into generating more leads on the site. You can then turn that into a measurable key performance indicator such as increase visits to the contact us page.

A company strategy can often be a good starting point for establishing a website’s key performance indicators.

Beware Tracking the Wrong Metric

A word of warning. If you track the wrong metric and focus too obsessively, you can do more harm than good. For example, increasing contact form submissions is only useful if the people making that submission are the right kind of person. Get the wrong audience making enquiries merely creates a lot of work for the sales team to follow up.

Some argue that you are better not tracking anything if you cannot track the right thing and I sympathise with this point of view. However, this often leads a website and digital strategy directionless and left to the whims of internal politics and vanity projects.

Instead, I recommend picking the best metrics you can but never forgetting their limitations. Be willing to revise the metric if it is not working for you or it is sending the website in the wrong direction. Do not become a slave to your key performance indicators, but instead use them as a compass to steer you in approximately the right direction.

That is because once you have your metrics, you know what you want users to do. At that point, you can start to look at users who do not convert and work out why.

Conversion Rate optimization Starts With Discovering Problems

Conversion rate optimization starts with a simple question – why are people not converting? Finding the answer, however, is not as straightforward and requires a combination of a systematic methodology and good instincts. That said, the following four steps are a good starting point. Steps that begin by asking where users are coming from.

1. Analyse by Referring Channel

One possible reason for a poor conversion rate is that some of the users coming to your website are not the right kind of people. They might be looking for something other than what you offer or have different expectations of factors such as price.

It is easy when assessing channels and campaigns to focus too heavily on the number of visitors who you are driving to your site, without considering the quality of those visitors. Conversion rate optimization cares about quality, not quantity.

In order to avoid this, it is worth looking at conversion rates based on referring channel. For example you might receive visitors via:

  • Search engines.
  • Referring websites.
  • Pay per click advertising.
  • Social media.
  • Banner advertising.
  • Email marketing.

Some of those channels may be performing particularly poorly because those users are not a good match for you. In fact, even within those broad categories, you may find fluctuations in conversion. For example, users arriving from one referring site may be considerably more likely to convert than another. Alternatively, one pay per click campaign might be working better than another.

Dropping under performing channels will improve your overall conversion rate.

Imagine you run a web design agency specialising in enterprise level websites. If one of your pay per click campaigns doesn’t mention price, it might drive a lot of visitors with the expectation of getting a website for a few hundred dollars. An audience like that is extremely unlikely to convert and so could lower your overall conversion rate.

If you can identify and drop poorly performing channels or campaigns, you will see an increase in that overall conversion rate. That will also enable you to invest more heavily in successful alternatives.

If you do not find any particularly weak channels or campaigns, then the problem may lie with the site.

2. Pay Attention to the Analytics

Step two in conversion rate optimization is to look carefully at the journey users travel through your website.

If the conversion process involves multiple steps such as a checkout process, first look at any points within that process where users give up and abandon the site. If users seem to express an interest by starting the process and then quits, it almost certainly means there is a problem. You merely need to identify which point users leave.

If that doesn’t yield results or users never start the conversion process, then it is time to look at other dropout points. Do you see any pattern in when people abandon the site? Perhaps they all leave on the same page, if so then the problem is apparently there. Alternatively, maybe they seem to be clicking around a lot, which might indicate they cannot find the information they want.

In that second scenario, take a look at those users who search on the site and then fail to convert. What search terms are they using and do those terms return good results?

Also look at what devices or browsers people are using. Do you see a lower conversion rate for one type of device over another? Maybe the mobile experience is weak, or you have a bug in a particular browser.

Page performance speed is another thing that can impact conversion so try looking at the Average Document Interactive Time. That is the average time (in seconds) that it takes for the browser to render a page so that a user can interact with it. If you see that the page load time impacts conversion, then you know you have a problem.

A tool like Pingdom is great for tracking page performance.

Another approach is to look at those sessions who do convert. Are there any patterns of behaviour there that sets them apart from those who don’t. Do they visit any particular series of pages or do they skip certain parts of the site? Are they using a specific device or browser?

I won’t pretend it is easy to pick through all of this data. It is as much instinct and hunches as anything else. You are not looking for definitive evidence there is a problem. Instead, you are looking for clues about where to look in more detail. Because once you have a likely suspect, you can use session recorders or usability testing to confirm your suspicions.

3. Watch Recorded Sessions

With any luck, your analytics will point you at approximately the right pages that could be optimised to improve conversion. But analytics isn’t particularly good at identifying what it is about the page that is causing the problem. Is it the copy, the wording of a call to action button or your choice of imagery? It is almost impossible to tell with analytics.

However, a session recorder can be a valuable tool in conversion rate optimization because it helps narrow the field further. Session recorders like Fullstory or Hotjar track a users behaviour within a page enabling you to see how the user scrolls, where their cursor moves and clicks as well as when they pause. You can access this information either by watching individual sessions played back as videos or collectively in the form of heat maps.

Session recorders like Hotjar provide a wealth of information for identifying weaknesses in the conversion funnel.

By comparing sessions that go on to convert with those who do not, you can quickly build up a sense of the different behaviour on our suspect page. Maybe users who fail to convert skip right over an essential call to action, while those who do act, pause that little bit longer to read a critical piece of text.

Of course, even being able to watch a user encounter a problem on a page doesn’t necessarily help us understand why it is a problem. For example, why didn’t the user click that button or what was it about that piece of copy that put them off? For that, you need to run some usability testing.

4. Carry Out Usability Testing

Strictly speaking, usability testing doesn’t need to come after looking at session recording. You could go from analytics straight to usability testing. The advantage of session recorders is that you have more data to use. Usability testing is time-consuming, and so we tend to test with fewer people.

That said, usability testing is an essential component of conversion rate optimization as it has the distinct advantage of being able to ask users why they behaved in the way they did. That enables us to understand precisely what is working and what is failing. The analytics pointed us in the right direction, while the usability testing gets to the root of the problem.

However, remember that usability testing is somewhat artificial. You are not asking people to part with their own money or personal data. They will behave differently, so we have to demonstrate judgement in how we interpret what we learn. That said, usability testing is invaluable in working out where the sales funnel is failing.

Running usability testing is not that hard. It does take a bit of effort, but it doesn’t require special equipment or skills. My introduction to usability testing should be more than enough to get started.

If you are looking for a powerful, yet inexpensive usability testing tool I recommend Lookback.

Through using a combination of analytics, session recorders, and usability testing you will have a good idea of the problem. But that doesn’t mean you will necessarily know how to fix it. How then do you find the right solution to optimise your conversion rate?

Finding the Right Conversion rate optimization Solution

Conversion rate optimization involves the realisation that you can undermine your conversion rate in a myriad of tiny ways. Little niggles that individually seem inconsequential but collectively chip away at your conversion rate.

That means working out how to optimise your conversion rate is a nuanced process born as much out of experience and intuition as data. Even when you know the problem, finding a solution involves drawing upon a deep understanding of human behaviour and design best practice.

That said, I have found that the following four areas are almost always a good starting point for improving conversion.

1. Match the User’s Mental Model

Have you ever wondered why tomatoes appear in the salad aisle of a supermarket when they are a fruit? Should you not place them with the oranges and apples?

The reason is simple, that is not what people expect. That does not match our mental model of the world. We associate tomatoes with salads because we put them in salads. But, we do not all share the same mental model.

Good design understands that we are not always logical. That is why tomatoes appear in the salad aisle of a supermarket, despite being a fruit.

Thanks to Ewa Studio from Shutterstock for allowing me to use this image.

For example, a keen fisher would probably associate the word bank with a river bank, while a shopkeeper may associate it with the financial institution.

The idea that different people have different models is essential when it comes to conversion rate optimization, because if we do not match somebodies mental model, they will have problems using your site.

For example, maybe you have arranged your information architecture in a way that makes sense to you. That doesn’t mean it will make sense to somebody else. That will leave it hard for users to find the information they need. You will have metaphorically put the tomatoes with the fruit, at least in the minds of your users.

Once you grasp the importance of different mental models, then the need for usability testing becomes much more apparent. You need to understand how your users perceive the world if you are going to create a site that they can efficiently use and reach the point where they are ready to convert.

Admittedly, users can struggle through on a site that doesn’t match their mental model. However, it will reduce the conversion rate, because it will increase their cognitive load.

2. Reduce Cognitive Load

In my experience, the number one reason for a poor conversion rate is that a website makes users overthink. That is known as cognitive load and has become a significant problem in our digital world as users are bombarded with vast amounts of information they are expected to process.

In a world of so many choices and too much information, people quickly feel overwhelmed and tend to give very little attention to each of the options. If your site isn’t simple or requires too much thought, users typically move onto the next.

How then do we create a sense of cognitive ease if it is so important to conversion rate optimization? There are four areas you can focus on.

Cognitive Load Impacts Conversion Rate optimization
Cognitive Load has enormous consequences over the likelihood we will complete a call to action.

First, you can create a consistent, familiar experience. People feel more at ease with activities that are familiar. If your site meets their expectations and behaves as they have seen other websites work, then they are more at ease.

That also means that your website has to be consistent with itself. Be sure to keep naming, navigation and layout consistent. Failing to do so will increase cognitive load and reduce conversion.

The second area to consider is related to the first. If you want to reduce cognitive load, you need to ensure users are properly primed for the experience. Priming is a psychological term for our tendency to behave differently if we have a certain mental association. For example, people are more likely to buy French wine over German wine in a supermarket if French music is playing in the background.

If we understand this tendency, we can subconsciously prepare users for what they need to do. Alternatively, the wrong prime can lead to the wrong conclusions and increase cognitive load.

For example, if the imagery of people on your website does not look like the user (e.g. gender or ethnicity) you are priming people to think your offering is not for them. Equally, if we make our call to action, a green button people are already primed to click on it because green is associated with a command to proceed.

If users see people like themselves on your website they are merely to convert.

Thanks to from Shutterstock for allowing me to use this image.

The third area is an obvious one but deserves mention. If you want to reduce cognitive load, you need to provide a clear, simple user interface. The more elements on a page, the more mental effort we need to exert to interpret what we are observing. A busy interface, increases cognitive load and decreases conversion.

Finally, you need to put people in a good mood. If people are happy and relaxed, cognitive processing flows more naturally and, most importantly, feels easier.

That is why design delighters and tone of voice are such vital factors in conversion. As UI Patterns writes:

Consider playful microcopy, a link to a fun video, or the gift of a compliment to a user. The mere discovery of “Easter eggs” such as coupons, virtual gifts, or a humorous image will form a favourable and memorable impression.

An impression that makes your website feel effortless.

I cannot overstate the importance of cognitive load. Not only does it make the experience feel fun, effortless and familiar, it also increases the trustworthiness of your site, an essential factor in conversion. That is because we equate ease with reliability.

3. Build Trust

Establishing trust with users is a key to raising your conversion rate. People are hesitant to hand over money or personal information to a company they distrust. That could be because of a lack of trust in your ability to deliver, or merely a sense that they are being tricked and manipulated.

Unfortunately, users have learned to be cynical about companies motivations. They often encounter sites that seek to manipulate them through psychological techniques often referred to as dark patterns. Methods such as artificial deadlines, limited availability or fear of missing out.

Design can be used to manipulate users into doing things like buying insurance unintentionally.

This psychological manipulation is increasingly popular in the field of conversion rate optimization, because they will, in fact, work. There are many ways that you can manipulate, coerce or trick users into converting. But, doing so comes at a cost.

In a world where the average user has over 330 facebook friends and the ability to post reviews online, an unhappy customer can be a dangerous enemy. When we bounce users into converting they suffer buyers remorse, and that costs the company money from negative PR and increased support calls. But most importantly unhappy users quickly erode your reputation as a trustworthy brand, and that will impact conversion rate over the long term.

Consumers are not stupid. Yes, these techniques work on a subconscious level, but people know we are manipulating them and that undermines the relationship that is so crucial to conversion.

But building trust is not just about avoiding bad practice. There are also many positive steps you can take to establish trust and so optimise your conversion rate.

The design of your website is a critical component in establishing trust. If a company has obviously invested in their website, then they will probably pay the same attention to other parts of their service. A professional site is by default more trustworthy in the eyes of users.

Social proof in the form of testimonials, reviews and recommendations also build trust. Users can see that the company has others willing to vouch for them. Testimonials that you link to social media are even more valuable because they are obviously real people and not a fiction created by the company.

Awards and certification provide a similar boost to perceived trust. That is because an independent third party is vouching for the reliability of your offering and company. Of course, a more well known third party award is considerably more powerful than one from an unknown source.

A generous return policy or other forms of guarantee makes a big difference to trust as well. It demonstrates that you are confident in your offering and sure that people will not want to return it. For example, Zappos built a thriving ecommerce site selling shoes by offering a 365 day, unconditional, return policy.

Then there is the speed and quality of communication a company provides. Companies who display their telephone number prominently on their site and respond quickly to enquiries via email or social media come across as considerably more trustworthy.

Finally, providing information about the company behind the website can make a big difference to perceived trust. About us sections, case studies and even the companies postal address, all make it clear this is a reputable company and not some online scam.

If you care about conversion rate optimization, you have to care about establishing trust between users and your company. Companies who are considered honest, transparent and communicative consistently see a higher conversion rate over the long term.

But trust is meaningless if you appear insensitive to users needs and fixated on your agenda. That is why it is so important to address user’s questions.

4. Answer the User’s Questions

Conversion rate optimization is mostly about objection handling. In other words, it is about understanding user concerns and addressing them. That is why it is so important to understand the questions users have when they come to your website.

Whenever seeking to improve conversion rates, you need to know what concerns people might have. For example, when signing up for a newsletter, people might have the following objections:

  • Does this newsletter offer me anything of value?
  • Will the number of emails they send me become annoying?
  • Is it going to be hard to unsubscribe if I don’t like it?
  • Will they sell my email address to other people?

No doubt you are already aware of many of these questions and concerns. However, as we learnt when talking about mental models, we are not always as aligned with other people’s thinking as we believe. With that in mind, it is crucial to carry out some user research to establish what those questions are in reality.

Top task analysis is one of the best research methodologies you can use to establish what concerns and questions users have about completing your call to action. That is because top task analysis does not only survey users about their questions but also helps you prioritise which ones are the most important.

Top Task Analysis is a really simple technique for establishing what users care about.

The prioritisation of user questions is crucial because, as we have already established, it is easy to overwhelm people. When users are forced to wade through vast amounts of secondary questions to find the answer they are looking for, they are considerably more likely to give up. It is therefore vital to visually prioritise answers to critical questions so that people can easily find them.

Of course, it is not enough to merely know the questions that people have; we also need to provide compelling answers that reassure.

For example, on an ecommerce site, users are typically worried about delivery charges. That is understandable as it can add a considerable amount to the cost of a product. We need to work hard to reassure them, and that may involve including delivery charges in the price displayed on the site.

Zappos make sure all of the users primary questions are clearly available from the homepage.

What you should never do is hide the bad news. I have encountered ecommerce sites that purposely conceal their delivery charge until later in the checkout process. That is because they know people tend to follow through if they start a process. Unfortunately, this ultimately undermines conversion as it erodes trust as I discussed earlier, and also many users give up when they cannot find delivery charges quickly.

Addressing the real questions and concerns users have in an easily accessible way will go a long way to building trust. Together these techniques show users you care about giving them a good deal and that will improve conversion.

But coming up with design solutions that do all of these things is not easy. It is easy to create friction without realising it or misunderstand what users want to know. Even the smallest element has the potential to undermine trust. That is why testing your solutions is so important.

Testing Your Approach to Conversion Rate optimization

We have already discussed how testing can help identify problems, but it can and should also be used to validate proposed solutions to those problems. There will never be a single way of fixing a problem you encounter with conversion, and not all fixes will be equal. Some will perform better than others, and so it is essential to establish a culture of testing various possible solutions to see which works the best.

The preferred approach for conversion rate optimization is multivariate testing.

Rely Heavily on Multivariate Testing

Multivariate testing is sometimes known as split testing or A/B testing. It refers to the process of building multiple versions of a solution to identify a problem and trialling each version with a subset of your visitors. The approach that converts best is then pushed live for all users.

At face value the idea of building multiple solutions might sound like a lot of work. But in truth, the variations between versions are often minor, including small tweaks to copy, colours or styling. In fact, making more significant changes is usually a bad idea as it becomes hard to tell what affected the conversion rate and what did not.

If you haven’t run multivariate testing before, it isn’t that hard to get started. I recommend starting out with Google’s free Optimise tool.

To begin all you do is add some Javascript to your website and then the rest is managed through Google’s interface, which is remarkably straightforward to use.

Google Optimise makes multivariate testing easy.

That said, mastering the art of multivariate testing itself is much harder, and it can quickly become frustrating, especially on lower traffic websites. That is because it can be hard to get enough conversions to provide definitive answers about which variation works best.

You can mitigate this problem by limiting the number of variations you test. But that is not particularly desirable as more variations tend to lead to a winner exhibiting a higher level of conversion.

The more variations, the higher the increase in conversion rate.

What you choose to test can help on lower traffic sites. A good rule of thumb is to only test changes that have an immediate and direct impact on conversion. For example, the text on a call to action button is a good thing to test. That will have a much more visible effect on results than testing something more nuanced like headline styling.

Also, think hard about what metric you want to increase when you run your test. Try and pick a metric that relates very closely to the element you are editing.

Imagine you were testing variations of your add to cart button. In this case, you will want to measure the number of clicks on that button, not the number of final orders placed. That way we will get more ‘conversions’ because they are immediate clicks, not an entire checkout process.

If you have a lower traffic website, it can often make sense to test metrics that are not directly related to conversion, as only a fraction of any sites users will convert. Instead, you can use metrics that you know influence conversion but are much more common.

For example, if your analytics have shown you that users who visit a certain page are more likely to convert, you could focus on tests that encourage people to visit that page.

In short, if you have a lower traffic site, there is a lot you can still do with multivariate testing.

But whatever your traffic levels, be careful in your use of multivariate testing. It is a great tool and can prove very seductive. I have encountered companies who end up using multivariate testing for almost every decision.

Multivariate testing is not best suited to resolving creative disputes over whether to use Georgia or Helvetica. Instead focus on testing factors such as:

  • Calls to action.
  • Pricing and offers.
  • Headlines and prominent copy.
  • Imagery.
  • Forms.

That said if you care about conversion rate optimization you have to be using multivariate testing, just as you also need an ongoing program of usability testing.

Create a Culture of Ongoing Usability Testing

I could not write a post on conversion rate optimization without talking about the need for a program of ongoing usability testing. We have already discussed the need for usability testing to identify problems, but it might not have been clear that this needs to be a regular part of day-to-day operations.

Too often companies carry out some usability testing when building a site and then abandon it once the site goes live. That is a huge mistake if you are looking to improve your conversion rate incrementally.

Whenever you make a change to your site, there is a real danger you will introduce a usability hurdle that undermines conversion. Usability testing provides the opportunity to spot and fix these issues before they have too significant an impact. But more than that, ongoing usability testing allows you to gradually chip away at the points of friction on your site.

My recommendation is to schedule one morning a month where you always do usability testing with just three participants. By only testing with three people you keep it lightweight and ensure you can fit it into a morning.

Once the sessions are complete, meet over lunch to discuss what you have learned and use that to plan some possible fixes that you can validate through multivariate testing.

But in-between these monthly sessions I also recommend more regular spontaneous testing using colleagues or people recruited via social media or services like I can guarantee it will be effort well spent.

Conversion rate optimization is a combination of methodology and instinct

As I said earlier, conversion rate optimization is a combination of methodology and instinct. As with so much, the devil is in the detail, and there is only so much I can cover even in a 5500-word blog post! But hopefully, I have given you enough to point you in the right direction. If not you can always hire me to help you out!