Saturday, January 15, 2011

5 simple ideas for improving your website’s conversion

The average varies depending on who you talk to (and choose to believe) but the general consensus is that most websites convert about 1-2% of the people that visit it. So typically, 98-99% of people who find your website are leaving empty handed.

Therefore, the opportunity to convert and acquire more online customers is there. If implementing even one of these ideas increases your conversion rate by a small percentage, you’ll be making more money.

After getting visitors to your site, this has to be the most important ongoing activity for any ecommerce marketer.

At worst, the conversion rate on my website was under 1%. With careful optimisation, this is now at over 2% - still room for improvement, you'll agree. These five ideas helped me to turn around my own site's performance and should give you some food for thought for your own. If you want to see the list up front, here goes:

1. Find out where people leave
2. Talk to your customers… constantly
3. Always be testing
4. Settle shopping cart nerves
5. Focus on quality, not quantity

1. Find out where people leave
The first stage in any audit of your visitor’s behaviour is to find out where they leave the website. If you can narrow this down, you can start implementing tactics for making them stay... and making them buy stuff.

If your website is appropriately structured, you can use your analytics package to find out where most people leave. If you use Google Analytics, this is expressed as % exit. Locate the pages with the highest % exit rate and you’ll identify where people are leaving.

Simplistically speaking, there are generally three places where your visitors will leave:

1. Before the product page
2. The product page
3. The shopping cart

If visitors are leaving before they even reach the product page then it’s likely you’ve got a problem with navigation, search or credibility. We’ll look at product pages and the shopping cart in separate articles.

Navigation on some websites can be a labourious and illogical process. Some websites attempt to include every possible category in all number of navigation bars. Whereas the popular opinion is that customers want choice, and in most cases they do, it’s been found that too much choice doesn’t lead to sales.

An experiment in the paper When Choice is Demotivating, by Sheena S. Iyengar and Mark R. Lepper found that:

“…people are more likely to purchase exotic jams or gourmet chocolates, and undertake optional class essay assignments, when offered a limited array of 6 choices rather than an extensive array of 24 or 30 choices. Moreover, participants actually reported greater subsequent satisfaction with their selections and wrote better essays when their original set of options had been restricted rather than expanded.”

You can read more about this experiment here.

So I recommend that you use your primary navigation bar to display the key categories or areas of your website. From the homepage, you should aim to get your visitors to a product page within three clicks, ideally two. does this very well, with clear categories in the main horizontal navigation bar and keyword rich drop-downs on mouse-over. When through to a category page, deeper navigation is presented in a vertical navigation bar on the left hand side. This makes navigation logical and easy to move around the site.
Getting to a product page should be easy and if you land on the homepage, you’re only two clicks away from viewing a product.

Conversely, could take some tips from John Lewis. Despite having some neat features on their site, navigation isn’t one of them. If I landed on the homepage and wanted to buy some bagels, I’m at least four clicks away:

Home > (Food & Drink) Buy Groceries > Bakery > Rolls, Wraps, Bagels & Pitta > Bagels

With thin horizontal navigation bars using a cluttered bold font in a reasonably small size, the experience of getting to your product is difficult and laboured.
The alternative to finding your products through navigation is going direct to the search box. This is often an underused facility on websites that can be optimized to convert visitors. If your search is well designed, you can also use it as a tool to upsell other products to customers. Internal search is such an extensive and important subject that it deserves its own article and something I will write in due course.

As it’s the first thing many visitors will look for on your site, the search box should be easy to find. Above the fold and close to your main navigation are rules to follow, with most websites opting for top right.

The results page will either present users with what they want or leave them frustrated. We’ll come to the latter shortly, however even if your search algorithm is technically sound and presents accurate results, there are things you can do to improve the user’s experience.

Think about how much information you should display and whether to list lots of potential results or whether to list fewer and go into more detail. This will be dependent on the number of products your website has and also the variety of these products. If you sell a number of similar products, you may want to differentiate them by adding more detail to the search results, like product size, release date or colour.

You can take this one step further by categorising results and enable users to filter them for relevance. This then empowers users to take a broad search term and then whittle down results to get more accurate results. Here you can offer refinement by size, colour, availability, price etc.

One feature that has worked well for me is to include buy buttons in search results. Quite often, users that search directly for a product have made the decision to buy, so directing them to the product page is just another unwanted click. It also takes advantage of their impulse to buy and gives them fewer chances to drop out.

Don’t leave the page blank. There’s nothing worse than seeing an empty page with the message ‘sorry, your search produced no results, please search again.’ With this message, you’re effectively telling your users that they’ve done something wrong, rather than the website not behaving as it should. Now the likelihood is that the user did do something wrong and your website is working as it should; however that old adage of the customer always being right is a good one to adopt here.

If the keywords used in the search term produce no results, by all means suggest trying another search but use it as an opportunity. Take the initiative and offer other suggestions, presenting them with ideas, including potential misspellings.

Credibility is more than having a flashy, user-tested website designed by a top agency. It’s about reassurance. When someone visits your website, they want to be filled with the confidence that you’re an experienced business and that they’re not the first person to buy from there. They need the reassurance that their transaction will be safe. They need reassurance that they are going to get what they pay for. can be used as a great example of this. This site contravenes all the laws of website design, yet it works (why is altogether another blog post!). Outside of the flashing images and humourous text, the site does a good job of convincing users of its credibility. Above the fold, visitors can read that this isn’t a joke:

- You can trust me!... In 2009 I rented over £35million of cars (at RRP)
- Highly Approved Trader badge
- Security badge
- SSL badge
 During the order stage, there are further statements about data protection and security, alongside customer testimonials and other reassurance statements.

All of this gives the website credibility and persuades visitors to convert.

2. Talk to your customers… constantly
It sounds obvious, but the only way you’re truly going to find out why 99% of your visitors leave your site without buying is to talk to them. If there’s only one thing that you take away from reading this, it should be this.

You can talk to everyone on your site:

- Visitors who browse the site and then leave
- Visitors that click add to cart and then leave without paying through to those that buy.

This helps to fine-tune each stage of the journey. And the best thing is, visitors are happy to talk to you.

It’s obviously easier to target and interact with people when you have their details, however you can get feedback from all visitors. The easiest way to do this is to set up short surveys for anyone to complete and then advertise these on your site. I’ll cover writing effective surveys in a separate blog post (update: customer survey writing tips here), however the key questions to ask are: did you buy here and if not, why not.

To enable this, you can sign up with an online survey company, like, which allows you to collate and analyse all responses in quite some detail. You can link to these surveys in order confirmations as well as customer service e-mails.

There are a number of companies that offer services that target visitors who abandon their cart or register and don’t buy. These can be expensive but provide great opportunities to understand your customers better.

3. Always be testing
The beauty of ecommerce is that you can make changes and see how it affects consumer behaviour instantly. A/B testing gives you the opportunity to test variations of the same thing to see what produces the best results in order to optimize your website to its full potential.

Therefore, if you’d like to test the colour of your add-to-cart button to see which one converts best, A/B testing can split visitors into equal groups and serve the different coloured buttons to each one. After time, you can check the stats to see which performed the best and then implemented it permanently.

There’s no limit to what you can test, from landing pages, button size and colour, to images and offers in the cart. Remember that you can continue to test the changes that you’ve made

I borrowed the title for this idea from this book, which is well worth a read if you want to learn more on testing with your website.

4. Settle shopping cart nerves
After clicking the buy button and now sitting safely in the cart, customers will continue to have questions. A common misconception in web design is that the decision to buy a product is made solely on the product page. It’s not; it’s often made long before landing on the product page.

The shopping cart is often the time that shoppers start questioning the credentials of your site.

- Is this a reputable business?
- Are my details safe?
- When will I get the goods?
- How much is shipping?
- How long will it take me to checkout?
- Etc.

Therefore, the shopping cart should answer these questions and settle the nerves. This is easier for the bigger brands that have built up reputations. One site that does this well is, which does a good job of answering the key questions.
The majority of questions that a shopper might have are answered here. There's even a list on the right hand side, detailing 5 Reasons To Shop With Us, above a trust seal. At the top of the page in red, there is a message designed to manage customer's expectations about shopping, which gives customer's confidence and the company a transparent image. Beneath this is a line that encourages you to call their customer services team if you have any questions. By the proceed to checkout button are icons that detail the ways you can pay, which further establishes trust and confidence.

Interestingly, apart from the red shipping message and trust seal, these payment methods represent the only colour used in the checkout. I imagine that this is designed to draw customer's eyes to the key elements that will settle a shopper's nerves and aid conversion. Whether they should add colour to the proceed to checkout button is another question.

5. Focus on quality not quantity
You can spend time and money focusing on increasing your traffic but if they’re never going to buy, then you’re wasting your time. Traffic may go up, but conversion will go down. It may sound obvious, but unless you focus on quality traffic you’re never going to attract the visitors that will spend money on your site.

Because Google rewards websites with more (quality) inbound links, the focus for many marketers has been to build up as many as possible. The downside to this strategy is that a focus on quality, targeted traffic can pay the price.

Instead of settling on a catch-all policy, identify your top targets to develop relationships with and aim towards achieving regular links with them. Position your relationship as a partnership; suggest mutual links and you’ll be treated more seriously than the plethora of companies that send mass template e-mails on behalf of their clients. There’s a blog post here about writing influential e-mails that can help you with this.