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The Beginner’s Guide to Conversion Rate Optimization
What we mean when we talk about conversion is when a visitor to your website takes an action that you want them to take.
But what does that look like to you? It could be signing up for an email newsletter, creating an account with a login and password, making a purchase, downloading your app, or something else entirely.
Whatever it is you want your visitors to do, this action is what you are going to measure and what you are looking to optimize.
These are concepts and ideas that will come up again and again in this guide, so now is the time to familiarize yourself with them.
The primary button, link or other user interface element that asks the user to take an action that leads to (or towards) a conversion. A “Buy Now” button on Amazon.com, a “Sign Up” button on an email registration field, a “Download Now” on an app landing page are examples of different Calls to Action.
The primary pathway (or flow) of the user experience where visitors complete a conversion. On Amazon.com the funnel may be Home page >search results page >product page >checkout.
The testing of one version of a page or interface element against another version of the same thing. Each element is measured by its effectiveness in comparison to the other. For example, a red button measured in effectiveness to a green button. In A/B testing only one thing is tested at a time.
The testing of multiple variations of many different page elements in various combinations to determine the best performing elements and combinations. For example, a multivariate landing test may test many variations of the pictures, copy, and calls to action used on the page in many combinations to find the best performer.
Here’s an overview of the things you are going to measure in order to gauge your current rate of conversion, identify the trouble spots and design a plan of action. You can get these numbers through Google Analytics, KISSmetrics, or another analytics service of your choosing. The numbers critical to CRO are as follows:
Let’s start with the numbers we’re looking to improve—Conversion Rates
For example, a site with 5000 visitors and 50 conversions has a conversion rate of 1%.
But how long are people spending on your site? Which pages are they visiting while there? This next set of numbers can help you to form some testable hypotheses. Looking at your Bounce and Exit Rates as well as your Engagement Metrics is the first step in making sense of your conversion rate.
Your Bounce Rate is the percentage of people who leave after viewing a single page. A high bounce rate is not a good thing–for whatever reason, people aren’t finding what they’re looking for so they leave almost immediately.
You also have a specific Exit Rate for each page; it’s the percentage of people who leave after viewing the page. Your exit rate lets you know the last page that users view before they move on. A very high exit rate on a specific page can be a red flag.
An Engagement Metric, the Average Time on Site of users gives you a general idea how long people are sticking around. A high bounce rate means a low average time on site—visitors aren’t sticking around long enough to do whatever it is you want them to do.
Similarly, Average Page Views is an Engagement Metric that tells you how many pages the average visitor through before leaving. More page views can mean engagement but also can mean a lack of clarity in your conversion funnel, if there is no conversion.
These are the metrics that matter. Take the example above—the site with 5,000 visitors per month but only 50 conversions could either pat themselves on the back for all those unique visitors or recognize that their conversion rate could be much better than 1% and then work to optimize those numbers.
In the introduction, we touched very briefly on the importance of CRO, but this chapter will go into much more detail regarding all the ways optimization can help you grow your website.
Often times one of the biggest optimization challenges has little to do with the site itself and everything to do with lack of organizational support. Because of this you might find yourself in a situation where you can’t immediately dive in to tackle what you know to be your biggest optimization issue without first making a case for CRO.
Our advice for those in this situation is to start out small—try to run a few surveys or collect feedback that points to potential confusion in your conversion funnel. If you are responsible for updating the site, you can run small scale tests to optimize elements that, while important, are easier to manage and have less attention being paid to them. Work on improving these metrics through surveys and testing–a mini CRO test–so that ultimately you can demonstrate the value of CRO and get your organization on board.
In addition to these convert optimization operations, build team buy-in by doing one or a few of the following:
Once you’ve gathered some convincing data—especially regarding the missed opportunities for conversion from the traffic you’re already paying for—you’ll be sufficiently prepared to argue your case.
No matter how well-designed your site is and no matter how many visitors you’re converting into users,it’s likely you could make the conversion process easier and more painless for them–leading to better results for you.
Spending more on it is not the answer,especially if there are hiccups in your conversion funnel that need to be addressed. CRO works with what you have to help you to identify and deal with those problems first. Tweet this!
It’s not just converting anyone. You are looking for people who will love your product and help your marketing efforts by telling everyone they know how great you are.
CRO capitalizes on traffic you already have. This means you aren’t spending more money getting visitors to your site,just doing a better job of converting them once they get there. Optimization increases the return on your current investments,and converting a higher percentage of your current visitors is much more cost-effective than attracting new ones.
In fact, doubling your conversion rate means halving your cost-per-acquisition (CPA), or how much each new customer costs you.
Not only that,but your profit is intimately tied to your conversion rate. Because you aren’t paying more to acquire these conversions,that profit goes straight to your bottom line. 
More profit means extra money to spend on acquiring new users (plus,you already know where to spend it because you know which funnels are bringing in the rockstar users).
Not only will you earn more,but so will your affiliates—making you more valuable to them (while your competitors become less so).
By giving them what they’re looking for sooner (before they have a chance to find it somewhere else).
Based on the concept of the “slight edge” phenomenon (also known as “the winner takes all” or “the winner takes most”),all you need to be successful is to be slightly better than your competitors. So if you optimize your site to deliver what users want in just a slightly better or faster way, even if it’s just a few seconds faster, they are going to go with you.
It creates a powerful flywheel of momentum that will increase your market share. The better your conversion rate, the more traffic you can afford, the more customers you get and so on. You’re dominating your market before you know it. 
Let’s start with those basic metrics we discussed briefly in Chapter 1. We defined conversion rate as the total number of conversions divided by the number of visitors to your site.
But are we talking Total Visitors or Unique Visitors?
You operate a brick-and-mortar storefront and a customer comes in to check out one of your products. The clerk does a good job, and she seems pleased with the quality. She gets an important phone call, however, so she goes outside to take it. Or she forgets her wallet in her car. Or she goes to the shop down the street to see how their product compares.
She may eventually come back to your store and each time she does so counts as a single visit. If she stops in three times, she’s made three visits. She is, of course, still the same person–one unique visitor making three visits back to the store.
They sometimes look around a bit, they often get distracted and check out the competition. And just like it wouldn’t make sense for a salesclerk in the above scenario to be reprimanded for not making a sale during each of the customer’s several visits, online stores shouldn’t expect to make a sale for each visitor represented by the Total Visitor count.
For this reason, many people choose to use Unique Visitors when determining their Conversion Rate. But whatever metric you ultimately decide on, consistency is key. It you decide Total Visitors gives a more accurate measure of your conversion rate, be sure to use it consistently or your trends will be off.
But there is a caveat: Currently “uniqueness” is measured by setting a persistent cookie, which isn’t perfect or always reliable. 
You must also determine what time period you want to use in determining your Conversion Rate. Again, consistency is key here. Dividing a week’s Unique Visitors by the number of people who converted that week, and you’ve got that week’s (or day’s, or month’s) conversion rate. It’s not a good idea to add up daily unique visitors to make up a week or month. 
Now that you know your current Conversion Rate, you can begin looking for barriers in your Conversion Funnel.
As we discussed in Chapter 1, at its most basic level Conversion Rate Optimization is simply finding out why visitors aren’t converting and fixing it. Rather than a series of guesses and hunches, CRO is a “process of diagnosis, hypothesis and testing”.
Any CRO strategy should begin with you putting yourself in your visitors’ shoes and looking closely at your site—specifically your Conversion Funnel. Where are the confusing or difficult points? These are the barriers standing in your visitors’ path to conversion.
But this list is by no means comprehensive; and what succeeds for one site might actually hurt the user experience (and therefore conversion rate) on another. This is because each site has its own unique mission, strengths and challenges. You may read reports of amazing success from changing button colors but it’s important to realize that generalized tweaks like this don’t resolve more serious problems like the ones listed above.
Barriers in your Conversion Funnel will still exist, and there’s only so much you and your team can do to identify them. Ultimately, you will have to reach out to your users and ask them what about your site isn’t working (more on that in Chapter 5).
When it comes to constructing a Conversion Rate Optimization Plan, people typically take one of two approaches: applying popular Conversion Rate Optimization tactics or building a Conversion Rate Optimization plan.
For example, a new source of traffic is added to a test page and the conversion rates drop. If you are working from a set list of optimization tactics, you immediately begin tweaking page elements in search of “fix.” Conversely, when working from a strategic optimization plan, your first action is to attempt to figure why those numbers changed. Do the needs of this new traffic source differ from those of your established sources? If so, how? These questions are then followed by tests that attempt to answer them or, at the very least, help determine which tests to run next.
When you implement a conversion strategy, you do so knowing that a single tweak won’t fix all your website’s problems. You understand that even if a test fails to support your original hypothesis, the knowledge gained from the test still contributes to growing, changing understanding of how you can better serve your users.
So, now that you understand the importance of having a strategic Conversion Optimization plan, let’s discuss how to go about constructing that plan. We’ve chosen to divide this planning into “phases” rather than “steps” in order to emphasize the circular nature of a sound optimization strategy. Rather than thinking of these phases as a strict progression from one to the next, keep in mind that you will revisit each one in order to continually address the needs of your users over time.
We’ve already covered the importance of identifying what “conversion” means to you, but we’ll restate it again because it’s that important. Before beginning any optimization strategy, you have to know what you’re measuring and attempting to optimize. It’s also important to understand what drives these conversions.
You run a wedding planning business, and you have a form on your website that allows visitors to schedule a free fifteen minute video consultation. This is the conversion you want to measure and optimize.
But what drives this conversion? Testimonials from happy customers? Adspace on wedding blogs? Large photo galleries showcasing weddings you’ve coordinated?
It could be each of these things, or something else entirely. The only way you’ll know is to isolate each variable on its own and measure how users behave under each set of circumstances.
Here is what a test plan for your wedding website might look like:
You will do this for each variable you want to better understand.
As we’ve discussed throughout this guide, a sound conversion strategy is based on some important metrics and tons of user input. But in order to work from that information, first you need to understand where you’re starting from. This is called your baseline. Only by establishing your current performance can you measure the changes you make to find improvement.
You won’t know if your optimizations actually improve unless you have numbers to compare them to. To establish your baseline for comparison, you will…
Your basic toolbox will include:
Software to track and report on what’s happening on your site day in and day out. You want an analytics package such as Google Analytics, KISSMetrics or similar that has advanced analysis tools like audience segmentation and conversion tracking. Segmentation can produce data for different sets of people and you can isolate hiccups or trouble spots in your conversion funnel.
Analytics can only communicate so much about your users’ needs; you need something that gives you the ability to gain insights directly from users in the moment, to hear their concerns in their own words; there is no such thing as too much user feedback.
Software like Optimizely and other testing tools allow you to directly observe how users are interacting with your site. You can test potential changes and document how they play out in real life.
You now have the baseline against which all future changes will be measured. Whenever you alter something, compare performance before and after. How have your metrics changed? Your survey results? The ways in which users interact with your site? This is how you figure out if you make things better or worse.
Now it’s time to look at the baseline we established in the previous phase and identify your biggest barriers to conversion. What you want to do is identify the problem areas, implement those tools we just talked about to investigate, and then design some potential tests.
Via your analytics tool, you learn that the bounce rate for your wedding planning website is on the rise, so you use the page report feature to isolate it to your photo gallery—a popular but clearly under-optimized page. At this point, you might decide to implement an on-page survey on that page in particular asking users what they’re looking for and whether they were able to find it. You could also run some user tests to see what people are doing while there. You could install CrazyEgg to see where people people are clicking, or how far they’re scrolling on the page. Additionally, you could ask a few of your customers at the store to look at the page and watch them try to navigate through it.
Take the information you get from testing and user surveying, and use it to form a hypothesis that attempts to explain why no one is sticking around on that page. Next, come up with some alternate versions of the photo gallery page.
This leads us to the next phase.
In this phase you’re going to take everything you’ve learned so far and design a test strategy. Start by making a list of your priorities. Which points of concern come up again and again in user surveys? What seem to be your sites biggest issues, and which ones do you need to address first?
Above all else, it’s important to be methodical here. Double and triple check your numbers and and keep a written record of absolutely everything. Tweet this!
Here are a few points to consider when designing your test…
You believe the high bounce rate on the gallery page of your wedding planning website results from a lack of contact and brand information on this page. This page gets a lot of hits from external sources like Pinterest and wedding blogs, many of whom skim your photos and then leave unaware of the services you offer.
You decide to create an alternate version of the photo gallery page, adding a banner that reads, “Planning a wedding? I’d love to help. Click to schedule your free consultation,” sending them to your standard contact form.
You will measure success against the baseline you established in Phase 2. The data resulting from your test, when compared to your baseline, will tell you where to go from here.
If this test was a success, then great. Now, you can either cross this concern off your list and move on to the next one or continue refining and re-testing this page, making it as awesome as possible.
If this test wasn’t a success, don’t be discouraged. All this means is that it’s time to go back to Phase 4, reexamine the data and design a new test. You learn as much from a negative outcome as you do from a positive outcome.
Keep in mind…
Regardless of the outcome of your initial round of testing, you should think of optimization not as an end goal but as an ongoing process. Because the way we do business is always evolving and customers’ needs change over time, you will never reach the point where you’ve run “enough” tests.
When you’ve improved a specific sticking point in your user experience, pat yourself on the back for a job well done and then go back to Phase 3 and ask yourself what else can be improved upon.
At various points so far in this guide we’ve touched on the many Conversion Rate Optimization myths. In this chapter, however, we’re going to discuss them in a bit more detail.
By this point, you should get that this is NOT what Optimization is about but we’re mentioning it again because this myth is so pervasive. If you have a low conversion rate, you can be sure it’s not because your buttons are the wrong color or your call to action is blue instead of red. Making little tweaks like this might result in slightly higher conversions but they don’t remove the true barriers to conversion, such as:
And on and on …
You get the picture. The barriers to conversion are seemingly endless and each one has a distinct solution that almost certainly doesn’t involve changing button colors. You can’t truly ascertain what your site’s biggest barriers to conversion are without rolling up your sleeves, running some tests and putting yourself in your users’ shoes.
Variations of this myth include:
Anyone who tells you that you optimization is all about guesswork and gut feelings is probably operating under the illusion of this myth. As we’ve discussed again and again in this guide,a strategic approach is essential to any optimization plan.
While hunches can be important steps in the formation of hypotheses,you have no way of knowing whether those hypotheses are correct unless you have some way to gauge two things:the importance of the page or element to the user in their decision-making,and the user response to the change.
Analytics are an important piece to this puzzle but we also can’t overstate the importance of user surveys and testing.
Variations of this myth include:
We briefly discussed this as it applies to landing pages in Chapter 6, but this myth is cited in reference to any optimization efforts you might be undertaking. Keep in mind, however, the users who are genuinely interested in whatever you’re offering are likely to want more information. They will read and they will scroll…
But it’s your job to meet them halfway. Make your copy as clear,succinct,and engaging as you can—without cutting essential information. Make your page as uncluttered and easy to navigate as possible.
For example, if you’re cutting, splicing and jamming together five pages worth of copy because you read somewhere that you have to keep everything “above the fold,” your user is going to be infinitely more frustrated than if he or she simply had to do a little scrolling.
Variations of this myth include:
This myth is similar to #2 in that it relies on something other than actual data to dictate an optimization plan,which—you guessed it—is the real problem here. Maybe you’ll see an increase in conversions if you copy a successful website,maybe you won’t. If you do,it’s likely because in doing so you inadvertently removed a barrier to conversion of which you were unaware.
Not only that,but ripping off someone’s design is beyond lame. These changes are merely cosmetic. They don’t begin to address the other,deeper issues that might be hurting your conversion rate—like inappropriate keywords,user concern regarding your site’s security,and so on.
The only way you’ll uncover and remove these obstacles is to stop guessing and take a hard look at your site’s stats via analytics, user survey and user testing.
Yes, optimizing conversion is important—after all, that’s what this whole guide is about. But it’s also important to understand that for many visitors conversion is a process. You can show them how conversion will benefit them and remove the barriers standing in their way but ultimately they have to take that final leap.
Your goal is not to manipulate users into converting whether your product or service is right for them or not. You want to convert engaged users who will love what you have to offer and help your business to grow by telling their friends all about you.
This means you should pay attention to other meaningful metrics in addition to your conversion rate. For example, your Visitor Recency (how long between visits) and Visitor Loyalty (how frequently people visit) can give you some ideas about how engaged your users are, as well as help you figure out how to better foster this engagement.  You can find frequency and recency reports in Google Analytics under Behavior > Frequency & Recency.
Surveys also come in handy here. If your customer satisfaction metrics and Net Promoter Score® are low, you can dig into those responses to see if the user’s expectations are misaligned with your offer. If you find that you have the wrong people buying your product, you’ll want to reevaluate the traffic sources and ads that are sending visitors to your site.
This list is by no means exhaustive and as CRO gains traction you can be sure these myths and more like them will continue to circulate. However, the one thing to keep in mind is this: any tip, trick or hack that promises quick gains without taking into consideration your unique circumstances, mission and metrics is probably too good to be true. Remember, real optimization requires you to roll up your sleeves and figure out what’s right for your site.
Whether you are developing a new product or have been selling the same one for years, you need user feedback.
With a 30% or higher response rate, every product owner should be asking their customers these questions.
The question with surveys, as with any other marketing effort, is how do you use surveys to drive the performance of your website, and ultimately, your business?