Online Exclusive: Five Key Elements to Improving Web Site Conversion Rates

The primary focus of search engine optimization professionals is to generate traffic to a Web site. Some SEO professionals are better than others at achieving that goal via higher rankings in search engines for target keyword phrases. Where the ball often gets dropped is once the visitor actually hits the site, and most likely, leaves.

Successful SEO professionals understand the secret is to dial in Web site conversion rates. I’m going to discuss some of the most effective and relatively easy steps to take to maximize conversion on your Web site.

Being a good guy. When I first joined consumer electronics e-retailer (recently purchased by CompUSA) my task was to increase sales via business development and marketing strategies. My background in agency-side search engine marketing made that a relatively easy task. My boss told me that I needed to increase traffic to boost sales via SEO and pay-per-click strategies. I told him that the first thing we needed to do was increase the sales from our existing visitors, as it’s much more cost effective to improve the site’s performance and convert current site visitors than to generate new ones.

My first step was to assess the overall site design and performance. Even with my limited expertise in usability and graphic design, I was able to pinpoint a few critical issues: the home page file size (mostly high-res images) was so large the site took almost 30 seconds to load on a broadband connection. I had the design team optimize many of the images to cut down file size with virtually no degradation of image quality. I did the same thing with the development team: challenging them to clean up the JavaScript and other elements of the code that were slowing down download (and negatively impacting spiderability).

After optimizing the code (and copy), my next step was to bring in usability engineers to conduct a heuristic analysis of the shopping experience. With a relatively low conversion rate, we had nothing to lose by looking for easy design fixes through the shopping and checkout process. A local Portland agency, Tweak Interactive, provided a set of trouble tickets tiered in order of importance. We implemented a majority of the changes within weeks and noticed a slight up tick in conversion that added up to 6- and 7-figure improvements to the bottom line over time.

Soon after, I started up my own SEM agency, Anvil Media, and have serviced hundreds of companies over the years, both business-to-business and business-to-consumer. In that time, I’ve created a checklist of easy fixes that any company can make relatively quickly and affordably to improve Web site conversion rates.

Validation. While it would seem like a no-brainer, very few e-commerce companies have taken advantage of a very simple but effective sales tool: social proof. Originally outlined by Robert Cialdini, the basic concept is that people are more likely to purchase something that everyone else has deemed worthy. By providing a “Best Sellers” or “Recommended Items” list on your Web site, you’re helping save time and make any purchase decision easier for the site visitor. In addition, there are other third party validation techniques that apply to BTB as well as BTC companies: customer/client testimonials, awards and recognition, product or service reviews and case studies/success stories. Every company has a slightly different audience, so it’s important to know what type of content is most compelling to your prospects.

Reciprocity. Remember when banks used to give out free toasters with every new account set up? Promotions are still effective in generating business, even online. The theory here is that by giving away something relatively inexpensive, the recipient is obligated to return the favor (hopefully by purchasing something). Effective Web-based promotions include free trials, demonstrations, downloads, online tools, Webinars and podcasts. Price-based promotions can include free shipping, discounts or rebates and contests. At, we gave away a digital camera regularly to boost the e-mail newsletter subscriber-base, with great success.

Safety. As outlined in Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs,” safety is one of the most basic needs a person can have. Even in our high-tech world, we still need to feel secure. This is especially true when purchasing product online. The best way to create a sense of security is to prominently display the following throughout the shopping and checkout process: industry and security certifications, warranties and guarantees. Providing information on shipping guarantees may seem academic, but many shoppers bail out during the checkout process if they feel the product won’t get to them on time, if at all, and there may not be any recourse.

Communication. Giving the site visitor (prospect or customer) and opportunity to talk with a sales or service representative is crucial. You don’t have to be to integrate slick technologies like push-to-talk, e-mail signup or dynamic contact forms. While at, I used an online survey, developed by i-OP, to determine how visitors were using the current site, what they’d like to see in the future, and how they would like us to talk to them via email. The feedback (500 completed surveys in less than a week) aided in developing an e-mail communication strategy as well as influenced site modifications, which included an e-mail newsletter signup form embedded within the site template.

Measurement. There is no excuse for a company not to have basic a Web analytics platform that provides insight into site traffic patters, referring sites and search phrases, especially since Google offers free Web analytics (via acquisition of Urchin) and free conversion tracking via AdWords (which also can be used to track other campaigns including banners, email and even Yahoo PPC text ads). Web analytics and online conversion tracking are powerful tools that can be used to influences site design and optimization to further improve sales.

While most search engine marketing campaigns can offer a compelling return-on-investment statement, incorporating offline conversion tracking can make those numbers even more compelling. By implementing printable coupons, unique 800 numbers, pay-per-call campaigns, Web-based surveys and loyalty programs, a company can start to tie Web-based marketing initiatives to offline conversions to create an even higher ROI.

Use the above recommendations as a framework for improving your own Web sites conversion rate before focusing on SEM techniques like SEO and PPC to increase traffic. In the end, you’ll generate more revenue from existing traffic, and increase the effectiveness of future marketing efforts.

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