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20 silver bullets for site optimization

Jim Sterne is a prolific author on Web metrics and the organizer of the well-respected Web Analytics Conference held each June in Santa Barbara. Jim is a well-known speaker who used this session to explain his top tips for helping your Web site meet its goals. I had heard a lot about Jim but this was my first time hearing him speak—he is both wise and entertaining. I thought that I wrote down all 20, but I missed a couple—sorry.


Jim explained each of the 20 silver bullets:

  1. Start with your site’s goals. In many ways this is the key bullet—it won’t matter what else you do if you don’t understand the purpose of your Web site. Is it online sales? Offline sales? Leads? Signing up volunteers for your charity? Donations? If you know what you want your visitors to do, then you can start the process of optimization.
  2. Focus on the buying process, not the selling process. Stop thinking about the sales process and start thinking about things from your customer’s perspective. If you take your visitors’ point of view, then you will more easily pesuade them to do what you want.
  3. Create personas. Use personas of your customers—specific personalities that are archetypes of your real customers (your most profitable customers, preferably). Think about your Web site one person at a time—each of them has a task or a goal to accomplish. Their expectations are set by Amazon and Dell and other companies that really do a good job meeting visitor needs. That’s what you need to live up to.
  4. Be a customer. Try using your own Web site using mystery shopper techniques. Send in an e-mail on the contact form. What music is playing when you’re on hold? You’d be surprised what you find that you were completely unaware of.
  5. Get organized. Who’s responsible? Who is literally responsible for every part (even every page) of your site? You need to know who is accountable for everything you do so that you know who to ask to fix things that are wrong. You probably have several different functions you need accountability for:
    • Content: Corporate Communications handles company history, HR handles jobs, marketing handles press releases/trade shows/white papers, product management handles all product-related information, and customer service people handle problems.
    • Design: Designers and Information Architects should handle all of this, but do they or is your company not so well-organized?
    • Technology: Your IT department and your hosting company handle this, but the browser wars are back! IE vs. Firefox, yes, but PDAs, cell phones, Blackberry—do all these devices work on your site?
    • Schedule: It might be a project manager or maybe its your Webmaster, but someone is in charge of keeping your projects running on time. Who is it?
  6. Define a process. Someone must know how the site can be updated and be responsible for getting it done.
  7. Make it functional. Forbid flash. People will spend only so much time on your Web site. IBM has an especially good 404 page because it apologizes for the error and helps you get where you’re going—you should do that, too. Do usability testing and make sure that your customers can do what they want. If you think you can’t afford expensive testing, just pick out a few people from outside your company and set them loose on your site.
  8. Offer a site map and site search. They are essential, and they must be done well. (How about checking to see what people are clicking on from the site map and putting that at the top or making it part of the main navigation?) Boring is better—sacrifice everything for clarity.
  9. Trim the trail. Kinko’s shortened their navigation process and raised conversions by 25%. Is yours too hard to follow?
  10. Crisp up the copy. Describe what you do in clear terms. Don’t take the paper copy and put it on the screen. Short and sweet works on the Web. Personal voice. Liberally sprinkled with calls to action.
  11. Optimize the source of traffic. Test and measure. Over and over again. Go for constant incremental improvement. Amazon says: “Data trumps intuition” Where do visitors come from and do they convert?
  12. Optimize the landing page. Don’t send them to the home page. Use A/B tests to see which versions work better.
  13. Optimize duration and depth. For some sites it’s better to have long duration (like Yahoo! for advertising), but for customer service, longer can be worse.
  14. Optimize the path. Check recency, frequency, and abandonment—increase your offers right before they would normally abandon, but don’t offer the people that you are 98% confident they will purchase anything—they will buy anyway.
  15. Optimize the copy. InterContinental Hotel used to do the big bang—they addressed the surveyed issues, they usability tested, and then they spent $10M and—nothing. They saw no improvement. Then they started to tweak their copy and re-tested and suddenly—$20M in revenue. Analyze the things that people put in their cart and see which ones purchase or abandon and make offers to increase conversions. Don’t overlook the basics.
  16. Optimize the conversion. See when people are abandoning. Are you attracting the wrong customers? Describing your site wrong? Prices too high? Check to see where in the Web site visitors are abandoning and address the problem to increase conversions.
  17. Optimize customer service. This has a huge impact on your brand and should be measured by a lot more than cost avoidance. What do you measure? Are you solving problems? Accurately? Are your customers happy?
  18. Optimize customer satisfaction. Do surveys. IBM has a good survey because it is short and easy to understand and it does a before and after—What are you trying to do (before) and did you accomplish your goal (after). If not, why not? Did they like the product? service? The site? The experience? A great question to put on your survey: If you had a magic wand, what would you do to make the site better?

The 20 silver bullets are all about testing, measuring, and trying something new. Is your Web site about your company or your customer? Jim’s talk was so down-to-earth and practical that I walked out thinking about IBM’s Web site (my day job) and my personal Web site in a new way. If you have a chance to hear Jim speak, do it.

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Mike Moran

Mike Moran is an expert in digital marketing, search technology, social media, text analytics, web personalization, and web metrics, who, as a Certified Speaking Professional, regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide. Mike serves as a senior strategist for Converseon, an AI powered consumer intelligence technology and consulting firm. He is also a senior strategist for SoloSegment, a marketing automation software solutions and services firm. Mike also serves as a member of the Board of Directors of SEMPO. Mike spent 30 years at IBM, rising to Distinguished Engineer, an executive-level technical position. Mike held various roles in his IBM career, including eight years at IBM’s customer-facing website, ibm.com, most recently as the Manager of ibm.com Web Experience, where he led 65 information architects, web designers, webmasters, programmers, and technical architects around the world. Mike's newest book is Outside-In Marketing with world-renowned author James Mathewson. He is co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (with fellow search marketing expert Bill Hunt), now in its Third Edition. Mike is also the author of the acclaimed internet marketing book, Do It Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules, named one of best business books of 2007 by the Miami Herald. Mike founded and writes for Biznology® and writes regularly for other blogs. In addition to Mike’s broad technical background, he holds an Advanced Certificate in Market Management Practice from the Royal UK Charter Institute of Marketing and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He also teaches at Rutgers Business School. He is a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research. Mike worked at ibm.com from 1998 through 2006, pioneering IBM’s successful search marketing program. IBM’s website of over two million pages was a classic “big company” website that has traditionally been difficult to optimize for search marketing. Mike, working with Bill Hunt, developed a strategy for search engine marketing that works for any business, large or small. Moran and Hunt spearheaded IBM’s content improvement that has resulted in dramatic gains in traffic from Google and other internet portals.

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