Advancing from SEO to CRO: Using AB Testing to Maximize Conversions

by Jason Acidre on September 17, 2012 · 23 comments · Conversion, Search


This entry is a guest post by Nick Eubanks, the VP of Digital Strategy at W.L. Snook and Associates, Inc. You can follow him on Twitter: @nick_eubanks

SEO moves fast.

I realize this contradicts the fact that SEO is a marathon and not a sprint, however I’m not talking about the process or the results, but the industry…

In a recent post by Matt Beswick he compares SEO to “trying to build a house in a fault zone,” and specifically that “by the time you have laid down the foundation, the gound underneath may have shifted.”

I know often times SEO’s focus on the on-page factors before jumping into link building, but there is usually a lot of money conversion left on the table.

Even when you have maxed out your on-page optimization efforts, there is always room to improve the experience and the focus of your content to drive more conversions.

As I showed in my post last week, in many cases non-branded search (earned organic traffic) often accounts for more transactions and drives significantly more revenue. Which means if you are acquiring the organic visitor and not converting them, you just missed a layup.

Optimizing For Conversion

I have always been a firm believer that the job of the SEO is to acquire targeted traffic to the right pages via search engines. In this same vein the job of the CRO is to constantly analyze page analytics and user heuristics to gather data use to inform changes that will increase conversion rates.

There is a lot of overlap between SEO and CRO.

I realize I sound like a broken record, but for a campaign to be successful it needs to close the loop from query to conversion, meeting user expectations and conversion requirements to nurture each prospect all the way through the funnel.

Once on-page SEO has been maxed out, optimization doesn’t stop, but moves into the next stage of the lifecycle; conversion rate optimization. Now that you know how to acquire new visitors (and hopefully are diversifying your inbound traffic channels) it’s time to find out what triggers the emotions that will drive conversion.

The Power of Split Testing

Even if you start small, you need to begin thinking about all the known unknowns.

The fact of the matter is that you may know your customer profile; their pain points, their business cycles, and what they need, but this isn’t enough. You need to accept that 1) you are not your customer, and 2) you don’t know what resonates with them personally.

This is the true power of testing for conversions… it takes the guesswork out of identifying the emotional triggers needed to generate your target conversions, and it all starts with a simple hypothesis.

For example, on one of my projects our target conversion was to have users submit content in the form of a review. We were getting decent traffic to the conversion form page but our conversion rate was abysmal… around 8.25% when we first started.

This may not seem like a low conversion rate, however, our traffic is so highly targeted and qualified that by the time they get to the conversion page there is really no reason for them not to convert; there is no sign-up, cost, or any other impedance that should cause them to bounce, or so we thought.

One of the greatest challenges was to think of what we might be doing wrong, and how we could test these ideas to confirm or deny if any of them were impeding our conversions…

Hello reference cases.

Thanks in huge part to one of the investors on the project for being savvy at, well, being an investor; he knew that re-inventing the wheel would cost more money and worse off, more time, with the opportunity cost being the content we were so desperately after.

What he recommended was that we look at commercially successful websites not necessarily within our industry but that had similar target conversions or conversion paths. He wanted my team and I to scrutinize these reference cases to discern any nuances, no matter how slight.

Here is one of the reference case boards:

The result was a laundry list of items to test.

One of the first differences I noticed was that on one of the major review websites who used a dedicated form like we did to gather user-generated content, they removed all additional page elements that may cause the user to be distracted or leave the page without converting…

So we decided to test this, very simply, by removing all page elements that were not required to create the conversion, including the main navigation.

AB Testing Results

This test resulted in a 63% increase in conversion rate, taking it to 13.44%.

I immediately realized the power of small tests and taking nothing for granted; I was never so happy to begin identifying elements of the site that maybe were sub-par…

The next observation we noticed and decided to test was the addition of social proof, so we added in some recent reviews from other users…

Again, we saw a massive increase in our conversion rate, to the tune of 105%; we were now converting 28.25% of visitors to our conversion form. For more details on recent split tests I have worked on and their actual results, check out my June presentation for Shame On UX.

If you are beginning to salivate at the opportunities that are probably sitting right in front of you take some time and go check out recent results from other people splits tests over at abtests.com

Size Matters

In a very useful study by EricGraham, he looks at a number of major conversion elements when it comes to links and buttons.

This test identifies that conversion rates increase when link behavior provides not only primary link feedback (color change or cursor change) but secondary link feedback (having both color change and cursor change).. he then took this a step further and tested the size of the text.

I found this very interesting because for a long time now I wondered why Woot.com used such a “stupidly large button,” (see image below) but based on these findings and the fact that woot.com is in the Alexa Top 1,000, I imagine this was exhaustively tested.

The Shift From SEO to CRO

If you are a pure-play SEO the idea of using data to design, implement, and analyze tests may seem like a big shift but consider the following:

  1. You most likely already use data to drive your SEO strategies
  2. You’re already using analytics to measure the impact of your optimization campaigns, you have the data you need to measure lift in conversions
  3. Using test results allows you to better inform personas and keyword targeting
  4. You are already an analyst; you are already doing this kind of analysis.

Here’s your action plan to begin shifting your thinking, and more importantly, your doing:

  1. Find a place that you have to look at everyday while you work; a whiteboard, your cube wall, or a whole wall in your office (that’s what we did).
  2. Segment your business or website into categories, starting at the highest level. For example if you sell phone accessories for cars your taxonomy would look like this: automotive > automotive accessories > electronic accessories > mobile phone > accessories.
  3. Identify 10 websites within each category and subcategory that represent the ‘best in class,’ both in terms of revenue (where available) and visitors
  4. Spend time on these sites and take a screenshot of each interface that drives toward conversion starting either with a top-level landing page or the homepage
  5. Take an hour out of every day and glance over your reference cases, look for patterns. After time you will begin to notice things like colors, white space, placement of call to action, supporting content, etc.
  6. Keep a list on a whiteboard, notebook, or your phone of ideas for tests as they come to you.
  7. Try to rank these tests based on your gut-feeling for which may have the greatest impact on conversions.
  8. Start testing. To get started for free you should take a look at Google Content Experiments.

If this post meant something to you… if it inspired you, please send me a quick note on twitter. I am also happy to help you get started and answer any questions you may have, at absolutely no cost, just because I love testing – and can’t get enough of it.

Thanks for reading.

If you liked this post, you can subscribe to my feed (Kaiserthesage) and follow Nick on Twitter and Google+.

Jason Acidre

Jason Acidre is Co-Founder and CEO of Xight Interactive, marketing consultant for Affilorama and Traffic Travis, and also the sole author of this SEO blog. You can follow him on Twitter @jasonacidre and on Google+.

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