Conversion Optimization by the Book

When I told Rosie that our website’s traffic went up 62% in a week, she said, “That just means our conversion rate went down.”

She has a point. I’ve just had the opportunity to review two books on conversion optimization, and while I certainly have conversion in mind whenever I work on a site, I’m looking at the subject differently after having read these books.

The first book is Convert!: Designing Web Sites to Increase Traffic and Conversion by Ben Hunt. Hunt says that the usual approach to SEO figures you should get as much traffic as possible to your website, and then consider how to get them to buy once they get there.

While I would amend it to “qualified traffic,” he has a point. We tend to think in terms of organic search bringing visitors to the homepage, where we meet them with a good call to action and a clear path to conversion. Hunt wants us instead to think about all the different paths a visitor might take that would lead him or her to buy things, meet them where they are with multiple intentional landing pages, and then move them from the landing pages to a sales page. He has some snazzy diagrams showing the difference — essentially, the first approach takes homepage visitors out to various pages and then to a sales page, while Hunt’s approach brings people from many landing pages to the sales page.

Granted, we know that there are many potential landing pages, but for most sites the home page is the number one landing page. We’re leaving money on the table, according to Hunt.

Hunt gives strategies for bringing traffic to those multiple landing pages and then for moving the visitors to the sales pages where you get their attention, engage them, and call them to action (the good old AIDA formula, essentially). Along the way, there’s lots of very practical information about SEO and design, case studies, and illustrative screen shots.

Hunt assumes you’re working with professionals, so this book is about marketing, not about design, and doesn’t expect a great deal of technical background. It’s a comfortable read for businesspeople, and has a lively voice that should make it enjoyable. I think that people who follow this advice should see results.

Conversion Optimization: The Art and Science of Converting Prospects to Customers by Khalid Saleh and Ayat Shukairy is the second book on the subject.The authors are the founders of Invesp, a conversion optimization firm with a high-powered client list. They share and lead the reader through the whole process: understanding your site’s current performance, understanding your customers or the customers you want, developing strategies for increasing trust and offering incentives, making and testing changes at your website, and continuing the cycle for ongoing improvement.

Each step is presented and supported with a wealth of detail and there are very specific instructions for researching your situation, determining a strategy, and testing the strategy’s effectiveness. The book is definitely directed toward marketers, not toward web designers.

The book contains case studies and screen shots, as well as lots of online resources (the tools for determining whether your improvements are statistically significant were new to me, and I’m very glad to know about them). Terminology and concepts are clearly explained, and no technical background is assumed. I think that people who are ill at ease with math and data won’t enjoy this book as much as I did, and I can imagine people finding the vocabulary daunting.

If Hunt, Saleh, and Shukairy got together over coffee and had a chat on the subject, I doubt they’d be in disagreement about anything fundamental. Yet the two books are quite different.

One important difference is merely in scale. Hunt’s examples include a freelance scribe and a natural health clinic; Saleh and Shukairy speak lightly of marketing campaigns costing $60,000 or more and when it’s okay for them just to break even. Naturally, strategies that are very appropriate for YouTube and Best Buy (among the client case studies in the Invesp book) will not always be practical for a small local business.

Another difference is in the depth of the discussion. The two books have about the same number of pages, but Saleh and Shukairy go into great detail about things like key performance indicators, financial matters such as calculating the lifetime value of a customer and determining the resources available for site testing, and how to use internal metrics to measure effectiveness of campaigns. Hunt has a lot more narrative (and a larger font) and offers more tips and tricks.

The temptation is to say that Hunt is the book for a small business owner without a lot of technical background who wants to get some ideas to present to hired web pros, while Saleh and Shukairy are speaking to marketing professionals who want to liaise better with the digital media department.

I don’t think that really covers it, though. You might also read Convert! to get you thinking in a new way about online marketing, and then work through Conversion Optimization step by step (adapting to your scale if you’re not a big company) with your web pros to uncover actionable truths about your site.

Or you could use Convert! in your undergraduate web design courses and Conversion Optimization in the graduate level class.

If online marketing is important to you, you should probably own both of these books. I learned things from both — I’d say that they confirmed our approach as a company to strategy for our clients, but pointed out some areas where we aren’t practicing what we preach as a business. I also have some new places to look when we aren’t sure why we’re getting the results we see and some new examples to share with clients.

Really, I’d like to set up a study group for the summer where we read a chapter of each book each week and meet to discuss them and figure out how to apply them. We might just do that internally, but let me know if you want to join in. 😉

In the absence of a book club, they’re both worth having on your shelf.

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