Friday, 24 October 2008

SEO and CRO - a marriage made in hell?

There seems to be a bit of noise surrounding the impact of Conversion Rate Optimization activity (CRO, MVT, AB testing etc) upon Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Basically the idea runs that if your rendering test variant content on a page during a test that doesn't always contain the keywords that promote or sustain your websites search rankings then the impact can be a negative effect on your SEO activity.

It seems it depends entirely upon your choice of test tool and experiment implementation methodology. With the exception of SiteSpect most CRO testing tools employ JavaScript in some means to render the test on the page which means that search engines robots and crawlers don't get to index the test content, they fall through into your default content. Apparently the good people at Google et al want their indexers to be part of the test.

From our own experience of conducting MVT and AB testing, which incidentally involves using a tool that employs the JavaScript method for content rendering, we've understandably had a degree of pressure from our SEO colleagues to minimize impact on their area during the course of the test. So we've arrived at a process that helps everyone, more or less. During the early part of our MVT tests we exclude all our search traffic, both paid and unpaid. We do this by looking for specific URL parameters that identify search traffic during the test page load event. If the visitor is classed as search traffic they fall through the test and are presented with the default (non-test) page content, as are the search engine indexing agents. We monitor the test variant performances and after a week or so (given enough traffic) we cull out the variants that perform in an adversely negative way (see early post regarding this culling procedure). Then, when we have a test situation that in theory is performing in a wholly positive way, when conversions are up over the original default, at that point we stop excluding the search traffic and bring them back into the test audience. This way we get more traffic volume to feed the test and the SEO benefits from an optimised content.

I think the concept we should always be focusing on overall in regards to SEO and CRO is that if during testing you can impact on SEO rankings in the short-term, in the long-term the site will benefit from the optimised content and an uplift in conversion overall.

UPDATE: 2nd Augst 2011 ~ Here's  a useful statement from Google on the use of Google Optimizer and the affect on the SEO ranking

Monday, 20 October 2008

Cover story - what magazines can teach us

So what do magazines like Heat, OK, Glamour and the National Enquirer have to do with Optimization and multivariate testing?

Well as far as those glossies are concerned and Web Optimization we're being told as marketeers to adopt the same design model these magazines use to get countless people to buy them week after week. These publications obviously have to compete in a fierce market where the cover is the singular entity that can make the difference between a huge circulation or being just another magazine on the shelf. When constructing your sales message or call to action we should endevour to recreate that strong headline message or cover story that makes a customer buy, purchase, convert. According to industry analysts 80% of the purchasing decision is based upon what's on the front cover of a magazine. These guys are the experts, they know the value of catching the eye and conveying the message in a single shot, so surely our web pages should aspire to do the same whenever we seek to acheive the biggest bang for our buck?

Now in terms of magazines and multivariate testing the National Enquirer, a tabloid magazine, famous for running, amongst other things, items on alien abduction and conspiracy theories, has a massive circulation of around 2.5 million readers in the US.
Faced with a downturn in sales in recent times the publishers decided to enlist a company to undertake an MVT experiment. This company developed several versions of the same magazine cover and distributed them in a limited number of outlets, available only in a couple of states and then monitored which one had the biggest sales. Despite a large cost involved with running the different covers the Enquirer reported a 20% increase in sales as a direct result of the experiment. I think this illustrates the reach and scope of multivariate testing these days showing that's not just confined to the web.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Quick wins for web optimization

If I had to summarise the key points that I have heard again and again from experienced MVT testers, be it web based or published literature I would say the following seem to be touted regularly as quick win changes you can make on your site to gain conversion uplift. From personal experience some work and some just dont. As you will see we're yet to put them all into practice:

1. If you have a call to action - make it BIG.

We have an MVT test running currently that has around 8 different variants of apply buttons. Some are big and some are small in a variety of colours. Currently a large version of a newly designed button is beating the rest of the pack with a 18% uplift in conversion (It's orange by the way). Optimization experts generally recommend making your button big and red to draw as much attention to it as possible. We had one such variant and it performed so badly that we have culled it from the test. At least we've tested it though and put that theory to bed.

2. Have more than one call to action on page.

This should be a no brainer really, but when your running a test you need to be able to track people clicking on such buttons during the course of the test. If you have multiple buttons this can be tricky and from my own experience there are limitations as to how many 'actions' you'll want to feasibly track during the testing period.

3. Have a testimonial of your product on the page.

We havn't been able to test the use of this one yet in an MVT situation yet but we have tests scheduled that will exhaustively test this theory in the future. We have however A/B tested the use of testimonials within the customer journey and there was no real uplift to speak of.

4. Use photos of people in your page.

We've had an unofficial embargo on images on our site until recently due to a perceived impact on SEO rankings. This embargo has lifted and we can now start to use images with avengence once more. We've got a Homepage MVT test scheduled which will pit images against text based variants and I'll let you know how that pans out.

5. Simplify your copy.

If you have loads of copy it's daunting, off-putting and boring. Find ways to either reduce your copy or orgainise it in such a way as to make it look less overwhelming. Try tabbed content, or use expand and collapse containers on a page. The key winning element of our first MVT test was to drastically reduce and simplify the copy on the page by moving some to a pop-up window. We've also actually been aided by recently having to comply with the Plain English campaign. Initially it's a headache getting your content to comply with their rules, but once you've done it it can make a world of difference to the way a message scans to the end user.

I'll personally try to continue working these concepts into each of the tests we
undertake as we move forward. Where they don't work I'll hopefully learn from that and carry that forward to the next test. The key thing is to evolve your experiments as you go, bearing in mind what works for one person may not work for the other. Such simple changes can however be useful if there's a tangible pressure to gain results and an uplift in sales.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008


If there's a big learning we've made since starting multivariate testing on our website it's that if you're going to test different content, you're alternative content needs to be as radically different as possible to your existing content to get anything out of a test.
We currently have a MVT test running on a product page on the site. It has 4 MaxyBoxes* , each MaxyBox has around 3-6 alternative variants being served within it. The test has been going around 3 weeks now and for a couple of reasons which I wont go into now, we've had to restart the test. However, the alternative content is not too different from the existing content. We basically have text that has subtle changes in it from the original. Essentially the same message just re-jigged to see if the way we word a benefit or feature of a product has any uplift in conversion. Looking at the reports for this test the test variants performances are fairly uniform with no clear winner emerging from the pack and our mistake of keeping the changes between each variant subtle is clear to see. I think from this test alone we can safely say that subtle changes just dont work in an MVT test. You would need months and months of relatively high traffic volumes to get a result, or what we call statistical significance.
The reason this current test ended up with the 'softer', or subtle variants is that this test was planned when we thought that MVT testing could yield results by making the small changes that would maybe add up to a bigger result.
So the big message is that if you really want to get results quickly from your tests you have to go large. You have to go with the bolder ideas that represent a shift from the existing content.
*MaxyBoxes are areas of the page, usually Divs that are tagged for serving multivariate test variant content from our testing tool Maxymiser.