July 22nd, 2010 | 6 MIN READ

4 Reasons for Site Testing: Optimization Testing 101

Written by author_profile_images Linda Bustos

Linda is an ecommerce industry analyst and consultant specializing in conversion optimization and digital transformation.

This is the second in a series of posts based on the material covered in our latest webinar: Taking Your Site Performance to The Next Level With Optimization Testing.

According to Jupiter Research, 73% of marketers aren’t doing any testing whatsoever, with 49% having no plans to do so. Before I share 4 compelling reasons why you should be testing, let’s look at some of the reasons why marketers aren’t testing:

  • Lack of resources (in-house talent, budget for tool or consultants)
  • Lack of tool (now with Google Website Optimizer this is less of an issue)
  • Lack of buy-in from upper management
  • Lack of ownership of the testing process
  • IT bottlenecks
  • Lack of understanding of the value of testing / don’t think it’s important
  • Not sure what to test, how to prioritize testing opportunities or how to take action on results
  • Lack of understanding of tools or testing methods

Despite these challenges, serious Web marketers should push to overcome them and get testing capabilities because testing is the only way to truly know what works and what doesn’t for your site based on the combination of your industry, customers and product mix.

4 Reasons to Perform Site Testing

1. Lose that gut (feel)

Since 73% of marketers are not doing any testing, we can assume that at least that many are making decisions purely on intuition. And this is dangerous, not because marketers are not Yoda-smart, rather, it’s because our gut leads us astray more often than not. Anne Holland, founder of Marketing Sherpa, runs a fun site called WhichTestWon. Every week, WTW posts a new test where you can “test your gut” on which version of an A/B test outperformed the other one. According to Anne, 82% of expert marketers guess wrong!

It’s dangerous to trust the marketer’s gut, because the more of an expert you are about your products and business, the tougher it is to wear the end customer’s hat (who understands little and needs to be educated or persuaded). And the longer you’ve been a marketing expert, the more you trust your own intuition.

Leaving design decisions in the hand of a designer is also risky. Many designers are more concerned with visual aesthetics rather than business performance. Slick designs make nice portfolios, but not necessarily usable websites.

Another danger is when the HiPPO’s gut is the final word. (HPPO = Highest Paid Person in the Organization). Often the HiPPO has strong opinions about branding and image (especially regarding the home page), and sacrifices to usability are made to protect them.

Site testing allows you to check those gut feelings against hard facts, so you can be confident about the decisions you implement.

2. Break free from best practices

As an ecommerce blogger, I share a lot of industry “best practices” with Get Elastic readers. These recommendations come from sound research and testing from analyst firms, usability gurus and conversion optimization professionals, as well as my own experience. While there are some irrefutable best practices such as “don’t require registration,” these are few and far between. Most best practices are really guidelines -- “good practices,” and “practices to consider testing for yourself.”

Those with experience testing can tell you the “best practice” has not always proven to be best for their sites. For example, “cleanliness is next to godliness” for many web designers. Wider Funnel decided to challenge this idea and tested a cluttered landing page vs. a “clean” one and found the cluttered design produced 49% more conversions.

Perhaps the biggest danger is the halo effect of big successful sites. Some marketers jump to the conclusion that a design element or feature is automatically a “best practice” because Amazon or another famous brand does it. (And you know how I feel about that).

Experience with other websites and campaigns can also lead you astray. Just because a big green button raised sales by 10% at your previous company, doesn’t mean it will work for your current project.

Also, keep in mind as consumers change their behavior online, “best practices” become outdated. Think about the old rule “don’t put anything below the ‘fold.’” We now know that users are more comfortable with scrolling, and not everything needs to be above the fold.

Don’t get me wrong, best practices are good guidelines. They help you assess your own site and come up with ideas to test. Just don’t put too much faith in them until you’ve tested them for yourself.

3. Kiss blind redesign goodbye

I recently visited a restaurant that I worked for in the late 90’s. Since my short stint there I’ve seen the restaurant chain re-invent its image twice over, including very costly internal and external renovations, menu design and uniform changes (not to mention web site makeovers). I remember we were told that if a restaurant didn’t reinvent itself every 5 years, it would lose touch with the market and die out.

It seems e-businesses have the same idea, except major, costly web redesigns happen every year or two. (As I have observed over the past few years, many on the Internet Retailer 500 have been made over).

When a site is redesigned, everyone is eager to flip the switch without any testing. “But we did usability testing!” one might say. Even so, that puts you back in the category of relying on best practices. The opinions of a handful of usability test volunteers may not represent the true behavior of your site visitors in aggregate, unobserved, undirected by your pre-described test, impatient and with a true intention to buy. User testing has great value, but it should be used to help you form your testing hypotheses for improvement, not to make ultimate decisions.

Unless you test your new design against your current one, you can’t quantify the improvement or decrease properly against the old design. Though you can measure KPIs (key performance indicators) before and after, it’s not as accurate as a real-time, head to head experiment. Factors like seasonal changes, changes in product mix, economic factors and marketing campaigns may be responsible for the change, rather than the redesign.

4. Close the door on missed opportunities

Anyone who’s ever sat in a meeting about ecommerce web design and feature decisions knows they can be quite painful. Everyone has an opinion. Sometimes decisions are made democratically, sometimes not. Regardless, any time a decision is made, it's at the expense of the other ideas proposed. Perhaps one of those killed ideas was a star. Site testing reduces your risk of leaving a good idea on the table.

Have I whet your appetite for site testing yet? Please join us for the next installment of our series: A/B or MVT? How to determine the right method for your test.

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