The Ultimate Guide to Conversion Rate Optimization

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ultimate guide to conversion rate optimization

It’s no longer just about driving more traffic to your website to increase sales. Smart online marketers are realizing that to really increase sales (or leads) you need to optimize your visitor’s onsite experience and convert more of them for your goals, and not just your rankings in search engines. This newer technique is known as conversion rate optimization (CRO), and many online businesses are starting to gain excellent results from it. Are you ready to take advantage too?

This conversion rate optimization guide will help kickstart your CRO efforts, increasing your website sales or leads without needing more traffic. It contains answers to the most common and important questions about CRO, with helpful related guides to learn more. Let’s get started with some basics.

What is conversion rate optimization (CRO)?

Conversion rate optimization is the art of converting more visitors on your website into your goals (e.g. sales or leads). By increasing your conversion rate, you increase your website sales or leads without actually needing more traffic.

CRO is made up of four overlapping main elements – web analytics, user experience (UX), website persuasion and A/B testing. Making strong use of these techniques will increase your chances of improving your conversion rates, and therefore your sales or leads.

CRO main elements

  • Web analytics: For identifying your website sales and conversion performance, and to generate website improvement insights from your key pages and traffic sources. Tools like Google Analytics are essential for this.
  • User experience (UX):  Researching and solving your website visitor’s needs and issues (via feedback and surveys), and applying web usability best practices to improve their user experience (increasing flow and reducing barriers).
  • Website persuasion: Using psychology and influence techniques to get your visitors to convert much more often into sales or leads (and quicker). For example copywriting, social proof and urgency.
  • A/B testing: To help you A/B test and discover which variations of your website improvement ideas convert more visitors into sales or leads. Tools like VWO.com are easy and simple for this.

What are the benefits of doing CRO for your website?

In a nutshell, the biggest benefit is that it helps you generate much more revenue from your website. Here are some of the many excellent benefits of doing CRO:

  • Generates more leads or sales on your website, with the same traffic you already have (means you don’t have to spend more money on traffic).
  • Helps maximize the return on investment from your marketing spend (paid search, social media etc).
  • Improves your website so that it engages more visitors, and increases the chances of them returning (cheaper than acquiring new visitors).
  • Gives you a great competitive advantage because your competitors probably aren’t doing CRO yet.

What kind of results can I expect from doing CRO?

This ultimately varies depending on how much effort and budget you put into it, and your level of expertize. With modest efforts you can increase your conversion rates by 5-10%. This may not sound much, but it often has a big impact on your online sales or leads. If you really maximize your efforts with CRO you can expect amazing results like these:

  • GetResponse.com increased sign-ups by 153% with CRO
  • Barack Obama raised an additional $60 million using CRO
  • CrazyEgg.com grew revenue 363% by doing CRO
  • TheGuardian.co.uk increased subscriptions by 46% by doing CRO
  • SEOmoz.org generated an extra $1 million in sales doing CRO

What is a conversion and when does it happen?

Now let’s start explaining more about CRO, how it works and some best practices that you need to learn.

First of all, a conversion takes place when a visitor on your website completes a major goal of your website, for example purchasing a product or registering on your website. This conversion is tracked by your analytics tool (once you have added tracking for it), and is also tracked in your A/B testing tool if you are using one.

This conversion will vary depending on your website type, and what your goals are for it. Here are some key conversions for major website types:

  • Ecommerce website – a conversion occurs when a purchase has been completed by a visitor (e.g. order confirmation page).
  • Services website – a conversion occurs when a signup has been completed by a visitor (e.g. signup thanks page).
  • A blog/media website – a conversion occurs when a newsletter (or other opt-in) has been completed by a visitor (e.g. a thanks page).

How is conversion rate calculated?

Basically, the higher the proportion of your website visitors that are converting for any of your website goals, the higher your website conversion rate will be. Your overall website conversion rate can be calculated fairly simply, using the following equation:

Overall Website Conversion Rate:
(Number of website conversions / number of website visitors) x 100

Example for ecommerce website conversion rate:
(Number of orders / number of website visitors) x 100

This overall conversion rate can easily be set up and found in all good web analytics tools (for example in Google Analytics for any of your website goals – see screenshot below).

What tools do you need for conversion rate optimization?

To get started with conversion rate optimization, you need two key types of website tools in particular, plus some others:

  • A web analytics tool. This tool is essential because it helps you monitor your current website conversion rate and success metric performance. It also helps you to gain great visitor insights and find poorly converting pages for improving. A simple web analytics tool like Google Analytics needs to be setup and used for this.
  • An A/B testing tool. Ideally you need to test different versions of your content (like different call-to-action buttons or different page layout) to see which version increases your conversion rates the most. A low-cost A/B testing tool like Visual Website Optimizer is a great place to start, and here is a review of the most common A/B testing tool choices.
  • Visitor feedback tools. Getting great feedback from your visitors is essential for really understanding their needs and for gaining high-impact ideas for improving your website and conversion rates. Usability tools like UserTesting.com and UsabilityHub.com and visitor analytics tools like Hotjar.com are very important for this.

What else do you need for conversion rate optimization?

Conversion rate optimization isn’t as easy as you might think. You need more than just the tools – to be most effective with your conversion rate optimization efforts you need much more. Here are some of the main other vital ingredients for conversion rate optimization long term success:

  • A great understanding of web usability best practices. Optimizing these on your website will have a big impact on increasing your conversion rates – for example, making your navigation menus easy and intuitive to use, and using good options for sorting and filtering on browse pages. Using website usability knowledge best practices can make or break your website conversion rates, because your visitors will go to a competing website that is easier to use if yours isn’t.
  • Knowledge of persuasive techniques. These psychology and influence techniques will help you better engage and convert your visitors. For example, you need to be able to write headlines that grab the attention of your visitors, use social proof to impress them, and then show good call-to-actions that will quickly inspire them to take action and convert on your website. Using urgency and scarcity techniques are other good examples of persuasive techniques.
  • A CRO expert to help your efforts. If you have the tools, but don’t really know what to test or improve, then your conversion rate optimization efforts won’t succeed very well. To increase the chances of success, ideally you should either use conversion rate optimization services from an expert or hire a full-time CRO person for your team. Or you could try to train yourself or someone on your team, but this usually takes a long time.
  • Support and buy-in from the rest of your online business. Unless you are a one-man website, you won’t get very far with your conversion rate optimization efforts if you don’t have support and buy-in from key people in your organization, particularly from your boss and senior stakeholders. To do this, you need to educate them on the benefits of conversion rate optimization, and particularly the positive impact on revenue (including examples of high-impact ideas to improve your website).

Can you do CRO if you don’t have enough traffic for A/B testing?

Many online marketers think that A/B testing is an essential part of CRO. While it is very useful for discovering which versions of your website ideas convert better, it is not essential, and many websites don’t have enough traffic to do A/B testing (you need at least 5,000 unique visitors per week to the page that you want to run an A/B test on). However, if you don’t have enough traffic you should just launch your website improvement ideas and then monitor their impact on your website conversion rate. Here is a great guide that explains how to do CRO if you have a low traffic website.

Do I need to A/B test all CRO improvements or just launch them?

You don’t have to A/B test every CRO improvement you want to make to your website. First of all this would require a lot of traffic, time and effort to A/B test them all. Most importantly though, there are many types of improvements you can just launch, even if you do have enough traffic to A/B them. These are considered best practice and will improve any website, so should just be launched without needing A/B testing first. This frees up time to A/B test other elements worth A/B testing. Here are some examples of what to just launch, versus elements that should be A/B tested first.

Launch it – website improvements to launch instead of A/B testing:

  • Usability fixes and improvements (improving confusing or difficult navigation)
  • Prominent unique value proposition elements on key entry pages
  • Purchase risk reducers like guarantees, free shipping and free returns
  • Increasing number and quality of product or service images
  • Social proof like reviews and ratings, ‘as featured in’ and third party ratings
  • Secure messaging and icons in the checkout or signup flow

You can certainly do follow up A/B testing to fine tune these or iterate on the exact location or style of them, but the key thing is to just launch them first because they are so important to have.

A/B test it – website elements always worth A/B testing:

Any time that it is unclear which improvement version will perform better, particularly when it comes to elements regarding psychology and influence, these are definitely worth A/B testing to find the one with the highest conversion rate. Here are some examples:

  • Headlines (these have a huge impact on visitor engagement)
  • Website copy on key pages like the homepage and service/product pages
  • Hero images on the homepage
  • Call-to-action wording on buttons
  • Influence and persuasion elements mentioning scarcity or urgency

What website elements have biggest impact on conversion rate optimization?

Unfortunately there is no silver bullet that will work every time. Depending on your type of website, your unique value proposition and your type of visitors, there are hundreds of website elements that contribute to increased conversion rates. However, here are some things to focus on and improve that will often have a big impact and give you a good kick-start for increasing your conversion rates.

  • Your call-to-action buttons. These are found on most websites, from signup buttons to checkout buttons, and have a high impact on your conversion rates. To improve their effectiveness, test the wording, style, color, size and even the location of them on your pages (place them above the page fold so visitors can see them without having to scroll). Here are some good styles and wording for your inspiration:
  • Your headlines and important text. If your text doesn’t grab the attention of your visitors and intrigue them to read the rest of your content, then there will a greater chance of them leaving exiting from your website, lowering your conversion rates. Test improving your headlines by keeping them simple, short and to the point, and try using wording that solves for visitors needs or asks them good questions. You should also test condensing long blocks of text, and using bullet points instead (see example below) – these are far easier for visitors to scan and understand quicker, and often increases conversion rates.
  • Your shopping cart and checkout flow pages or signup registration flow pages. These are key because if your visitors struggle with these pages (regardless of how good their prior experience has been on your website), then they will abandon your website, lowering conversions and potential revenue. In particular you need to make your forms simple to complete, remove non-mandatory fields, improve your error validation, and use risk-reducers like security seals, benefits of using your website, guarantees and shipping/returns offers.
  • Your home page and key entry pages. These are often referred to as your landing pages, and usually get the most traffic on your website, so often have the biggest impact on conversion rates. Making sure these are focused, uncluttered and solve for your visitors main needs will greatly improve your conversion rates. Using targeting for your tests on these pages to customize your visitors experience will meet their needs better and increase your conversion rates too.

For more details on these, and hundreds of other ideas to improve your conversion rates on many types of web pages, check out my CRO course, or check out my book.

What is a good conversion rate?

This is a very common question, and sorry to disappoint you, but there is no perfect answer. This is because its hugely dependent on many things, for example what type of website you have, your unique value proposition, your marketing efforts, and the main types of visitors on your website.

For a rough benchmark though, 2% is an average website conversion rate for an ecommerce website and anything above 5% is generally considered very good. But to prove my point, it’s not unusual to have conversion rates above 50% for good, focused paid search lead generation landing pages.

Also, don’t go comparing your conversion rate to your competitors or what you may have read in a blog or a report – it’s risky because it may set you up for a fall or set incorrect expectations to your boss. It’s more important to increase your current conversion rate – never stop improving or become content.

Are there other ways to measure website success?

While your overall website conversion rate is the most important measure of success for your website, it’s important to realize there are many more micro-level success measures (depending on your website type). These are called success-metrics and are great for diagnosing and improving more specific parts of your website other than your overall conversion rate. Here are some examples of good success metrics:

  • Shopping cart abandonment rate. This is the percentage of visitors who start but don’t complete your shopping cart flow.
  • Signup form completion rate. This is the percentage of visitors who visit your signup form page and complete it.
  • Homepage bounce rate. This is the percentage of visitors who arrive on your homepage and immediately leave it without seeing other pages.
  • Repeat visit rate. This is the percentage of visitors who return to your website (which is cheaper than paying for new visitors).

Conversion rate optimization do’s and don’ts

To help improve and kick-start your efforts to optimize and increase your website conversion rates, here are some things to make sure you do, and some mistakes you need to ensure you don’t do.

Do’s:

  • Always gain feedback from your visitors using tools like Hotjar.com to come up with ideas to increase your conversion rate. This works much better than just guessing or just listening to your boss who may think they know best.
  • First improve parts of your website that are easy to change and A/B test, like wording and imagery (known as ‘low hanging fruit’). This means you can start getting great results much quicker, and gain further buy-in for doing more CRO.
  • Always set targets to try and beat for your conversion rate. A realistic target would be a 10-20% increase over your current conversion rate. As mentioned earlier, this is much better than trying to beat a conversion rate you may have read about in a report, or a competitor’s alleged conversion rate.
  • For an advanced way of increasing your conversion rates even further, use targeting in your A/B tests to provide your visitors with more relevant content, for example target and show new visitors first time visitor benefits, and target and show repeat visitors content relating to their previous browsing patterns.
  • Consider using expert conversion rate optimization services initially to help you get CRO results much quicker – particularly if you are new to CRO. You can use experts like myself to get CRO recommendations, or use full service agencies like WiderFunnel or SiteTuners.

Don’ts:

  • Don’t just focus on what your boss says they want to improve and A/B test on your website (known as a HiPPO – highest paid person’s opinion), as this often leads to suboptimal conversion rate improvements. Educate them on what will likely have highest impact – they often don’t know best.
  • Don’t rush into picking winners of an A/B test – you need to gain statistical significance for your A/B test, with at least 7 days worth of results. You will also need 100 conversions for each version you are testing, and to wait for any fluctuations to die down. If you rush, you may end up making a mistake by launching a version that isn’t actually the highest converting (and may even lower your sales).
  • Don’t presume you know what A/B tests or variations will have the biggest impact on your conversion rates. Remember it’s your visitors who decide what version converts them best in your A/B tests. Instead its essential to gain your visitor’s opinion on what needs improving most using survey tools and usability tools, as this will often lead to much higher conversion rate results for your tests.
  • Don’t treat conversion rate optimization as a project, your online business should live and breathe conversion rate optimization. It’s an ongoing process, just like SEO is. You should strive to always try to improve your conversion rates, and don’t just A/B test once or twice a year – businesses with fantastic CRO results often run more than 5 A/B tests per month.

Resources for deep diving into conversion rate optimization

To help you learn even more about this growing subject of conversion rate optimization, there are a number of very useful resources you should check out, from great books to great training and courses. You will find these very useful!

Conversion rate optimization books:

Conversion rate optimization training and courses:

So there we have it. The Ultimate Guide to Conversion Rate Optimization. Yes, there really are endless things to know and learn about the topic of conversion rate optimization.

Now its over to you – do you have your own favorite conversion rate optimization resources? Comment below and share so everyone else can learn!

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  • Jacki

    Hi there Rich-

    Great article- thanks for sharing it. I’m about to go and check out your book 🙂
    A question though…
    I work with small professional health practices here in Australia. Our primary conversion goal is to generate a telephone call to the practice. I have been testing call tracking phone numbers (but only for traffic which arrives via Adwords: tracking organic traffic is more difficult because the installation of a tracking number on the website sends a different Name-Address-Phone signal to Google Local, and we have the potential of losing the client’s Google Local rankings).
    Having reception staff keep records of incoming calls generated from a website is generally a very poor tool for measuring conversion.
    So my question (after two paragraphs of text!) is: can you offer any other ideas for measuring phone calls as the optimisation goal?
    Cheers from Down Under,
    Jacki

  • Nice article…

    A favourite resource of mine has to be Crazy Egg (I notice you’ve used their CTA as one of your examples!). For me the “heatmaps” that come as part of Adobe Clickmap just don’t do a good enough job and Crazy Egg wins hand down – aside to the fact that it’s an exceptionally good tool from an ROI perspective given it’s low cost.

    There’re some really good bullets in your “What else do you need for conversion rate optimization?” list…though I’d like to suggest another, namely “a supportive, flexible and efficient business structure”. In my opinion, the business structure has a great bearing on the ability to run a high quality optimisation programme.

    I’ve worked in a company at one end of the scale where the business is totally siloed – analysts are analysts, marketers are marketers, IT devs are IT devs, etc, and all of these different people feed into different areas such as marketing, IT and sometimes finance. Different areas = different targets = different priorities! Unless well managed (and there’s no guarantee this is always the case!), this structure simply leads to a sluggish and inefficient optimisation programme whcih is controlled by a ticket system and, sometimes, peoples’ opinions rather than the facts.

    At the other end of the scale, I’ve had the fortune of working in a business structure whereby the optimisation programme is controlled by a single team. This team contains marketers, designers, analysts, devs, etc, all reporting into the same business area and all having the same targets. In this scenario, the expectation is that everyone will wear multiple hats and essentially become “optimisation specialists” – just because you may be an analyst doesn’t mean you won’t develop marketing, design and usability skills! Granted, this structure is in theory more difficult to sustain (what happens when one of your top all-rounders leaves? Surely it won’t be easy to replace them?), but I believe the rewards speak for themselves, namely a fast and efficient optimisation programme.

  • Shiv Ettes

    Conversion rate optimization makes so much more sense to me on a gut level than SEO. Because who cares how much traffic you have if they aren’t engaged? Sure if you get a ton of traffic you can sell ads — but it’s more likely that you want revenue from products, etc. Or that makes sense in my head anyways:P Thanks for all the tips!

  • George Baily

    Fantastic article. Perhaps more the “ultimate *introduction* to CRO” and your book is the guide… haha. CRO is a thing at the moment because it’s so neglected, but I guess soon more businesses will be confirming the importance by having general “on-site marketing and UX” area, vs social/SEM/inbound as a separate discipline.

  • Eric Bloom

    Rich, great article on conversion rate optimization. My company (Abine) is currently working on improving our landing page conversion rate and I had a question for you: what becnhmark data do you use for landing page conversion rates? I am trying to gather as much information as possible so I am curious as to what you would consider a bad / good / great conversion rate?

  • Glad you liked it George! And yes, I also like to think its a great introduction to my book 🙂

  • High Eric – Great question. There isn’t really much benchmark data around because it really all depends on what (or if) you are selling on your landing pages, and the quality of your traffic. Definitely over 30% conversion rate could be considered very high though, and less than 5% could be considered low. But if you are just generating leads, I would say over 30-40% is very achievable. Hope that helps!

  • Glad that you agree Jenny! It’s all about engaging and converting your current levels of traffic before doing more SEO or social media.

  • Alex London

    Great article, I’ve been struggling to effectively up my conversion rate. I suffer sometimes from allowing beautiful design to influence my decisions on my website. I worry that buttons that say buy now or similar to be pushy, but I’m fairly sure they are probably more effective. What do you suggest?

  • Hi Alex – glad you liked the article. It really depends on what type of website you have, ‘buy now’ isn’t too bad for ecommerce sites, but if you have another type of website I would certainly add a secondary call-to-action that gets visitors to ‘learn more’ about the benefits of what you are selling or offering.