Insider Tips for Using Google Website Optimizer

You don't have to guess — or pay — to find out what design elements will boost conversions at your e-commerce site when you use Google Website Optimizer.
Even if you're pretty sure what's going to increase sales at your e-commerce site, based on your infinite wisdom and online business acumen, how do you really know? The answer is: by testing to see what works.

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The problem is that testing different layouts and versions of text and so on can seem overwhelming if you're having trouble just tending to your day-to-day Web shop management tasks. It doesn't have to be, if you take advantage of Google Website Optimizer. It's a free tool that splits a Web site's traffic so you can test different images, copy, headlines and promotions and compare the results to see what engages your customers the most.

Basically, there are two types of testing you can do at your online store — A/B testing, which tests different versions of pages and compares them, and multivariate testing, which basically tests different sections of one page to see what combination works the best. Google Website Optimizer does both, so, rather than pay for third-party A/B and multivariate testing software, you can simply use Optimizer for free to get the same data. If you use AdWords, the application works from a link at the top of your AdWords account page, or you can simple sign up at the Optimizer page.

We spoke with Google Website Optimizer Product Manager Sandra Cheng about how to use the tool to boost conversions.

"When designing a Web page, you make a lot of decisions consciously or not, but you don't necessarily know what will resonate with your customers," said Cheng. "We had one client that made a bunch of design changes with the goal of making the homepage more personal, and then tested, and unfortunately these 'quote improvements' cut sales in half, so it's best to test, let the data speak for itself and let the site visitors design your pages."

Website Optimizer allows you to segment traffic and show different versions to different users, and then track that, so you know exactly what will result in the most conversions, said Cheng. "If you have visitors who aren't buying, you're leaving money on the table, and that's clearly not in your best interest, especially once you've managed to get them to your site."

Cheng said often small changes make big differences in the bottom line. For instance, one e-tailer using Google Website Optimizer, nerdyshirts.com, tested two different versions of buttons. One was gray and said "add to cart" and the other was an orange "buy it" button. "Their conversions went up 6.9 percent with the orange buy button," said Cheng.

She also said that the Google team uses the tool to test designs for the company's own pages for properties such as Maps and the Optimizer pages themselves. "We have a bunch of smart people here, and we're still always surprised that what the customers prefer is often not what we predicted.

"For example, on the Website Optimizer homepage, our goal was to get people to sign up to use the tool. We had a short video on the homepage that showed the value of the tool and how easy it was to use, we thought that would work great, get people excited to sign up. But it didn't. We tested it and found out that a short list of bullet points explaining it worked much better. Turns out people don't want to sit through a three-minute video to find out what the features are."

Cheng also offered these tips based on her experience with Optimizer clients:

  • If you have a spot for users to enter a coupon code, try moving it toward the end of the checkout process. A coupon box early on in the checkout process is an invitation for a potential customer to go search for coupons, rather than completing the purchase.

  • Run different special offers to see which increase sales the most. An example: Moishe's Moving tested three different promotions: $100 off the move cost, free moving boxes, valued at $80 and one hour of free professional packing, valued at $130. The $100 discount resulted in the most conversions.

  • Test backgrounds and buttons. Cheng said "big red buttons do really tend to do better," as well as calming background colors instead of stark white.

  • If you want an easy and quick way to test a lot of elements that will change the look and feel of your site, Cheng said try making changes in your style sheet and doing A/B tests.

Cheng also advised that testing should be done continually, as the results compound and you get better site optimization.

"The culture and mentality these days with e-commerce testing, is that it's not a one time thing," she said. "As you continue to test, the value compounds and shows lasting impact and people realize this now. In early 2008, we saw mostly marketing and tech experts using Optimizer, but by the end of the year, we saw adoption across the board, from small online stationery companies to political campaigns."

Michelle Megna is managing editor of ECommerce-Guide.com.

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