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When you make changes to your site design, it’s not always easy to figure out how the changes affect traffic and visitor behavior. That’s where the Google Website Optimizer tool comes into play. You can experiment with two or more designs and see which one works best to achieve your design goal. Best of all, this tool is free.

The typical site design process involves some people sitting together and choosing the design they think is best. The decision is usually based on a gut feeling, rather than anything close to a scientific method. What’s more, few companies have the resources to sit with focus groups to find out which design most people prefer, so it comes down to opinion, and even an informed opinion is not always right.

Tom Leung, product manager for Google Website Optimizer, says it’s not always easy to know what drives traffic without a tool like Website Optimizer to help. “In the old days, you would just make [your] changes and hope for the best, or you might look at your traffic the next week and see if there were any changes in your web analytics dashboard.” The problem with that approach, Leung explains, is that you don’t really know why you saw a traffic change. Was it due to your design change or maybe you had a really popular blog post that week?

Leung says where Website optimizer fits in is that it lets you make those improvements with some scientific certainty. “Now I have a tool to evaluate which changes are good, which are neutral and even more importantly, which are bad,” he says. Website Optimizer includes two experiment types: A/B, which switches between two page designs and multivariate where you can test multiple elements such as different headlines and pictures to see which one works best.

To set up an experiment, you need to create your experimental designs ahead of time and have the URLs for those pages ready. Once that’s done, go to the Google Website Optimizer tool, enter a name for your experiment, the names for your test pages (e.g., original and test1) and URLs for your test pages. Finally enter the conversion page URL, which refers to the click-through page where you want visitors ultimately to land. For instance, this could be an order form or a page to sign up for your newsletter or RSS feed.

After you enter, all of the information, the tool generates a JavaScript code snippet, which you need to insert on the experimental pages. This step has proven tricky for some users (or requires the help of technical staff), so Google recently teamed up with several content management vendors to integrate Website Optimizer tool directly into the CMS.

Leung says that the CMS integration lets Website Optimizer users set up experiments without touching the technical elements, and in some cases, design or marketing people who are setting up the experiments might not have access to the page source code or are not comfortable working in it. The CMS takes care of the heavy lifting by tagging the pages with the Google Website Optimizer JavaScript for you, thereby simplifying the process and making it easier for a non-technical person to set up the optimization experiments without worrying about where to place the code or waiting for IT staff to do it for them.

With the Website Optimizer tags in place on your pages, a percentage of visitors are presented with the original page and a percentage are presented with one of the alternatives. After a few days or weeks, you can view reports on the experiment to see which design resulted in the greatest percentage of visitors moving to your landing page.

While you still won’t know why a certain design works better, at least you will know with some scientific certainty, that for whatever reason, visitors like one design better than another, and it can give you a more valid approach than simply guessing at which design is better.

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