An Interview With Tim Ash: The Landing Page Optimization Guru (Fall 2009)

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Tim Ash is the CEO of SiteTuners, a landing page optimization firm that offers conversion consulting, full-service guaranteed-improvement tests, and 2nd-generation software tools to improve conversion rates. He has worked with Google, Facebook, American Express, CBS, Sony Music, American Honda, COMP USA, Harcourt Brace, Universal Studios, Verizon Wireless, Texas Instruments, and Coach. Tim is a highly-regarded speaker at Search Engine Strategies, eMetrics, PPC Summit, Affiliate Summit, and eComXpo. He is a contributing columnist to several publications including SearchEngineWatch. Tim is the host of the weekly Landing Page Optimization show on WebmasterRadio.fm. He received his BS and MS during his PhD studies in computer science at UC San Diego. Tim is the author of the bestselling book Landing Page Optimization.

SMS: Landing page optimization has not been a hot, sexy topic for quite some time. These days, with Twitter, Facebook, and Android in the forefront, landing pages are written off as a search engine marketing basic. Do you feel that most businesses have mastered the art (or should I say the science?) of landing page optimization? Why or why not?

Tim: If anything, I think that things are getting worse. Only a few companies actually have in-house landing page optimization (LPO) programs and a culture of testing. The proliferation of new display devices just makes it harder to have an optimal experience for everyone. More thought needs to be put into how to create compelling experiences for smaller screens and shorter attention spans.

A landing page goes way beyond simple traffic catchers for search engine marketing. The source of traffic can be organic SEO, PPC, banner ads, comparison shopping feeds, blog links, or social media mentions. It does not matter if the traffic arrives at your front door or some side door. Anywhere that significant traffic lands is ripe for testing and optimization. The glaring problems with most landing pages sometimes kind of depress me. It seems like no one is paying attention to common sense or well-known best practices.

SMS: Are ad agencies becoming more involved in helping clients create landing pages, given the need for a landing page to reflect and connect with the ad that has led consumers to it?

Tim: Ad agencies should absolutely be involved in landing page design. One of the keys to high conversion is matching the intent of the visitor, so there must be alignment and continuity with what happens upstream of the landing page. You have to keep the promise that your ad makes once you get to the landing page. If the ad agency controls the advertising spend, not giving them access to the landing page is akin to tying their hands. Landing page tuning and testing is often the biggest driver of profits, and can’t be divorced from traffic acquisition campaigns.

One problem with traditional ad agencies that are moving online is the lack of quantitative training or rigor. Many still try to sell pizzazz. They try to impress clients with their concepts and the flashy presentation of the landing pages, but in the real world, the best-performing pages are not the ones with a bunch of visual frills and clutter. In fact, highly visual pages, or ones using rich media like animation or video, often distract from the intended conversion action. Plain sells. Boring sells. Understated sells. Ad agencies need to focus on the money and trust the results of the testing with the actual landing page visitors, instead of enforcing their own design orthodoxy.

SMS: Do your degrees in cognitive science and neural networks help you in your work with landing pages? If so, in what ways?

Tim: They absolutely do. When you think about it, the purpose of a landing page is to persuade someone to take action. Persuasion is, of course, based on our ability to understand human brains in general and of specific individuals in particular. The brain is really the last frontier. That lump in our heads is a sophisticated and often bizarre instrument that has (for better or worse) allowed us to take over the whole planet.

We know a few bits and pieces of how the brain works, and what influences us to act. So I think that understanding as much as you can about human perception, biology, and psychology is critical for the success of any web marketer. For example, you should know how the visual system and attention work — that’s what we focus on. You should understand different personality types (e.g., Myers-Briggs or similar frameworks). You should not forget that powerful memories are best formed under highly emotional circumstances that simultaneously engage multiple modalities such as motion, vision, hearing, taste, touch, and smell.

You should understand the universal mechanisms that are available to everyone to compel compliance with our wishes. Robert Cialdini’s excellent book, Influence, is a must-read in this area. You also need to become familiar with the whole spectrum of persuasive copywriting techniques and how they work for products in different stages of customer acceptance and awareness. The book Breakthrough Advertising was written by Eugene Schwartz several decades ago, but it is still the masterwork on the subject.

SMS: Some landing page optimization strategies can be very time-consuming. What would be your advice for small businesses that may not have the time and resources to constantly make changes to their landing pages and/or analyze the data?

Tim: Small businesses are often in a bind. You can’t do testing on low traffic pages, since LPO is based on statistics and large sample sizes. So if you don’t have at least 10 conversion actions per day on your page, even basic head-to-head A-B split testing is probably not realistic.

The only option left is to get an outside review of your landing page, and apply best practices to clean it up. We offer a service called Express Review to triage the major conversion problems with a landing page, all recorded via an online meeting. This information can be used by our clients to fix the obvious problems with their pages without running a test.

If a company has the minimum data rate to test (measured in conversions and not unique visitors), then a lot can still be done with A-B split testing. Just changing basics like the headline, sales copy, images, and calls to action can often result in double-digit increases. Moreover, this is not hard to do. A simple headline change may be implemented with the excellent and free Google Website Optimizer tool in a matter of a few minutes. Once you have a positive outcome with your first test, the psychological momentum will build toward doing more elaborate tests later. So, the basic idea is to start small with easy text or image changes.

SMS: Looking at the same issue from the other side, it is often difficult for larger companies to break through the red tape and make timely tweaks to their landing pages. What would you recommend in-house search engine marketers do in a situation where they don’t have total control over the company’s website and landing pages?

Tim: The easiest way is to go rogue — in other words, ask for forgiveness rather than permission. You can often work on a landing page that is not part of the main corporate site and thus not under IT control. A good place to start might be an affiliate landing page or something that is under the marketer’s local control. Another option for high-traffic pages is to ask for a small percentage of the traffic to test with, then simply divert the traffic to a landing page that is easier to control and test with.

There are also some non-invasive testing technologies that intercept the page after it leaves the corporate web server and redraws it on the fly. Server-side testing tools that include a content management system can also be operated by marketing without IT involvement.

SMS: Many of our readers ask about benchmarks to use when optimizing landing pages. For example, when split testing landing pages, how do you know when to end the test and pick a winner? When do you stop testing, if ever?

Tim: The test should be ended when you reach a high degree of confidence that you have found a better (or worse) answer. Sometimes we test ideas that don’t matter – they simply do not move the needle. In such cases, you will have tests that will never reach statistical confidence, so you just have to stop them and try other ideas. Not every test will produce a better winner, but it is the ongoing process and company culture of testing that will increase your conversion rate over time.

There is also a natural point at which you should stop testing a particular page or page flow. Your conversion rate will improve, and it will get harder and harder to beat the original control version in the test. At the same time, you will have likely run out of powerful breakthrough ideas, and will start to simply tinker around the edges of the page. If your tests do not consistently produce improvements, then it may be time to move on. Find another page that has value to your company and start to test it.

SMS: What are some elements every landing page should possess?

Tim: There are probably no specific elements that are shared among all landing pages, but there are common qualities or attributes that they should possess:

  • A high level of professionalism and visual design integrity
  • A way for people to understand what the page is about
  • A clear call to action
  • A simple elegance and lack of unnecessary embellishment

SMS: What are some of the biggest landing page optimization mistakes you see clients make?

Tim: We see certain types of problems so commonly that we have enshrined them as “The Seven Deadly Sins of Landing Page Design.”

  1. Unclear call-to-action
  2. Too many choices
  3. Asking for too much information
  4. Too much text
  5. Not keeping your promises
  6. Visual distractions
  7. Lack of trust and credibility

Chances are — if you objectively looked at your landing pages — you would find multiple sins on them.

SMS: What landing page optimization software do you have in your toolkit? What software would you recommend that our readers use?

Tim: If you are starting out with testing, Google Website Optimizer is a must. It is a landing page testing tool that allows you to easily run A-B split and multivariate tests. There is no longer a financial excuse for not testing — this tool is free.

There are also several new tools available for in-page web analytics. Unlike traditional web analytics packages tracking activities across pages on a site, in-page tools track activity within a page. A page is tagged and tracked with JavaScript and cookies, and the behavior of visitors is collected and observed. This allows you to tell if people are scrolling, what they hover over with their mouse without clicking, how long it takes them to fill out fields on your form, etc. Combined information from many people even allows you to see mouse movement and heat maps showing activity and visual focus on the page. The software is usually free to try and not very expensive to subscribe to. Examples include ClickTale.com, CrazyEgg.com, and Pagealizer.com.

I am also really excited about a powerful new tool that our company (SiteTuners.com) is rolling out. As this goes to press, we should be beginning the free Beta period on our new AttentionWizard.com service. When I was studying cognitive science and neural networks in graduate school at the University of California at San Diego, we were just beginning to understand how the human brain works. AttentionWizard takes all of the latest knowledge on how human visual attention works and simulates it, via sophisticated artificial intelligence algorithms. All you do is upload an image of your landing page (or a mock-up of it), and you will instantly receive an “attention heatmap” of where the eyes glance during the first few seconds on the page. We can simulate what your brain pays attention to.

The science is not perfect, but it is accurate enough to reliably identify problems with landing page designs. We believe that this tool will be incorporated into the daily workflow of many graphics designers, webmasters, ad agencies, and user-experience specialists. Why would you put up a landing page without knowing if the right elements are going to be noticed, and that no unintended distractions exist? AttentionWizard takes the guesswork out of this process and lets you get instant feedback without time-consuming and expensive eye-tracking studies. I think it’s going to change the way we approach LPO, putting complex analysis within reach of a lot more marketers.

About the Author

Andrey Milyan was the first editor-in-chief of Search Marketing Standard, the leading print publication covering the search marketing industry. He has been following and reporting on industry developments for over 10 years. Andrey now works in the paid search sector of a prominent search marketing agency.

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