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FutureNow Article
Friday, Feb. 29, 2008

How to Prioritize Your Optimization

By Bryan Eisenberg
February 29th, 2008

Everyone wants to optimize. If you’re like most companies, you have a laundry list of things you’d like to do with your site. You know instinctively that all the items on the list are of equal value. You know some might have more impact than others. You also know these items require different amounts of effort and resources. So the obvious question is, “Where do I begin?”

You’re likely familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which states that human beings must first prioritize basic needs, such as food and shelter, before they’re able to seek higher needs, like social interaction and self-actualization needs. What good is owning a Harley-Davidson or finding the perfect outfit for a trip to a club if you’re starving to death?

Looking at your site in a similar fashion is extremely helpful. Since I first introduced our concept of the hierarchy of optimization last year, I’ve wanted to dig into it a little deeper:

Eisenberg's Hierarchy of Optimization

Taking a step back and examining the entire pyramid will help you better assess where to start or assist you in knowing exactly what you’re optimizing now. The hierarchy also gives insight into optimization’s potential impact.

Let’s start at the bottom. Remember, the higher you go on the pyramid, the bigger the impact you’ll make on optimization. Also remember that the pyramid doesn’t indicate the level of effort needed to optimize, because this is as different from site to site as we are different from each other.

The Hierarchy of Optimization

Function is almost below the basics. Does your site have long periods of downtime? Do you deliver hundreds or thousands of 404s? Does your shopping cart constantly freeze up on visitors? Can users log in? Do images load? Is your site heavy on customer-facing errors? As a first order of business, work to make your site as reliable as the sunrise.

Another aspect of function is making sure that back-end functions are also in place. We’ve worked with companies that were spending ample on marketing and great site widgets, but the back-end shipping process was broken, causing an embarrassing amount of orders to go unfulfilled. This isn’t sexy marketing; it’s Business 101. Why go through all the hard work to market and sell a $1,000 dress only to have the customer walk up to a dirty checkout lane with a broken cash register circa 1950?

Having solid, clean user data for analytics also falls in the function level, otherwise anything higher up on the pyramid can’t be optimized with any accuracy or confidence.

How accessible is your site? Remember the recent lawsuit brought against for not having alt tags on its images? Font size, language issues, and pages and sections that don’t load correctly are other accessibility issues. Browser-specific issues fall in this level as well. Check your access logs to determine if you’re under-serving or ignoring a visitor segment. Optimize for people with disabilities, allow fonts to be resizable for users who need larger print, and solve browser-specific issues. If you remember, 38 percent of the retailers had difficult-to-read fonts in our 2007 Customer Experience Study. Optimize for dial-up users (there are still plenty of them out there). Access for mobile devices should also be considered.

Are your buttons easy to find and see? Is the search dialog where users expect it? Do you use drop-downs when you could use a radio button? Usability is about moving site elements around and using size, color, and contrast to improve the ease of use of your site. Thousands of great articles have been written about usability. Jared Spool‘s are my favorites.

Call-to-action button optimization is a popular optimization item for marketers. For most, the effort is low, and it can have significant impact. Still, it’s only one aspect of the usability equation.

While similar to and often confused with usability, the intuitive layer is about improving the flow of the visitor’s site experience and optimizing aspects that keep the visitors from buying. Point-of-action assurances, product detail pop-ups, customer reviews, upfront shipping costs, and current in-stock messaging all reduce friction in the buying process, anticipate customer questions, and offer answers at the point the customer asks.

On a lead generation site, optimize form questions, try to shorten the time needed to fill out the form, and introduce ways for the visitor to take more control of when and how they’re contacted.

At the top of the pyramid are site elements that move a customer toward making a decision to buy your specific product. Persuasion issues are almost always high impact.

Improving persuasion on your site is mostly done by improving copy or product images. Product descriptions, feature tours, demos, and product comparisons (even with competitors) are considered persuasive issues. On a lead gen or B2B (define) site, it’s your service description, case studies, testimonials, and white papers. Make sure your copy addresses each of your personas.

Brand image and a site’s overall look and feel are often persuasion issues, especially if there’s a disconnect between the brand promise and site design. But have no doubt that a strong familiar branded product will forgive a multitude of site errors, as many of us have endured horrible sites and process to buy products and services we really wanted.

Assuming the bottom three levels are sound on your site, persuasion scenario planning will assist in planning and measuring the intuitive and persuasion challenges you face.


Start at the pyramid’s bottom and list each of the optimization tests or changes you need to consider. For each item, rank the effort it will take your team to make the change or test possible. Start with low-effort items, even if they’re low on the pyramid. Then work your way up.

Best of luck with your optimization efforts this year. If you need help planning and prioritizing your tests, we’d be happy to oblige.

This originally appeared in my ClickZ column from 2/29/08.

Add Your Comments

Comments (64)

  1. [...] Bryan Eisenberg shows a method to help you prioritize your website optimization. Because those relationships don’t matter – in a business sense – if they’re not [...]

  2. Very good article Bryan. I am fixing to start using GWSO soon. Right now I am working on redesigning my backend database stuff. Once done with that, I am also planning on redesigning the layout of my category pages and adding individual item pages as well. Then I can really get into using GWSO on my web pages. I am really looking forward to this, since I am sure I will find out things in test I would never have guessed.

    I have some ideas to improve scent on my website. Using GWSO I will be able test my hypothesis and see if I am on track, or out in left field. I needed an idea of where to start in the process, this article has helped.


  3. [...] How to Prioritize Your Optimization [...]

  4. Great post! More companies need to read this and understand that you cannot rely on SEO to do the work for you. You must have every other piece of the puzzle in place. Too many companies do not understand where to begin as it’s a process one must master.

  5. The Hierarchy of Optimization Pyramid should be hanging on every on-line marketing manager’s cube! I’ve had three different companies in the high tech space with problems at each level of the pyramid. Most of the time, they’re willing to throw unlimited resources at the Persuasion layer, while their site is literally breaking apart and performing terribly.
    For us visually people, this really helps drive the point across.

  6. Great article Bryan. I have a feeling we’ll be referring many clients to it in the future. Thanks!

  7. Very good read. It was nice for me as a beginner to read this and see some structure to the process of optimization. Thanks

  8. [...] How to Prioritize Your Optimization – goed artikel van Brian Eisenberg van Futurenow die de piramide van Maslov gebruikt om een model van optimalisatie van website vorm te geven. [...]

  9. [...] There is a great blog post about how to prioritize website optimization I think all web marketers should read. If you’re [...]

  10. Thanks for a great article Bryan.
    I always feel swamped and don’t know where to start. I feel like this is something I really need to work on and this article has helped somewhat….

  11. How to Prioritize Your Optimization…

    You’re likely familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which states that human beings must first prioritize basic needs, such as food and shelter, before they’re able to seek higher needs, like social interaction and self-actualization needs…

  12. Great Job! I love this article! I was just doing these kind of things but I didn’t know how to put in a real order of facts. I think this will help me and my company a lot. Hope you don’t mind I give these article to my people!!!

    Thanks again


  13. Very interesting… Love it when someone can take a good idea and actually give it logical, thought-out form

  14. A good logical list to work through, worthwile for anyone starting a new seo campaign.

  15. Interesting post – Clients respond well to graphics, and if they’re heard of the hierarchy of needs, it makes this illustration even more valuable as it will be easy for them to understand.

    One comment though on your own site’s functionality – it’s quite slow and even timed out numerous times when I tried to get here via Online Media’s link. I suppose you don’t usually have this much traffic…?

  16. Casey,

    I’m sorry to hear it was timing out for you. Yes, we’ve been getting quite a lot of traffic today, and we’re in the midst of a server update, which seems to have temporally affected the blog’s speed.

    Thank you for your patience. We’ll be climbing our way back up the optimization pyramid over the next day or so. Our apologies for any friction in the meantime.

    Kind regards,
    -Editor, GrokDotCom

  17. This post really helped some of our clients. Thank you.

    Chip Arndt
    Co-Founder of

  18. It is very important that before starting optimizing your site you need to know first which one to prioritize more.

  19. [...] experiment 2.4% = Current conversion rate 20% = Expected improvement (focus on key drivers in the hierarchy of optimization instead of random elements and your expectations should [...]

  20. recent lawsuit from not having alt tags in images.. omg i best check my images real soon!!

  21. [...] Lets start off with a view of the most common misstates. Infomration request forms are known as Lead Generation in the internet marketing world. What does ths mean for you, well your information request form is a lead generation form. Therefor it falls into the same best practices category, i.e, “On a lead generation site, optimize form questions, try to shorten the time needed to fill out the form, and introduce ways for the visitor to take more control of when and how they’re contacted.” – Bryan Eisenberg [...]

  22. Thanks for sharing this post. It has links to all important other posts which shows you how to implement basics of conversion theory.

  23. [...] 5.) Prioritize your optimization efforts — Optimizing for usability and conversion is usually easier than optimizing for persuasion. Before a site can persuade, its basic elements must work. Go for the low-hanging fruit, then work your way up the Hierarchy of Optimization. [...]

  24. “alt tags on its images” – not to be totally pedantic, but it’s “alt attributes on images” – a small difference, but the accessibility people will thank you for knowing it. :)

  25. Thanks Elaine. I was going for simplicity as opposed to accuracy. I certainly don’t want to upset anyone. Unfortunately, not everyone knows the correct terminology, but most are aware of the term for alt tags for some reason. :-)

  26. hi , great post

  27. I am up to my ears in a new website design, new shopping cart version, new email effort, new…alot! Thanks for helping me focus. Great article.

  28. Thanks for sharing this post its really helpful for anyone starting a new seo campaign.

  29. Ahh… which site to optimize first. That is the question!

  30. How to Prioritize Your Optimization…

    Everyone wants to optimize. If you’re like most companies, you have a laundry list of things you’d like to do with your site. You know instinctively that all the items on the list are of equal value. You know some might have more impact than others…

  31. Thanks for this lesson…I find sometimes that I do the same thing…work on the flashy stuff, try to squeeze every last cent out of some pages…and yet I know I have 404 page issues, some lead gen pages aren’t performing…and they get alot of traffic – so this is a reminder to me today to go back to functionality and fix those issues first.

    Thanks again,


  32. I never optimized my system to default

  33. This is a great material, I can actually use this as a step by step process for a workshop.I’ll for your permission I should borrow some of the info shared here.



  34. Amazing, first time I’ve seen or heard of someone use ‘Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs’ I learned in University in Glasgow Scotland and at that time made an impression on me as fundamental human needs, the basis that most things evolve around. In a way optimization is evolving in a human needs natural way. Your article proves that to be the case.

  35. Great post! More companies need to read this and understand that you cannot rely on SEO to do the work for you. You must have every other piece of the puzzle in place. Too many companies do not understand where to begin as it’s a process one must master.

  36. Yes it is so important to have the basics in place, if not for search engine friendliness at least for the visitor friendliness and experience.

  37. [...] Performance Indicators (KPIs) just aren’t as high as everyone expects.   Their sites are functional, accessible, usable, and intuitive.  Their look and feel is credible, and their content is high quality.  So why do their visitors [...]

  38. I think that having a site that is appealing to the eye is the first step to it being successful. Yes you need visitors eventually, but if they just get off your page because of the bad design there is no point being on top of the rankings is there…

  39. [...] You need to optimize your website experience for these potential buyers through the hierarchy of optimization. [...]

  40. I have never seen it explained like this, but it is very logical.

  41. [...] 3 – Understand total number of potential people who could have taken that action. Use the hierarchy of optimization from FutureNow to understand why site visitors did not convert. Did they land on your site by [...]

  42. [...] useful model to get past this mode of thinking is to use the Hierarchy of Optimization which we’ve talked about on this blog in the past.  It’s a great mental model to show clients the roadmap of how they should be optimizing, [...]

  43. [...] conversion path. Based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, this concept was first introduced for website prioritization by Bryan Eisenberg. While Eisenberg mostly sticks with a modified sales funnel metaphor, I think a bottleneck model is [...]

  44. [...] Hierarchy of Optimizaiton Needs Bryan Eisenberg’s article today on the hierarchy of optimization needs is a worthwhile read. In it, he layers the concept of prioritizing site optimization opportunities [...]

  45. Using Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a great way of explaining how to prioritise competing products. This has made a useful impression on me and has helped to really focus my effort on the most important aspects of my site.

  46. Optimization is very important topic in todays world. We have to optimize folks.

  47. Its definitely true that you need an optimization system, plan, an overview of everything. You cant of course to it perfectly the first time, but as time goes on you will learn to make strong plans, like the pyramid system and everything will be double-checked and your sales process goes smooth in no time(remember to make a list or a calculated plan before starting to build a website!) It takes time, but its worth it to do all the things in your own pyramid.

    David Sims – Promoting Renewable Energy

  48. That gave him a good impression on me and helped me focus on the most important aspects of my site.
    Using the hierarchy of needs Maslow is a great way to explain how the priority of competing products.

  49. Great post, I will book mark this for some friends to read later on.

  50. This is an excellent post and a really interesting way of looking at optimisation. Can I suggest thinking about the task as a circular process? I think true success comes from continual evaluation of your efforts and conducting a regular review of each of the steps in the pyramid would really help boost the effectiveness of all your work.

  51. from what i understand this tips will mostly help on the user experience .. so if the website is presentable people will most likely show your website in other forums and comunites like such. overall i find this article to be informative for the seo newbies ..

  52. This is good stuff, my mind sometimes gets lost in all the information. I just need to put it into an orderly fashion. I write it down on paper, and when I come back to it the next day, i start working on something totally different. Thanks for the pyramid idea, I’m gonna try that out.

  53. Thanks for the awesome post. this post really helps emphasize the point of simplicity of hard-work. Will really will be coming back to this time and time again. Thanks!

  54. It’s nice to see some genuine advice. I have found the most important thing to remember about optimization is that it never ends! The minute you become complacent your competition runs past you..

  55. I really liked the way you compared prioritizing the optimization with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

  56. I never thought of it like that – thanks! we need generous knowledge givers like you in th world.

  57. I really like this way of looking at website optimisation. Also learned something new about accessibility. Did realise that alt tags were so important.

    Thanks for the info.

  58. [...] little traffic. You can view the video below. You may also be interested in reading more about the hierarchy of optimization when you are done viewing the [...]

  59. So many people start wherever they want and disregard whatever they choose. I just make sure everything’s optimized before I publish the website. Then I’m fine.

  60. Now it clearer for me to prioritize my task

  61. As for “risk free, money back guarantee,” I’ll be happy to e-mail you one blog reader’s experience

  62. Snob hear like

  63. My greatest pet peeve is tiny fonts.

    I can’t tell you how many times I have visited a website and the font is 9px.

    My goal is make my site as easy to read as others would like it. If I can’t read it very well, chances are my visitors can’t either.

    However, I have one of my favorite tricks.

    I just love to use the CTRL + MOUSE WHEEL to increase or decrease the font. It works very well and you can always return to the original size again.

    Sure you may have to slide the bars a bit, however when I need that info now, it is well worth it.

  64. [...] [...]

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Bryan Eisenberg, founder of FutureNow, is a professional marketing speaker and the co-author of New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestselling books Call to Action and Waiting For Your Cat to Bark and Always Be Testing. You can friend him on Facebook or Twitter.

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