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Friday, Jan. 2, 2009 at 7:04 am

The Sciences and Disciplines of Web Site Optimization

By Bryan Eisenberg
January 2nd, 2009

In the column, “Calling You to Action,” I covered the basics of optimizing the calls to action on your site. The column prompted this comment from “Florida Design” that appears on our blog:

I keep telling people this. I don’t think that optimizing a site for conversion is a “Call to Action” science. It’s a usability science. People aren’t going to click something because its big round and yellow, and says “Click Me”. The reason people click this types of links is because they’re already looking for where to click, and you’ve just made it easier for them.

I don’t disagree; a button that is big, round, and yellow can make it easier for a visitor to follow that call to action. But optimizing a site for conversion is not just a usability science.

Usability is its own discipline and science. And, of course, the science of usability is an important part of the broader scope of conversion optimization.

In this 2005 column, I described how usability fits into the overall Web site optimization picture:

Usability examines the site’s interface and process barriers that keep visitors from accomplishing a conversion task. Usability is:The ability to effectively implement knowledge concerning the human-computer interface to remove any obstacles impeding the experience and process of online interactions…

A usability test can’t measure two key factors in the conversion process: persuasive momentum and individual motivation. A visitor’s willingness to click through to a site and participate in its conversion processes is directly tied to her intent and motivations and the relevance of the product or service to her needs.

The ability to use a Web site to accomplish a task valuable to a business goal is, no doubt, both a usability issue and a conversion optimization issues. But that doesn’t mean every experience the visitor encounters on a site is a usability issue. That would be like saying merchandising and packaging at the neighborhood Target are usability issues.

Most sites want to sell more or increase leads, and that requires the application of several disciplines and sciences. Here are just a few:

Web Analytics and Analysis

Here is more from the same 2005 column:

According to (Jakob) Neilson, “In usability studies, participants easily pretend that the scenario is real and that they’re really using the design.” However, it’s much harder for participants to fake a need they don’t have. If you disliked pungent cheese and were asked to shop for the best Roquefort, could you simulate the actions a true cheese lover would take?Web analytics, on the other hand, track actual actions taken on your site from very large sample groups. They provide a true measure of activity and persuasive momentum.

Couple usability testing with Web analytics for a more holistic picture of what is (or isn’t) happening on your site.

Web analytics provide the most accurate and objective measure of how individuals interact with a site. Usability studies provide insight into what’s happening in particular instances.

Copywriting and Direct Marketing Techniques

I have already written a book and several columns (like “The Complexity of Closing a Sale,” and “Gr8 Web 2.0 Copy” about the craft of writing persuasively online.


My firm retains a consulting psychologist to advise in the science of human behavior. Florida Design’s comment above read that ‘they’re already looking for where to click”. And that is true in some cases, but how did the visitor come to know what they were looking for? Who or what sold them to hit the “buy now” button. What are they broadcasting they really need when they click on “learn more.” Do they just want more data, or can we write that data in such a way that will move them to buy?


What header persuades more? What big yellow button moves more people to take a profitable action? What lead form fields work best for my visitors? These are all questions that cannot be answered by usability studies, but rather by some sort of A/B or multivariate testing. And any effective testing requires some sort of scientific rigor.

Marketing and Selling

These are also disciplines that are established and several proven methodologies existed long before the Internet age. The prominence of social media today and the baby giant of search engine marketing are beginning to gel into tougher and more accountable disciplines.

The Lesson

If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Web site optimization is way too broad to be a subset of another honorable science like usability or information architect. If you are struggling in your optimization efforts, it might be time to examine your tools. You could be trying to solve a copy issue with design tool. Or you could be using a design tool to solve a persuasion problem.

Take the time to learn a little bit about all this disciplines so you can be sure you are using the right tool.

Add Your Comments

Comments (9)

  1. In order to understand what makes people click you need not only to understand Usability and Psychology, but specifically the great new work being done in the psychology of the unconscious. Most decisions and behaviors, including clicking at a website, are made unconsciously. The research is telling and exciting. I just wrote a book about it (Neuro Web Design: What makes them click; see

  2. Well said, Bryan.

    It is common for conversion optimization to be dismissed as a usability tool by designers.

    A holistic approach involves so much more, including testing of alternative value proposition components, which can then lead to learning that can even become a driver of other communications messaging.

    The simplification and dismissal of conversion optimization by agencies is driven by fear of data-based decision-making.

  3. I think it’s more discipline than science, and more than anything else when it comes to optimization.

  4. “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
    Great quote. Also, when I am approached by new client to help them get viewers to click or call, one of the first thing I want look at is their analytics. In many cases, companies to not know how to read them, have never looked at them, and did not know how to turn the clicks into leads. This is part of the science. I also agree that the call to action has to be meaningfull and related to the specific service you offer on a specific page. In otherwords, give someone a specific rather than general a reason to call you. They might think they do not need all of your services, but just one part of what you do. Thanks again for all your insights.

  5. Funny, I think I have been through this discussion with every company I have worked at. I learned this firsthand In the late 90′s at NextCard. You can address findability in a usability test for sure. Are people able to find and figure out how to get to the next step if motivated to do so, wether the motivation is artificial in the case of a usability study or genuine in the wild? And you can ASK people which button/link/widget they are more likely to click, but whatever you do, do not believe their answer! They will lie to you. Not intentionally, they just don’t really know, so they will just try to please you by answering what they think. But the situation is so artifical, they just can’t simulate their real motivation no matter how much they want to for you. We proved this over and over with real data at NextCard and then again everywhere else. I still like ASKING these things today but strictly for entertainment, as this limitation is well recognized. I think that it is pretty difficult to conduct an effective usability test and apply findings unless you appreciate this limitation perfectly.

  6. When we talk about site SEO Optimization it’s the same thing with research and discipline to do the work.

  7. There is so much to learn about conversion rate optimization that i’m a bit overwelmed…

    But you post was quite a good start. I’ll check the rest of the blog.


  8. Testing

    What header persuades more? What big yellow button moves more people to take a profitable action? What lead form fields work best for my visitors? These are all questions that cannot be answered by usability studies, but rather by some sort of A/B or multivariate testing. And any effective testing requires some sort of scientific rigor.

    SEO Testing

  9. Although if you have the visitor on your site, that’s 3/4 of the challenge, the other 1/4 should be easy, given the right conversion tools.

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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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