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Wednesday, Jun. 10, 2009 at 9:15 am

Improvement Starts With (Bad) Habits

By John Quarto-vonTivadar
June 10th, 2009

Occasionally we hear from clients after they’ve implemented some recommendation for improvement (from our OnTarget service), that they see a temporary dip in conversion. This seemingly goes against logic — after all, if you fix a problem, things should get better, right? — but Mammals aren’t entirely logical nor rational, at least not as often as we’d like to think, and particularly when it comes to learned and patterned behavior. Sometimes it takes your customers a while to “get used to” the changes you made (think of how long your customers’ buying cycle is), especially when they are surprised to wake up one morning and discover such changes implemented. You knew the changes were coming; the customers are generally taken off guard. A short video illustrates:

YouTube Preview Image

Not only will the dog not go out the door, despite evidence it’s not there (she sticks her head thru, for goodness sake…sounds like logical, rational, tested evidence of no door, right?), but instead is cued to the behavior of the door handle. And it’s not immediately clear that she believes the evidence since she then waits outside for the door handle to be involved in re-entering the house. What she really needs is the repetition of the new activity several times before modifying her own behavior. So there’s a delay between the implementation of the change and its measured improvement.

What’s interesting is that you see this behavior in humans too. How many diet solutions focus on giving one a sense of “feeling full”, not because one needs to eat so much, but simply one has gotten used to eating a certain relative volume of food and therefore reinterprets a smaller volume as “I’m not done yet”. Or, your City fixes some streets and roads and months later drivers still need “Warning: New Traffic Pattern” signs to remind them that something different, even something improved,  has come along.

Of course over time, we all become used to the new way of doing things and that’s when the actual benefits of optimization will start to yield your company the long-tail, long-term results.

This is why we so often talk about a “cycle of improvement” and a “culture of testing”, because optimization gets its biggest bang from operating continuously. So the next time you make some improvements to your site, consider the idea that it’s completely normal for a dip in conversion to occur at that point in the persuasive process; use the time to plan your next round of improvements, so that when you come out of the dip you’re ready for the next cycle. Get realistic about your expectations and you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

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Comments (77)

  1. I am in OnTarget right now; honestly I think all of the changes so far have made since to me. I just did not see them before.

    I have a big change coming on my homepage in the header section to make my website to look zippier for a better word. The changes will also add about 35K in file download size to my home page and all other pages of my website, so we will see how giving the customer more sizzle but making them wait longer to downloading it, will effect bounce rate and etc…

  2. We definitely see this cycle with MVTs – the eventual winner often bombs initially – then steadily improves. Hence resist the temptation to act on results too early. We’ve learnt that lesson.

  3. Yup, saw that one too when I first did a complete site redesign. Had a minor heart attack for a week or so, wondering why conversions were down so much, and then saw them pick right back-up.

    Now I know to wait longer and not worry. Glad to hear it’s common wisdom these days though.

  4. Something which might help is to try to track the behaviour of people who are most likely to be new visitors to the site. For example, set up a segment which only includes searchers who use a generic term. This group is a great proxy for “people who are not familiar with your site”.

    They can be useful as an everyday reality check and they could also be particularly useful for reducing the frightening effect described here.

  5. I often see the same, when I am doing some SEO improvements on my sites.

    First it looks like a catastrophy – and the the rise starts.

  6. [...] Via FutureNow VN:F [1.3.1_645]please wait…Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast) Partagez cet article : [...]

  7. It looks like random variation to me:

    as we get into summer the weather will get better on average – but that does not mean that every single day will be better than yesterday.

  8. I wish my dog could do all this sort of stuff, and clean up after its self. HA ha

  9. @John of SiteDoublers: not sure what point you’re trying to make

  10. Sounds like a familiar problem, it is certainly hard to explain how this can happen so thanks for the article

  11. It certainly is interesting how familiarity can make us behave in certain ways. A very well written article

  12. This is a very good point. Often these things do take time to improve.

  13. I wish I could teach my dog that trick

  14. Nice post, I have alot of bad habbits, can i improve?

  15. Improvement is a hard thing to ascertain and this is a nice way of looking at it

  16. Everyone can improve. You just need to have the drive to do it

  17. Improvement will only come when you recognise that there are improvements to be made

  18. If I could turn all my bad habits to good then it would a brilliant improvement

  19. Out with the bad and in with the good

  20. Now if you could tech them not to pee on the carpet.

  21. Change your habits is very difficult with everybody especial with bad habits, your post make me do it easier.
    Thank for your help.

  22. How ironic to come across this article. Deja vu. Just recently cleaned up my site, fixed and updated code, optimized, ran checks and balances and then waited to dominate google first page. lol Dropped like a rock. Only temporarily. After pulling my hair out and freaking out, I regained control, gave it some time, and now and back on top and even climbing for much more competitive keywords. Must practice patience. Should be first rule of SEO.

  23. There is an old saying…patience is a virtue. It is so true. How many times have we rushed into a decision only to regret it later? Think it through first before you leap. Funny how we have so much to learn from our canine friends.

  24. That is too funny. Like the the dog! Thanks for sharing.

  25. hahaha, that’s a really bad habit..

  26. Interesting article.

  27. Any business implementing changes need to allow time for the habits of the past to change. The description above of the dog is apt, many are too scared to take on change and this is where good management and good explanation of reasons for change are important in the process. Make the personnel understand why they should stick there head out!

  28. I have been working so hard to get rid of all my bad habbits, but its not easy

  29. You’re right, sometimes what looks like will not work and that is not the best path has converged to a good result.

  30. I saw this once after redesigning my site. Conversions 1st dropped a lot, then came back even higher than before. Now I know to wait and not to worry. Any implementation changes require time for the change to be fully operational. Like the dog example. Good post.

  31. That dog is so cute, wish I could fool my dog with a similar trick. Back to the article however, it was a great way to illustrate your point.

  32. Great video, works well to illustrate your point. Thanks for the advice.

  33. You will always have bad habbits as they are pretty hard to shake off and if you didnt have any you would be perfect.

  34. Boy can I relate to the not done yet dieting example. We get so conditioned and fixed on routines that is sometimes proves to our detriment. Thanks for the interesting article.

  35. unfortunately i can’t see the video.But the article is wonderful.
    I think if you can turn your bad habits to good one,that will be a big step and a huge improvement!

  36. A great article! Thank you very much! It’s very hard to get rid of bad habits.The way out is really to analize the behaviour and create a strong desire to change for the good!

  37. I wish I could teach my dog that trick

  38. Some great tongue in cheek humor in that one haha.

  39. Haha, thats nice. Well animals are a great utility that can be used for educational purposes at times.

  40. Clever name for the article.

  41. I wonder how they did the research for this?

  42. Thats right, we must improve our bad habbits so we can improve

  43. I am in the process of redesigning my site in Auburn and optimizing the pages. It is a scary thing to make all the changes and pay for the changes and then wait to see what happens.

    I am very excited but at the same time full of anxiety. Very good post and timely to me!

  44. I have some bad habbits but I dont think I can break them. I must try!

  45. its hard to find a achievable yet challenging objects to define a realistic goal, but is important to strive for this as much as possible.

  46. hahaha, Nice post.

  47. What you have mentioned is very true and is amplified because the visitors are large in number compared to just one individual(the dog in your example). Improvements in any site does not give results overnight and requires time and a lot of patience on the part of the webmaster.

  48. quite amusing really.

  49. Some great tongue in cheek humor in that one, love it

  50. is is really true that sometimes takes your customers a while to “get used to” the changes you made. I have lost on it a lot.

  51. Haha! Crazy habbit.

  52. I think the psychology/ human behaviour aspect is fascinating and I’ll not be so quick to “undo” changes in future.

  53. Interesting idea and I’m sure you are correct. Makes me feel a bit better for sure

  54. I have always believed this. It is good to hear someone who agrees

  55. This is really great article. Thanks for sharing!

  56. Some great cheek humor in that one, love it, thank you

  57. I like the topic and im feeling the broad knowledge of the writer of the post. Nice Blog in all. Thanks for sharing such info.

  58. You have to have been bad to know when your good, thats how I see it

  59. Dogs do what dogs do

  60. I have ironed out some of my bad habbits but new one appear. I need focus.

  61. Wonderful analogy, it is similar to the growth with small peaks and dips.

  62. Thanks very much.I like the topic and im feeling the broad knowledge of the writer of the post

  63. Too right i say, We can all learn and improve ourselves

  64. very smart dog, nice video!

  65. A great article! Thank you very much! It’s very hard to get rid of bad habits.The way out is really to analize the behaviour and create a strong desire to change for the good!

  66. This is really very useful. Bad habits are something that should be turn into useful and successful achievements one day.

  67. This is interesting. I never realized that. Thanks for the article.

  68. What a sweet dog!

  69. Think it through first before you leap. Funny how we have so much to learn from our canine friends.

  70. I often see the same, when I am doing some SEO improvements on my sites.

    First it looks like a catastrophy – and the the rise starts

  71. Yes This is good information. SEO can take time but it is like baking a cake and will rise to the top in time and depending on the ingredients.

  72. Thanks for this great list of websites. This will come to great use.
    Benchmarking MRO

  73. well, it is always a bit discouraging to see a new implementation backfire. Everybody hopes for instant results now a days.

  74. I’m also going to blog about that. Your time isn’t going to waste with your posts.

  75. Well of course! how can you improve if you were never bad!

  76. I was able to improve my self tenfold by ironing out the bad things

  77. perhaps improvement starts with the awareness of bad habits. Lots of people have bad habits, but if they are not aware of them, or choose to ignore them, then they are not going to get any better and improvement. But point taken, bad habits can be a very motivating way to improve yourself for the better.

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John is the co-author of the best-selling Always Be Testing and 3 other books. You can friend him on Facebook, though beware his wacky swing dancer friends, or contact him directly at

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