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Landing Page Optimization: Guru Interview with Tim Ash

The trend of connecting the dots between marketing campaigns and the bottom line is accelerating. It is in large part why the Internet is taking ad spend away from traditional media of all stripes.

Getting more out of what you've already spent money on is another no-brainer. If you can tune up a landing page you already have to get more sales or leads out of it, would you? Of course you would, and so would I.

To help identify items to tweak for better response rates, I interviewed Tim Ash of SiteTuners.com, a consultancy that concentrates on landing page optimization (LPO).

Tim Ash is also the author of Landing Page Optimization: The Definitive Guide to Testing and Tuning for Conversions (John Wiley & Sons Press, 2008). You may have also seen him speak at SES, ad:tech or his Conversion Conference.

Tim gives us some unexpected insights into LPO. The next time you tune up a landing page, put your "Tim Ash glasses" on.

Here now is my interview with Tim Ash, as deftly edited by Janet Roberts.

First Impressions Can Raise or Lower Your Website's Bounce Rate

Larry Chase: What can you do to reduce your bounce rate, where people come to your page and decide within seconds that it's not for them?

Tim Ash: It really depends on the traffic source. You'll never get 100% of people to stay. But bounce is based on your first impression.

Canadian research shows that people form a first impression of your page within the first 50 milliseconds. That's shocking.

That's about as fast as your brain and visual system take in information. It's also subliminal. You know right away whether the page is cheesy, cluttered or professionally designed.

The best way to reduce your bounce rate is to cut back the clutter and improve the professional look of the page.

LC: I notice that Google is including page load speed in its quality scoring now. How important is that?

TA: What Google and others have found is that page load speed can also affect conversion rates. You can see a single- to low-double-digit improvement just by speeding up the page download.

LC: Should a single page be no larger than, say, 100K?

TA: There are no absolute numbers. Even a 400-millisecond delay can drop your conversion rate or user satisfaction rate significantly.

'Echo' Keywords to Keep Searchers in the Hunt

LC: In your book and some of your articles, you say it's a good PPC practice to echo keywords that people used to find you. Why would you do that?

TA: That's explained by the information-foraging theory, which says that if we are on the scent in our hunt for information, we will continue down that path. If we ever lose the scent, get confused or have to work too hard to understand the information, we'll probably abandon our task.

So, it's important to echo your keywords that were in the ad or what the person typed into the search field. You can even use them as the title of the page because you want to reassure visitors that they're on the right track.

LC: Why can you get better results if the page isn't so visually exciting?

TA: Effective landing pages are designed for conversion, not for aesthetics. Tightly controlling the focus of the landing page by having a plain page and emphasizing only a couple of key things is the best way to direct attention.

If, instead, your page resembles a bazaar, where everything competes for your attention, then visitors will be much less likely to pick out what is the main purpose of the page.

Where Should Key Info Go on a Page?

LC: How can you tell if a page element will compete for a viewer's attention with the call to action?

TA: We recently rolled out a tool called the Attention Wizard, which predicts where visual attention will go during the first few seconds on a page.

Site visitors are going to look at high-contrast images, closure of shapes, skin textures and faces and other things that typically litter our pages. That kind of stuff destroys any kind of visual hierarchy on the page.

You want to be real clear, to say "Here's the headline; here's what the page is about; here's the hero shot [the central image]; here's the call to action."

In countries [where people read from left to right], the eye will naturally travel from the upper left to the lower right of the page. Within that main diagonal, the most important information should be placed in the center of the page and slightly to the left.

The upper left is where you should put your brand, logo and a good, functional tagline. That anchors the experience and tells visitors where they have landed. Then, scan down to the middle of the page. That's where the most important information should go.

Identifying 'Hotspots' on Your Pages

LC: What are hotspots?

TA: These are visual hotspots on the page. Using our Attention Wizard tool, you upload a live page or a mock-up of a page, and we can predict where attention will go on the page, both good attention and bad attention.

Good attention is on your headline, the call to action or the hero shot. Bad attention is everything else, like visual frills and decorations, stock photos of people that have nothing to do with your product or service, etc. You want to try to make the page focus on the right things before you launch it.

SocMed Conversions

LC: Where does social media figure in the mix for landing page optimization?

TA: Social media has a different purpose. It's not designed to convert. It works farther up the funnel, creating awareness and interest, not the mechanics of closing a sale.

How Traffic Source Affects Landing Page Optimization

LC: How would you describe the differences among landing pages for PPC, for SEO and for dedicated solo email offers?

TA: Those are all radically different on a couple of levels. One is the expectation of the people showing up, and the second is the mechanics of how you make the landing page and the traffic source fit together.

What I mean by that is with SEO the text of the page itself determines whether you're going to get the traffic there, so the traffic acquisition and the conversion of the traffic are linked.

With pay-per-click, you have decoupled acquisition and conversion. Traffic arrives based on your keywords in an ad. The landing page can be constructed completely independently of SEO because you are controlling the traffic.

Email is similar. You can control the email message, and the landing page is divorced from it. However, you have to make sure there's continuity between what you promise upstream and what happens on the landing page.

LC: For PPC landing pages, you're not expecting so much SEO juice out of those.

TA: No. Our best practice is to leave the two separate. If you design a page specifically for SEO, fine. You inevitably have to make some compromises.

But you can control a pay-per-click landing page. You can control the keywords going into it. It should be a direct response page designed to get visitors to do what you need them to do.

Years of Testing Yield Surprises

LC: You've been in this field for years and probably done thousands of tests. What out of that body of experience has surprised you the most?

TA: We get the biggest surprises from:

  • Testing messaging and positioning
  • copywriting
  • graphics.

We often say if you have a complicated, long-form sales letter, you should break it into a microsite. We once took a long-form sales letter for a weight-loss ebook and chopped it up into a microsite, organized it all very logically and improved the professionalism of the page.

I'm proud to say we got a 30% decrease for conversion; people in that client's market preferred the more folksy, long-form sales letter. All of my best practices foundered on the rock of reality.

LC: It's always fascinating to learn about things that come out of left field, things for which you never tested.

TA: We've always said that if you have a call-to-action button, it should be inviting. It should be green instead of red because red is a "stop" color.

When we tested this, we learned that context is very important. We did two tests where the red buttons won: one for Verizon Wireless and one for [specialty retailer] Red Envelope. There, the deep, vibrant red was part of their brand colors, so it made sense for them to use red. When we tested other colors, they didn't work.

LC: Whenever people get the results of testing, they'll always attach a story to it. Is there a time when you can just look at the data and seek not to interpret it in such a granular way?

TA: Absolutely. People are meaning-making creatures. We need to explain things, to come to closure. We often assign meaning after the fact. Often, the results of tests are ambiguous. Sometimes, if you have a success, you should just put it in the bank.

On the Spot Review: Tim Reviews This Newsletter's Home Page

LC: What improvements would you suggest for the home page of Web Digest For Marketers?

TA: The subscription form is not visually striking. I would make the rest of the page white and have the "action block" a pastel-colored background that makes the form stand out.

Your messaging in the white area says "Subscribe Free" and then "Enter Your Email Address Here" and "Subscribe Me Now." Those are not particularly compelling. The form itself should have a clear purpose, which is "free marketing tips newsletter."

Tell me what's going to happen when I push that button. With calls to action, you should complete this sentence: "I want to ...". Here it should be "I want to get this newsletter."


Tim Ash is President and CEO of SiteTuners.com, a landing page optimization firm that offers conversion consulting, testing and software tools to improve conversion rates. He authored Landing Page Optimization: The Definitive Guide to Testing and Tuning for Conversions (John Wiley & Sons Press, 2008) and is founder/chairman of the Conversion Conference.

Tim recommends these tools for optimizing landing pages:

  • Attention Wizard uses an uploaded image of your live page or mock-up to predict where attention will go on that page. (Complimentary)
  • ClickTale and CrazyEgg both use heatmap-style graphics to track user actions on your page (click, keystroke, scroll, etc.). (Paid)
  • UserTesting.com "crowdsources" usability with a volunteer panel of visitors who report on efforts to complete tasks on your site. (Paid)