Can Web Experiments Go Too Far?

Numismatics_and_Notaphily_iconI remember a few months back when there was a big stir in the Facebook community when it was announced that Facebook had been experimenting to see if they were able to influence the moods of Facebook users. They gave some people very upbeat feeds and gave others more negative feeds to see if the different feeds would influence people’s moods positively or negatively. And as one would suspect it did impact people and there was a difference between seeing puppies and kittens versus bus wrecks and war stories. But Facebook got caught and they issued the appropriate apology and promised they would never do it again.

I find the whole story amusing since people are experimented on every day on the web. I’m not sure that everybody gets that the vast majority of our web experience is funded by advertising. Most of the sites that people enjoy are there because of advertising, and web advertisers experiment on us every day trying to find that one technique, that one color scheme, that one catch phrase that will get more people to buy what they are selling.

There are countless examples of how experiments are done on users to find out what works and doesn’t work. The companies that run these experiments are often open about it and not apologetic like Facebook was. For example, just last month Google announced that it was launching a major set of experiments to improve its performance on cellphones. They’ve gotten very good on computers but are not getting the same results from phones. Google’s ultimate goal is to be able to track people’s purchasing across all platforms so that they can know when somebody sees an ad on a cellphone but completes the purchase on a computer.

Most big companies that sell things on the web experiment with their web site to see what best influences the number of sales or clicks they get. The process of experimenting with website design is called Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO). That’s a fancy way of saying that that a company will change subtle things about their site to see if it makes a difference in sales. They can change everything from color, fonts, pictures, message, layout etc. to see what is most effective. The web sales process is basically one large ongoing experiment on customers.

What works often defies logic. For example, Trip Advisor found that having a blue background was more effective when a customer came to their site from Google but that having a yellow background was more effective for customers who came straight to Trip Advisor. They have no idea why.

The subtle differences that come from CRO can make a big difference in results. For example, Google revealed earlier this year that using a different shade of blue on search results caused more people to click links and this one change increased their revenue by $200 million for the year.

This is not to say that all such CRO changes are ethical or as easy as changing colors. For example, some web sellers use techniques like using deliberately confusing language to get people to buy or click something. Or they may trick customers into checking boxes that give away the right to return a product. And web sales have always used techniques like hiding expensive shipping prices until the last step of the process. There has always been an unsavory side to sales and it’s no different on the web that has its own version of high-pressure sales techniques.

You can take some advantage of CRO with your own website. If you are trying to sell broadband products or add-on features on the web you should be taking steps to maximize your sales. You may not have the time or resources to conduct continuous CRO experiments, but you can still take advantage of the process. For example, take heed of the companies that are successful at selling on the web. Some of the most successful sellers of web telecom services are the various companies that sell VoIP services, so you might want to look closely at their web sites or to similar companies and compare them to your own. What colors are they using? What’s their mix of text and pictures? Do they use full sentences or phrases?

I often browse carrier web sites and I see many that are terrible at describing their products and prices. Too many companies build a website once and never really look at the design again for many years. This might be acceptable if your website is used for nothing more than to provide basic information about your company. But if you are hoping to drive any sales from your web site you have to put more effort into the details. Don’t be afraid to experiment a bit with different ideas, different looks, different presentations. And if you do, take notes so that you know what worked and didn’t work.

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