Comparing Website Optimization to Search Engine Optimization

April 28th, 2008

search engine and website optimizationIt is important to note that website optimization is different than search engine optimization. I sometimes hear people interchange them – thinking they are the same thing. If you search on the net for website optimization, you will also get results that equate it to SEO. Guess what? I think they are wrong! Many larger online retailers know the difference between the two, and it was clearly dissected for me at last year’s Internet Retailer Conference in San Jose. I really think all website owners have a lot to learn from multi-channel merchants online as they already have this down to a science.

Search engine optimization is a strategy to get more site traffic by having more exposure on the search results; website optimization is a strategy to enhance your website experience to avoid that traffic from abandoning your site. For website optimization, it is all about raising your conversion rate (your desired reaction, like a sale or interaction) once visitors are on your site.

My definition of search engine optimization (aka SEO):
In most simplistic terms, search engine optimization (SEO) is a combination of tactics to make your website show up in the search engine results pages (and for the most part the first page or top 10 organic results) This process is to raise your website traffic with relevant visitors who may convert into customers or give you the desired interaction with your website or with your business. For a snapshot of some strategies for SEO, read more on my blog “What is Search Engine Optimization?”.

My definition of website optimization (aka WSO):
It is making your site better once you have the site visitor. It is the little changes and tweaks to landing and inside pages, usability considerations and overall site architecture that make the site visitor to most likely convert better.

Website owners spend so much time and investment on website visitor acquisitions (SEO and SEM) and barely any efforts on optimizing conversions and retention. If you had a website with 10,000 visitors per month and 1.5 percent of the traffic actually converted into a sale or a lead form, would you spend more time to double your traffic? You’d probably answer yes. But what if you had some way to double your conversion with the same traffic? Which way would be more effective in the long term and give you a higher return on investment?

I learned some tips and best practices about website usability at the Internet Retailer Conference on website optimization. I wanted to test this theory and did some minor enhancements to an online store I managed. Before the changes, the site had a consistent 1.8 percent conversion rate that became orders online (compared to overall site visitors). I implemented some usability tweaks to optimize the website like incorporating bread crumbs (navigation hints), location hints for the checkout, toll-free and guarantee blurb on every page. Believe it or not, we watched the conversion rate increase to 3 percent the very next month! We could have doubled our pay-per-click budget to make more money, and we didn’t. But these minor website optimization changes allowed us to get more money from the existing traffic. We have now doubled our sales without putting any more budgets into online advertising or SEO. These combined enhancements lowered our shopping cart abandonment because it enhanced the user experience during the shopping experience.

Website optimization can include a mix of the following:

  • Enhancing website performance: Sometimes websites are slow and the site visitors will bounce off the site if they experience it. You can use online tools to measure how fast your website reacts to requests (I use ). Switching hosting providers can solve this issue. Making sure you are not on a shared server with other sites that can slow your website down. A decent hosting company will have burstable solution where you are not capped or affected. Or there are software-as-a-service (SaaS) companies that have a great scalable solution. Also, make sure that your website is built on a good platform (online store, or Content Management System that is scalable and does not have issues with bloated databases that will hog the server memory) or find out how to clean up your databases to make your site run faster, if that is the case.
  • Advertising to and linking to relevant landing pages: Making sure whatever pages you are linking to from external campaigns on directories or banner ads are relevant and have the same messaging. Don’t direct all campaigns to your home page. If you have a banner ad for widgets, then link it to the widget page and not your home page. The more you leave your site visitors to hunt for the info, the more likely the drop-off will happen. Tim Ash, author of “Landing Page Optimization” is a huge advocate of optimizing your website landing pages. He delves really deep into this one strategy and articulates this practice so well that you will be sold that this alone is one of the best strategies and something that you should work on every day.
  • Tweaking usability and design: Look at the tiny details and try to get into your customers’ minds to determine what they want on your site. Learn what others have learned. Incorporate best practices for usability, for example: the checkout button is on top right and search bar on every page. Don’t try to be “different” or “cool” and let the site visitor guess at how to interact with your website. Keep the common-sense stuff consistent.
  • Enhancing experience and navigation: Help your site visitors find information and navigate back and forth. Use bread crumbs stating how deep the site visitors are in the site and give them ability to go back to first level with one click (non-linear), add hints to where they are on checkout (i.e. “you are on step 1 of 4”) and also have a sitemap link and search on every page.
  • Encouraging interaction for help: Have multiple points of contact available for your users for support. Online chat is a good one (like HelpOnClick or LivePerson). People want answers and support instantly, and will most likely not want to wait for an e-mail response later or the next day. Have a phone number, help topics and e-mail contact as backup. Having multiple help and support mediums might save you from losing a customer. I have found that for some small online stores, may have first-timers calling in orders or asking live chat questions – they only want to check out if you respond and are actually legit. In those cases, they will probably not ask for support the second time, as they may trust you from the first experience. Also, inquiries and concerns from such customers can actually give you ideas how to optimize your website further, so welcome every one of them. Some will most likely be issues you never even thought of!

There are many more ways and best practices to optimize your website and above are some good starting points. The important thing is that you start to analyze your website metrics and review the small changes as you go to see if they have made an impact. I would not recommend doing many changes at once, and if something does not have beneficial impact, you can change it back. Your website can and should get better when you understand the impact – it is an evolving process!

If you want to share similar experiences on this topic, I encourage you to leave a comment!

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