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Monday, August 18, 2008

Pocket Review: Bryan Eisenberg and John Quarto-vonTivadar, Always Be Testing

I just got through a bit over half of Bryan Eisenberg and John Quarto-vonTivadar's Always Be Testing: The Complete Guide to Google Website Optimizer, on the plane on the way from Toronto to San Jose. In the last hour of the flight, I quickly scanned the remaining chapters. Funny and all too familiar story: I left the book in the back of the seat when I got off the plane, so I expect United Airways personnel, or the next passenger, to begin feverishly improving their online presence any day now.

The "hard" sections of the book are the deep underpinnings of consumer motivations: personality types, goals, personas, etc. Anyone who has attended an Eisenberg conference session will have glimpsed these. These are insights worth digesting carefully - and are the most difficult to put into practice. Professionals only, please.

The inspiring sections come early on, when the authors simply do a great job of making the case to test at all. In my mind, they're rivaled only by Seth Godin in subtly shaming marketers for allowing organizational inertia for failing to test. I particularly liked the sentence that mentioned that you can get your testing motor running by choosing a key landing page to drive paid search traffic to. (Google Website Optimizer will measure conversions from all types of traffic, but it's clear that you can accelerate your testing towards profitable conclusions by sending more relevant paid traffic to the test page in a fast spurt. Thus Google doesn't tie use of its free product to use of Google AdWords, but they certainly stand to benefit from increased advertiser confidence.)

The actionable sections are all over the place. In the first half of the book you get a nice tactile sense of what you can test right now: the key drivers that can vault a small company's conversion rates up 100%, and a large company's page performance up by 25% -- assuming they didn't suck in the first place, in which case improvements might even be greater.

There's also an interesting discussion of offbeat types of testing that measure outcomes other than simple conversions: divergent paths; specific clicks; time on site, etc. Although web analytics folks have often churned through such data and pontificated in the general direction of management, it's safe to say few have kicked it up the required notches to make those stats into actionable tests. Marketers like you, me, and the authors are evidently going to be stretching the capabilities of Google Website Optimizer well beyond its initial build. The good folks at Google Analytics and Google Website Optimizer have produced a robust initial product, but Eisenberg et al. won't just pat them on the back and leave them there. This amazing free tool is no doubt going to add a whole bunch of new capabilities on top of its existing solid core.

Cool examples abound. The small world of conversion science already holds the keys to much improved e-commerce performance, in a kind of database of ideas (not certainties... that's what they are, ideas about what you can try). Take Dell changing the phrase "Learn More" to "Help Me Choose," and then revamping some of the subsequent content accordingly. Which approach do you think works better to close a sale?

There are reasons testing aficionados will continue to run up against organizational resistance. Implicit web developer assumptions about information architecture often stop at pleasing but ultimately non-closing types of user patterns. Eisenberg et al. are no slouches at information architecture -- indeed there is a meaty section on designing better categorizations in this book. But the default initial build (or three) of a large company's site might still tilt too much toward: "put our information out there, install a cart system, and hope they buy." Conversion science is about asking for the sale, in the granular context of particular site visitors and their needs. And no, it doesn't always have to be a sale. But if it's not some kind of measurable event, then it's gossamer (ain't it?).

Comprehensive "catalog style" sections on the elements and minute sub-elements that you could test serve as a nice complement to the tactile "here's some basic ways to test" sections. Not to hype ya, but this little catalog of testing ideas could be worth tens or hundreds of thousands of bucks to your company. Eisenberg has generously open-sourced them.

I bumped into Bryan just minutes after getting off the plane, and he stressed that while the catalog-style section of testing elements is overwhelming on the surface, the book is meant to be the type of reference that sits on your desk to be used whenever it's needed. I'll certainly have one on mine, and copies for my team... after I replace the one I just left on the plane, of course!

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