This article was originally published on Inman News:
Whether you’re building your first website or re-engineering one that’s been live for years, it can be difficult to have a clear vision. The cacophony of advice from consumers, industry associates, and vendors makes for a confusing outlook on the path toward a valuable resource for your company and your customers.
Too often our attention is focused on the loudest voices — the proverbial “squeaky wheels.” Whether they’re pushing shiny new objects, preaching easy profits, or attempting to scare us away from purportedly dangerous avenues, they’re often doing so for their own short-term personal gain or satisfaction. The long-term success of our businesses, in most cases, isn’t a large part of the squeaky wheel’s focus.
To avoid squeaky wheel engineering in the development of a website, business owners need to be open-minded, but also analytical, about every new idea or strategy. Even more so, they need to be highly skeptical about the veracity and merit of the source of any advice they receive.
Unsolicited consumer comments
Consumers who contact your company with problems or suggestions about your website can be highly valuable. Technical problems that users are experiencing and non-intuitive navigation that impedes discovery are just a couple of the many issues that consumers can bring to light. Businesses should encourage their users to report suggestions and problems, as they’re clearly the same issues that many other users are facing.
At the same time, one user’s opinion does not necessarily carry across to the majority of users’ preferences. While a handful of your website’s visitors may really prefer the multi-field, complex search form that they’re comparing on your site and others’, there may be twice as many other users quietly using your simple search and loving it. Changing your website’s look, or functionality, to appease a minority of your users is the quickest way to send the majority off to someone else’s business.
So, how do you find the right advice, or at least the right starting point for making website development decisions?
If you’ve got your own website, there is no greater truth about its effectiveness than analytics. How users get to your site, what they do on the site, and how long they stay will tell you almost everything you need to know about what is currently working, and what is not.
Whether you’re using Google, Moz, Bing, or some other webmaster/analytics tool, you need to take the time to study your analytics. Which on-page buttons get clicked, which links get selected, and which get ignored? Which pages are consumers landing on from search results? How quickly do they leave, or do they continue to other pages? Which is the most popular landing page, link, or piece of content that drives consumers to actually sign up/register/purchase?
Watching what consumers actually do on your website, as opposed to what they say they do, is the fastest shortcut to aligning your product with their preferences. Tracking 1,000 consumers’ actions anonymously yields far more valuable resources than listening to one of them rant.
Industry associates with analytics
If you’re starting a new website, you don’t have past analytics to review. There are certainly others in your industry doing the same things you are, however. While in most industries, competitors hide their analytics away from others, real estate is a rare breed where there are associated companies around the country who will lay out exactly what they are doing online. These are the people you can trust–they’re not pitching you a line, they’re showing you the proof.
Find the discussions online about successful companies that have analytics backing up their success, and you can learn from their experiences. See which vendors, strategies, navigation, content, etc. work for them. These are not people selling a product or asking for you to fix something to fit their preferences. They’re the crazy kind of people who believe that by laying their business blueprint out online for everyone to see, they’ll benefit in the long run. Take them up on the offer.
Surveys and focus groups can broaden input
If direct consumer feedback is your ultimate goal, make sure you’re receiving it from a statistically significant portion of your current or potential customers. There’s a lot to be gained from a broad sector of your customer base giving feedback and suggestions for your online direction.
Focus groups and surveys can allow you to hear from more than just the customers who send you unsolicited comments. They provide a more diverse group of consumers who you might not ever hear from without directly asking them for input.
Just be very careful that you keep the results of these kinds of programs in a separate bucket from your analytics. The results are purely qualitative, not quantitative, and the two don’t mix well. Surveys and focus groups are more useful in the idea generation stage of business planning, because of their skewed representation.
Every method has flaws, and some of your consumers are wrong
Surveys have plenty of flaws. Users have to opt-in to the process. The responses you receive will overwhelmingly come from customers who are unusually upset, happy, or bored. The consumers who are satisfied with your website, but busy, will likely not respond, and those are a very important segment of your base. Those who didn’t respond may, as an overall group, have very different opinions and habits.
The questions you pose in a survey will often lead consumers to answers they wouldn’t have supplied on their own. If you suggest potential changes to your website, a user will often decide that they are good ideas, even if they hadn’t previously felt the need for these changes. This can create the false sense of desire for a product or function from the overall customer base and create unnecessary development work for you.
Focus groups often exacerbate surveys’ problems. Your opt-in respondents are now not only a skewed sample based on their emotional pull to be involved, they’re also the kind of people who want to speak in public. The feedback received from a focus group can often be influenced by consumers’ need to make a point, to agree/disagree with others within the group, and to applaud or indict the business or services being discussed. In short, the results can include some great ideas, but can also create a wildly exaggerated picture of what your consumer population feels.
Don’t be a slave to analytics, either. While the truth buried in that data might be the most powerful tool in your arsenal, success isn’t purely traffic flow and conversion rates. You may find that a particular piece of content is wildly popular for brand recognition, but doesn’t drive a lot of customer sign-ups. Other parts of your website might be driving a higher conversion rate, but turning off a very high rate of the consumers who don’t sign up or register.
You’ll have to decide on your own what your business strategy is for these kinds of analytics questions. Short-term conversion might be the one and only goal. Driving long-term relationships at the expense of some short-term sales may be a more palatable direction for your business. Keeping an engaged, smaller core of users could be preferable to driving a wide range of traffic with less focus.
Choose a direction, find reliable comparison points, and verify your results
Developing your website requires you to have a strategy. Changing direction based on a comment from a colleague, a complaint by a customer, or a story about a new product is squeaky wheel engineering, and it will get you nowhere quickly. When you know the direction you’d like to go, find verifiable examples of others who are doing what you’d like to do. Plan your development to use tools that have a verified track record of success, and then monitor your own progress with analytics.
When you know exactly what you’re trying to achieve, your path is much clearer. Working toward that goal with confidence makes it easier to avoid distractions and the squeaky wheels.