Zen and the Art of Website Conversion

by · October 31, 201221 comments

Long ago, before “social media” was a twinkle in Pete Cashmore’s eye, I used to build websites. Before that, I designed print flyers, billboards and brochures. The one thing that has never changed?

Nobody knows when to stop adding things.

I’ve been involved in creating websites since 2004, either as a coder, copywriter, project manager, webmaster, SEO, content manager, content strategist or some other capacity. In every single project, the client used the word “clean” to describe their ideal website design.

So why does nearly every website eventually end up a cluttered mess?

I don’t care. 

We could spend the rest of this blog post investigating the cultural and psychological causes behind a desperate need to fill every inch of white space on a design. We could talk about how modern life gets us addicted to overstimulation, making us profoundly uncomfortable with things like silence and emptiness.

Or we could discuss how you can keep it from ruining your conversion rate.

Let’s tackle that last one instead.

You’re messing with my Zen thing, man.

img courtesy winkler on sxc

First, let’s step back and get to a point of agreement that page clutter is a bad thing. A business website or blog is not a digital brochure, it’s a media channel.

Notice that word “channel”? It implies a free-flowing stream. Clutter dams the river.  Too many page elements make it difficult for a visitor to figure out what to focus on. Your calls-to-action get lost in the chaos.

When visitors first arrive at your home page, can they quickly find the ferry to their desired destination? Clutter means your visitor gets stuck on the bank like the avatar from Frogger, overwhelmed. Overwhelm translates to lack of confidence, fear and inhibition. Congratulations, instead of offering a warm, inviting welcome, you just intimidated your curious visitor like a bouncer outside a bar.

This isn’t just the prevailing wisdom, implied as having business value to justify aesthetic preference. Split-testing shows that eliminating page clutter dramatically improves conversions. In eCommerce websites, cluttered product and checkout pages increase abandonment rates, costing you sales.

But avoiding page clutter isn’t only important at the end of the sales funnel. It’s also vital if you use content as a lead nurturing tactic. Your content should be like you sitting down with a prospect, sharing your expertise. Would you rather that conversation happen:

  • In a quiet coffee shop with no interruptions, or
  • On a busy street with other elements screaming like street hawkers from the sidewalks?

At every stage of the sales funnel, it’s important to keep clutter to a minimum. Doing otherwise sabotages your carefully laid path to conversion.

The middle way to an uncluttered design.

I like metaphors. You can probably tell, because I’ve crammed a half dozen into this post so far. You probably won’t be surprised that I’ve got another one for you: think of your refrigerator. 

How many times have you had to ask someone “Where are the pickled ghost chilis?” only to be told they’re right in front of you… behind the milk? (Which you ‘ll need anyway, if you plan to eat pickled ghost chilis.)

What did Mom always tell you? “Everything can’t be in the front.”

It’s the same with your website. You can have as many pages as you want. You can have as many widgets and graphics and PDFs as you want. But everything can’t be in the front. Some things must be a click or more from the home page. Some things should be shifted to the footer. A page will only hold so many “featured” items, until nothing’s really featured.

If this was your fridge, what items need to be front and center (top of home page)? What could go on a lower shelf (below the fold)? What could go to the door (sidebar, footer)? What’s okay if you have to dig for it a little (doesn’t make the home page, but is easy to find in the navigation)?

I think we’re all in agreement that your terms & conditions page and privacy statement should be buried in the vegetable crisper.

Getting back on the path

Sometimes, a website starts out beautifully focused. This happens most often with blogs. In the beginning, a lot of bloggers are able to start out with a fairly clean layout, partly because they lack the development skills to add much to a basic blog theme. The beginner’s mind grants clarity.

Then over time, the clutter starts building up. Someone wants to put banner ads on your site.  Someone decides you need a live chat box.  You win some meaningless web award, and decide you need that logo to show off how awesome you are “provide social proof.” Someone suggests you’ll sell more if you add the logos from the BBB, the local chamber of commerce, your industry associations and your brother-in-law’s Masonic Lodge.

Honestly, though, the worst offender when it comes to gradual clutter build-up is social media. You add a Twitter widget. You add a Facebook page widget. Someone says you need a Pinterest or a Google+ account, so you add those, too. You add share buttons to every page. You start adding share buttons to multiple items on a single page.

Then one day, you realize that your website has become the waiter from Chotchkie’s, with 57 pieces of flair. When that happens, it’s time to get back on the path. Let go of your attachment to that award logo. Or the badge telling everyone you sponsored that event. Don’t let your ego get in the way of keeping your eyes on the real prize: conversions.

Screenshot a few pages of your website. Print them out. Circle in red any items that you added “to see if they’d help.” Dig into your analytics, especially the In-Page Analytics and Visitor Flow reports. Have those items measurably helped guide visitors down the path to conversion? If not, ditch them.

Riding the white elephant

Sometimes, you get stuck with content elements that you can’t get rid of, despite their total lack of usefulness. This is especially true with corporate websites.

In that case, if you can’t get rid of it, the best approach is to see if you can at least make it less noticeable. If you can’t provide visitors a calm, zen-like environment, at least clear a path for them.

Push the clutter elements to sidebars, footers, and subpages wherever possible. Push it below the fold, if moving it off the home page isn’t an option. If it’s a graphic, see if you can apply a filter to grey out the item unless someone mouses over it. The same people who like adding endless graphics to an already-busy page usually love any kind of animation.

Also, consider the possibility of making subtle tweaks to your CSS and HTML to create the illusion of more space and fewer items on the page. Increasing the line spacing, leading, or font size can give users eyes a rest, as can softening the colors a bit. Gradients, drop shadows, patterns, rules and other background design elements can create a more sophisticated design, but if you have to sacrifice them in the name of clarity and content focus, it might be worth it.

Balance the value that each item adds to the page against the overall cost in creating greater friction for the visitor. Some items may have more value than the non-negotiable-but-worthless stuff, but if the plane is going down, you toss the bags of rice and hope you can find food when you land.

The supreme art of war is subduing the enemy without fighting. – Sun Tsu, The Art of War

Also, let go of the idea that every visitor needs to pass through the home page. If you’ve lost that ground, concede it. Instead of wasting your efforts fighting a losing battle, redirect your energy. Go build on uncontested land. More than likely, you have the power to create clean, streamlined landing pages anywhere but the home page. So create them, and then point your search, display, email and social campaigns directly to them.

In Summary:

If you want visitors to convert, you have to provide them with a clear and inviting path.

Unnecessary clutter can cause visitors to stumble on that path.

Identifying and eliminating clutter that has built up over time can improve conversion rates.

If you can’t eliminate or neutralize clutter, provide an alternative path.

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About Kat French

Kat French

Kat French is the Digital Operations Manager at CafePress. An exceptional writer both on the web and in other genres, Kat combines creativity with an agile, get-it-done attitude across a broad range of experience in community management, SEO/PPC, social media strategy and program management. She has worked with national brands like Maker's Mark, Daytona Beach Tourism, Optima Batteries and more.

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Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • Pingback: Marketing Day: October 31, 2012

  • OBVAVirtualAssistant

    It’s hard to get noticed when you’re just another small start-up in the big apple. If entrepreneurs use their ideas correctly, they can derive very powerful way to drive traffic and conversions.This is a great example for all star-ups.

  • Ron Ben-Zeev

    Kat – Absolutely brilliant and simple post, which is not an easy feat. I have bookmarked this site and will refer to your comments often when meeting with clients. 

    • http://www.internet-bard.com KatFrench

      Thanks, Ron. Hopefully your clients like metaphors!

  • http://thegirlinthemiddle.wordpress.com/ Molly_Mac

    I am at a company meeting (as you saw on the twitter) and we had a vendor in today who has done a mobile site for us (as a part of his larger business platform) and it honestly has everything that WE NEED for our business on a 3 x 5 screen. Clean, useful and like he said, nothing flashy, mobile doesn’t need it.

    Heck, after his presentation I am not sure I even WANT to look at the company site anymore.  ;)

    • http://www.internet-bard.com KatFrench

      I’m completely jealous of your meeting place. I think mobile is another area where designers have a little more leverage to push for simplicity. I wish more of that mobile philosophy would migrate to the bigger screen. :)

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  • http://buzzshift.com/ Meagan Dahl

    Great metaphor! I love the book but never saw a parallel to our industry. Like you said, effective doesn’t necessarily mean complicated, it means pared down to the simplest, successful form. I’m always most attracted to website that is designed well and gives me exactly what I’m looking for without any unnecessary distractions. As far as my personal projects go “going with the flow” in a creative design sense is always the goal, but not necessarily the outcome but I’m working on it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/RCONNORIII Robert Connor

    Simpler works for me.Sometimes we need to work a little more of that in our own daily lives!

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  • Michael Bian

    Agreed, “The beginner’s mind grants clarify” Definitely I will bookmark it. Thanks Kat!

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  • GMEHTA89

    Well strategy is something I always lack in my approaches to attracting more traffic to my blogs. Thanks to encouraging me again to work in the direction of strategic planning of my approaches in marketing and optimizing my blog of an artist. my blog is http://www.sscresultportal.com/

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