July 30, 2008, 12:00 AM

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Understanding why a site fails visitors and correcting those problems can lead to big improvements in conversion, a usability expert says.

Some bad news for online retailers and some worse news. E-commerce web sites can fail their visitors on one of seven levels. That’s not even the bad news. The bad news is: All e-commerce sites fail some segment of their visitors on one or more of these levels. The worse news: Not only do visitors who fail in their intended purpose not convert but those failures damage conversion rates into the future and across all the company’s channels.

But there is also good news: Identifying failed visits and understanding where and why the site failed those visitors may be the most important path to conversion improvement and brand protection.

Typically, less than 20% of visitors arriving at an e-commerce site intend to purchase. By the same token, more than 50% arrive with the intent to research specific products, look for sales or specials, or just browse.

The experiences of those who fail in their intent to purchase reveal the most urgent problems and provide a compelling and often alarming picture of opportunity loss.

There is just as much value, however, in analyzing the experience of visitors who fail in intents lying higher up the purchase funnel because their failure stops them from becoming purchasers. Failure, in this context, becomes a huge site asset-so long as it can be mined efficiently for both causal and remedial insights.

Comparative metrics taken from a 40,000-visitor sample across 12 well-known Internet retailing sites illustrate why failed visit data may be the most valuable data you can mine.

Here is a way of analyzing your site’s performance based on our failure analysis framework that provides a consistent method of prioritizing and attacking problems so a site can implement changes in ways that don’t create new problems by fixing old ones.

1. The Mission Level

The first and most harmful level at which the site can fail shoppers is the mission level. To determine if failure occurs at the mission level we analyze the efficacy of the site’s acquisition, conversion, retention, and advocacy strategies:

Are we attracting our target audience?

The most common surprise in demographic data tends to be that large segments of visitors don’t fit the target market profile, so the site isn’t designed to meet their needs. The discovery raises a conundrum: Is this a flaw in the acquisition strategy or an opportunity to serve a new market segment? Whatever the answer, it’s better to know about the situation than to be ignorant of it.

Are our target market visitors able to accomplish what they come for?

Cross-tabbing demographics with visit intent and visit success data provides the top-line answer to this question. Sites often find the most alarming data comes from the most prized shopper segments-those who arrive with the specific intent to purchase. We frequently see failure rates between 60% and 70% for this intent segment on brand sites. Brand-loyal shoppers expect the brand site to be the best source for its own merchandise. Rarely is that the case, and it represents a mission level failure.

How does the site experience influence visitors’ likelihood to do business with the brand in the future?

Cross-tab visit success against typical retention metrics-likelihood to return/recommend, affinity, purchase consideration, satisfaction. Visit failure exerts a dramatic impact on these retention metrics and failure occurring at the mission level has the most adverse impact of all.

Failure at the mission level indicates systemic problems with the site’s strategies. Mission level problems sit on the top of the priority stack.

2. The Findability Level

Site organization-architecture, taxonomy, search, sort and refine tools, and meta tagging protocols-determines how easily visitors find what they seek. Findability-related reasons for failure account for the greatest number of problems encountered by visitors. Questions to ask at the findability level include:

What is the comparative failure profile for the different pathways taken from the home page?

First click often dictates visit outcome. Cross-tabbing first click behavior with visit success and intent data shows how the initial navigational decision can doom a visit. A major multi-channel retailer implemented shortcuts on the home page to get shoppers quickly to the most popular product sub-categories. However, shoppers utilizing these supposed user friendly links reported a failure rate 67% greater than those following the traditional menu paths. The “enhancement” cost the site almost $100,000 a day.

How do searchers fare in comparison to browsers?

New search technologies have revolutionized the in-site search experience, but searchers still fail at a substantially higher rate than browsers. Rarely is the search engine the culprit. Few Internet retailers appear to have mastered meta tagging. By re-engineering its meta tagging, one customer improved search success related to parts sales from 16% to 45% in 90 days, generating conversion improvement of 54% for that category.

3. The User Decision-Making Level

Failure here indicates that the site has delivered the shopper to the right product but that the product pages themselves do not provide sufficient information or clarity for the shopper to feel confident enough to buy. The key question here:

What are visitors who leave from a product page and report a failed visit telling you about your product pages?

If shoppers come with the intent to research products and find the information they are looking for, they will often leave from a product page. Shoppers leaving from product pages and reporting visit failure, however, indicate problems at the user decision-making level. These shoppers cannot find sufficient information on the product pages to lift them to their individually determined level of certitude, which we define as “freedom from doubt.” With apparel, this problem occurs most frequently with issues of fit, color and fabric. With electronics it stems from specifications, connectivity, and compatibility. Whatever the cause, the solution is to provide answers that allow each visitor to reach his or her own level of certitude by systematically eliminating reasons for not buying online.

4. The Policy Level

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