The Revenge Of Scientific Marketing

Lawrence looked Jenny straight in the eye and said, “One of the big advantages of using our company is that we perform Search Engine Optimization on our websites.”

“What is that?” Jenny asked.

“It’s a process of optimizing your website’s code so that it performs better on search and ranks higher,” says Lawrence.

“Oh that ‘s very important.  I need to be on the front page of Google,” Jenny replies.

“Normally we charge over a thousand dollars for this process, but I tell you what, I’ll throw it in for just $300 if you sign today.”

“Wow, that’s a great deal.  I really appreciate it.”

“Now keep in mind, that due to the nature of search, nobody can make guarantees on ranking, but this has helped other companies achieve first place ranking on Google,” says Lawrence with a smile.


The above is an example of a highly melodramatic web development sale.  Closing techniques like those employed by “Lawrence” have been common since around 2002, and rely on jargon and technological ignorance to sell what amount to “vapor services -” services that have little or no significant scientific effect.

I have worked with development companies and have known developers and salespeople who have sold a service product called “Search Engine Optimization.”  While it began as a valid, scientific approach to making websites meet guidelines of major search engines, SEO quickly grew into one of the  most profitable, yet least understood service products in the history of web marketing.

Unfortunately, 80% of it is a scam.

What if I told you I could sell you a scented spray that gives you more persuasive power and makes people like you?  What if I then told you that I can’t tell you the secret  ingredients, but it has been used “effectively” by several highly successful people?  I then show you a list of these people and even one of them you have heard of.

Now, if I told you that because it works differently on different people, I can’t guarantee that it will work for you all the time, or in some cases, it might not work at all —  would you still buy it?

Based on what SEO sales numbers suggest, I think the answer is that you just might buy a case.  Many people fall for this exact same ploy every day when they buy into SEO.

The technical side of what is often sold as “Search Engine Optimization” can be done by an entry level coder  in 20 minutes.  The methods used can be found quickly and easily online, and amounts to simply placing keywords repeatedly throughout the page and following a few rules of syntax so that your code is not penalized by search engines.

A lot of people have gotten wise to the uselessness of most SEO services, and thankfully more companies are requiring a results based contract .

In the defense of reputable SEO companies, real link building and content creation requires many hours of highly specialized work, akin to running a small newspaper. To truly drive search ranking, you have to make your website popular.  While popularity can be faked and manufactured, every day Search gets better and better at detecting tricks and “black hat” SEO techniques that attempt to inflate results.

Thanks to recent changes in Google algorithms and the purchase of a company called Alexa, they are better than ever at determining that your site is popular because it REALLY IS POPULAR!

While “experts” like our character, “Lawrence” are entering the global web market all over the world with no significant background in social research or statistics, there is a scientifically disciplined movement emerging that utilizes the fantastic array of tools available to understand and make marketing more effective and efficient. That movement is Conversion Research Optimization.

Conversion Research Optimization is a hot trend that attempts to improve design efficacy through testing and analysis. At  best, it is research methodology applied to achieving certain outcomes; at worst, it is a set of tacit assumptions by a consultant that may not be optimal at all.

A conversion is when your website achieves a measurable goal.  An example would be to make a sale in your e-commerce system, or receive a valid email address of an interested customer. Put simply: conversions are what you want.

Conversion optimization is a process that has been popularized by the rise of Google Adwords and their advanced traffic analytics system (technology they purchased from a company named Urchin several years ago). Put simply, it is a “process” that optimizes your website to achieve higher conversions.

Sounds good, right?

No. The problem is that unless this Conversion Optimization process follows the same research standards as academic science, it could be baloney.  The results could be completely arbitrary and as we say in statistics, spurious.

If a conversion optimization specialist redesigns your website, and your conversions jump 100%, then you can say that you increased your conversions. However, what if that is because your previous website was clearly useless and any professional redesign would have helped? You still don’t know if that is the best possible sign.

Chances are, it could be better.

Let’s say you have a sandwich shop that has a paper cardboard sign.  You buy a nice new neon sign.  You start getting more customers. That was a good thing, but it’s certainly not the same thing as conversion optimization.

Good research depends on standards of statistical significance that have been rigorously developed over past 200 years.  The goal of science is to rule out chance and demonstrate “objective” relationships or causality.

Lack of controls for unknown variables are a hallmark of sham science.  What if you recently got your website featured in a prominent blog  and you didn’t know it?  Would you attribute that bump in traffic and gross conversions to your conversion optimizer? You can bet they will take credit for it.

The fact is, conversion optimization is one of the most important fields of scientific market research today – it has the ability to dependably and predictably improve the effectiveness of your website over time through experimentation.  Instead of you, your staff, or your consultant guessing which design is best, you can find the one that is the most effective.  Even if it is ugly or unconventional, any smart business wants a goose that lays golden eggs.

You learned about the scientific method in high school, and the experiments used in proper CRO follow the same logic:

  • You have to have a scientifically valid sample size
  • You must at least compare two accurately measurable variables
  • At least one should be a control group to rule out unknowns

The most accurate experiments performed by researchers involve randomly and evenly rotating web visitors between two designs or variations of your website to determine which is more effective at achieving a measurable outcome.   Once each version has been viewed around 100 times, you have a valid sample size and analysis can be performed that  determines that one is better than the other at achieving your objective.

In conversion optimization, everything is a variable: the colors, the shapes, the placement of images, the colors of the buttons, the language and the number of choices.  Early experiments might involve a simple competition between three unique designs.  Later in the same campaign, you might be down to which image of a family seems to be the most attractive and effective?

Another clear use for this type of research is for pricing structures.  Two identical layouts present the same general set of prices, but with some variations in payment terms or even in the order in which you list them.

It is real science folks, and it takes the guesswork and “bs” factor out of expert consulting.  There are a million “internet consultants” out there who are experts on what they think works best.  The only ones that matter are those that are willing to test their hypotheses scientifically.

After all, any advice you get from any consultant is a hypothesis, not fact.

The sad news is that while CRO is a popular trend in the broader movement of market research since the 1920’s, it won’t be long before it’s reputation is tarnished by scam artists, and the real science that builds results will be held hostage by charlatans and carpetbaggers.