The importance of A/B split testing your website

Alan Hopkins looks at what A/B split testing is and why it's key to understanding your website, your audience and helping you get things done right.

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For seasoned digital marketers A/B testing or split testing your web pages is nothing new. It’s been around for years and it’s a really simple addition to your planning, testing or even as part of your digital strategy. Why are we writing a blog about then I hear you ask? Good question, one that has a simple answer. I’ve been working in Auckland for 9 months now and I’m being exposed to new brands and digital agencies every week and there is a common theme; split testing seems to almost be an alien concept.

A colleague of mine actually described split testing as my ‘secret weapon’. It’s a nice way of putting it, although the word secret does rather back-up my point. In many ways split testing is a weapon, it has countless benefits both from a digital marketing standpoint and as an incredibly powerful way to get your point across to clients or stakeholders.

Below I’ve outlined what split testing is and some of the key benefits of testing your website or webpage’s.

What is A/B or split testing?

For those that aren’t seasoned digital marketers we will start at the beginning. A/B testing, split testing (or even bucket testing) is the act of comparing two versions of a web page to see which performs best.

A software or analytics package will show the two versions of the page automatically to visitors at a typical rate of 50%. This in theory means that one visitor could visit your website at 3pm and see version A of your page. A second visitor arrives at 3:01pm and sees version B.

Using the split testing software platform website owners can determine by what measure to determine a winner. This could be a conversion (lead capture, sale etc), an event (e.g. a PDF download) or even how long a person spends on the page.

When a winning page is found you then have the choice to continue with your existing one or switch to the new version.

Why should I split test my web pages?

Split testing is used to help you understand your website and your visitors with the end goal typically to improve your conversions or engagement. Whilst there is a huge amount that can be written about a/b testing and the potential benefits I’ve decided at some personal and practical benefits that extend beyond your website and into working with a stakeholder, boss or client.

#1 – Make website changes with low risk, high reward

Let’s say you work generating leads for private healthcare customers. Your landing page results are down but the page has worked perfectly for 6 months. The easy solution is to try to do some conversion rate optimisation on the page and find out what is wrong and then fix it. That makes sense but you don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water, it could be your problem isn’t webpage related.

Instead, take your optimisation recommendations and build a duplicate page and split test it. This way you can accurately measure the changes against the old page and see if it makes a difference. If it does, fantastic, if it doesn’t then make some changes to your new page and test again.

Another example on a smaller scale. I own a small Auckland based social media agency. I’ve just been through a cool expensive re-brand which includes our office mascot Dave the cat. We are finding that since introducing him to the page we are getting much higher bounce rates. It’s just a theory but if we take him off will that make a difference? Rather than sorting the branding, do a simple split test by removing him and see what happens.

Whilst these may not be the world’s greatest example what it does is show the various benefits of split testing. It can allow you to make and test changes to your site and pages without overhauling, without re-designing or getting an agency to do an entire audit. You remove the potential risk of making a snap decision or decision based on anecdotal feedback. You can try it even if you think it maybe not quite right, if it isn’t you’ll know pretty quickly.

#2 – Make a great case for change

Not entirely dissimilar to proving a point split testing can be the backbone of making a case. Here’s another example of how split testing has helped me over the years.

I was working at a business that used online forms as their key lead generation means. I’d ran some form testing and found that we had a high percentage of users drop off on the field where we asked the user ‘where did you hear about us’. This meant we were losing out on conversions because of this field.

Google Analytics experiments example screenshot

I took this information to a senior but was told it’s a necessary field to help with marketing spend. Ok, fair enough. What if I create a split test without it? Fast forward two weeks and I have the results of my test, the form without the HDYHAU field has won by over 105%. I can now put a case together that has tangible numbers attached to them. I can accurately say that by removing the field we could generate double the amount of enquiries in a year. It’s a compelling argument and one that I won. Two crowns is just greedy.

#3 – Prove a point

This seems a rather petty way to describe this particular point but I’ve worked as a digital consultant and client-side long enough to know that just telling someone you’re right about something isn’t enough.

A few years ago I was working with a particularly difficult stakeholder who despite having no digital (or even marketing) background insisted she was right based entirely on seniority. She had heard that long pages with lots of content was a bad thing and so wanted a landing page to have minimal copy and be image heavy. I suggested that whilst she was broadly correct we had no evidence in our industry and for our market that this was the right approach. The trouble was I had no solid evidence either way, so she ‘won’.

Well, she would have won had I not suggested creating an alternative version of the page with more text, less imagery and a different layout. We then split test this and ran it for two weeks. After two weeks the page with more content had more engagement and generated more actions (a PDF download).

That’s the thing, whilst her basic digital knowledge was sound and based on ‘best practice’ it didn’t mean she was right and remember best practice isn’t a blanket rule. In the end she backed down and from then on was far more open to my suggestions, I’d proven I was the expert and I had the means to prove rather than speculate. I was presented with a crown and I wore it until I left.

What software can I use to split test?

So you agree that split testing is the way forward? That’s great, now you just need to know what platform to use and how much will it cost. Well the three paid ‘big hitters’ in this space are:

Each of these platforms have their own pros and cons and come at different costs. For more information on what the best platforms are you can check out Conversion Sciences 20 best A/B testing tools.

Our recommended A/B tool

Our recommendation however is to use Google Analytics Experiments. Whilst Experiments isn’t as powerful as some of the other tools we’ve mentioned it has two benefits. One it’s free. Two you should already have Google Analytics on your site so you could be ready to use it instantly.

I’ve used experiments consistently for probably the past five years for day-to-day use mainly due to ease of access and it’s an easy handover once I move on from a client.

Experiments in its current guise will soon cease to exist and will become Google Optimize. Here at NZ Digital Marketing we’ve had a play around with Optimize and whilst it’s not as easy to pick up and use for new users it’s far more powerful in almost every respect. For those looking to get started easily I’d recommend getting experiments running and check back to learn more about Optimize.

If you want to jump straight to Optimize now here’s a video that gives you more detail and a tutorial on how to get started with Google Optimize.

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