Google Website Optimizer simplifies design

Bag Borrow or Steal, a self-described Netflix for handbags

One Seattle company using a new site optimization service from Google, introduced in beta to select users in October and to all AdWords customers earlier this month, is already seeing improvements on its site.

Bag Borrow or Steal, a self-described Netflix for handbags, used Google's free Website Optimizer service to try to boost the number of people signing up for a newsletter.

"For our company, that's the foundation for our leads that we'll market to," said Mark Belanger, director of direct marketing for Bag Borrow or Steal.

Website Optimizer lets Web designers test various components of pages, including different elements such as headlines, images and calls to action. The optimizer automatically creates different combinations of those elements and serves up the variations live. It then tracks how each page does.

"You can test two to 10,000 combinations, it depends on how ambitious you want to get and how much traffic you get," said Tom Leung, product manager for Website Optimizer at Google.

Belanger developed different headlines, copy and sign-up buttons that the optimizer turned into 108 different variations of the Web page. Certain elements, like using the word "free," clearly had an impact on which pages were more successful in leading visitors to actually sign up for the newsletter, he said.

But some winning pages surprised Belanger. "You'd see in the top four, one just not looking like any of the others. That's why hunches aren't the best at driving decision making on these layouts," he said.

Google developed the service exactly to remove such guesswork from site design, Leung said. "The problem we're trying to solve is really to sort of take Web page development out of the dark ages," he said. Typically, designers and marketers work together to come up with pages, using a "lot of guessing and a lot of intuition, which is often wrong," he said.

Companies can also hire consultants to help them tweak their Web sites for the best results. Google has partnered with some consultants who can provide Website Optimizer as a managed service.

Before using the Web Optimizer service, Belanger would try a new page for about a week and note the results. "But then you're introducing some bad science with timing and also taking a lot longer to get to optimization," he said.

The newsletter sign-up page that Bag Borrow or Steal decided to use after running the optimizer resulted in a 52 percent improvement over the original in the number of people signing up for the newsletter, Belanger said.

He's currently working on creating tests for the home page and plans to look for opportunities to use the optimizer on other pages, he said.

Beta users for Google Website Optimizer ranged from the very small company to larger organizations, including PC World, said Leung. PC World is an IDG publication.

Bag Borrow or Steal members pay a monthly fee to belong and additionally pay a weekly or monthly fee per handbag or piece of jewellery they borrow.

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