8 Steps to Prepare for the Holiday Shopping Season

by Jakob Nielsen on September 6, 2004

Summary: Reduce the bounce rate for organic landing pages, collect data to manage PPC for maximum ROI, and take 6 other steps to maximize your site's holiday sales potential before it's too late.

Many B2C sites make a disproportionate share of their profits in Q4. If the holiday shopping season is important to your company, the following eight last-chance tips can help you get your site in shape for the holidays while there's still time.

Most of these tips also apply to B2B sites. Although they needn't implement them immediately, B2B designers might want to work on them in December when business is slow.

1. Reduce the Bounce Rate for Organic Landing Pages

A website is like a house with a thousand front doors: visitors can enter anywhere. The homepage is typically the main entry point, so you should definitely check to ensure that you don't commit common mistakes in homepage design. But users arrive at many other pages as well, and even if you've already optimized your campaigns' landing pages, you may have overlooked other frequent entry points.

Organic landing pages are where users land when they arrive via links from other websites or organic search listings (as opposed to paid search engine advertisements). Unfortunately, these pages often disappoint users and thus have high bounce rates (the "bounce rate" is the percentage of users who leave after visiting only the one page where they entered the site).

To reduce bounce rates for organic traffic, you must think of these pages as serving two purposes: their original goal (which got you the links and search prominence in the first place) and the goal of being an enticing landing page for new visitors. If you ruthlessly optimize the page for conversion, it will lose its organic status. But if it doesn't convert, it will be worthless.

To identify and improve organic landing pages, follow these steps:

  1. Examine your site logs and find the top query terms that drive search engine traffic to your site.
  2. Identify the pages that serve as entry points for those users.
  3. Analyze the query terms to determine users' approximate goals, and then see if the page can meet them.
  4. Fix pages that fail to address visitors' likely goals by making your solutions more explicit and prominent.
  5. Put calls to action and product links in prominent locations where users actually look (that is, don't just put them in generic navigation areas).
  6. Watch bounce rates decline. (If they don't -- try another fix; you may have to conduct user testing to discover how people behave on pages that are particularly promising, but perform badly even after repeated fixes.)

Because many tools for server log analysis identify entry pages, you might be tempted to simply go straight to work on pages that serve as the most popular starting points. I recommend the slightly more involved process above for two reasons:

  • Knowing why people visit a page is key to improving it. If you don't know the search terms before you analyze the page, you can't target the users' mindset in the moment of their first exposure to your site.
  • Traffic from search engines is typically five to ten times as profitable as traffic from content sites. The reason? Searchers are on an action-oriented mission, whereas surfers tend to be curiosity-seekers. Thus, it's much more important to lower the bounce rate for search traffic than for content site traffic, and you must analyze the two separately.

2. Fine-Tune PPC Search Advertising

Although search ads are highly compressed into tiny boxes, tweaking the few words you have at your disposal can drastically alter your site's clickthrough rates, as well as its conversion rates. (Of course, you need to optimize landing pages as well.)

The cost per click is likely to increase dramatically during the holiday shopping season -- experiment with alternative wordings now, while you can still buy cheap clicks.

(The cost per click increased 9.4% from November to December 2005 for retail-oriented keywords.)

3. Calculate Maximum Bids for PPC Ads

Your competitors will increase their bids for the most lucrative keywords once the holiday shopping season gets underway. You must therefore know ahead of time how much you can afford to bid for these keywords and still retain a positive ROI.

Users can wait up to a month or more between an initial visit and an actual purchase. To allocate ROI fairly, cookie search engine users when they arrive and then track your sales back to the keyword that initially brought each buying customer to your site.

Search engine advertising is a pure ROI play. Although some recent studies have purported to show that name recognition and brand reputation bring additional benefits, I don't view these results as credible because the methodology had serious flaws in terms of managing user attention. In the context of real-world, goal-directed behavior, search engine ads are unlikely to have much of a branding effect. Showing your name might offer a microscopic benefit, but view this as gravy: the benefit is likely to be much smaller than the published numbers. Instead, focus on your own numbers and track your customers over time to compute the marginal profit from each click. If you don't know this number, you can't manage your bids correctly once search engine marketing heats up.

Obviously, you should also work on improving your conversion rates since doing so translates directly into bigger ROI. Double your conversion rate, and you can bid twice as much per keyword and get listed above clueless competitors who have less usable sites and are thus restricted to lower bids.

Sending traffic from your search ads to your homepage is a common mistake. Typically, you can at least double your conversion by directing hits to pages targeted to users' interests. Doubling once more takes further study (see the "Plan for Next Year" section below).

4. Improve the Wishlist and Gift Certificate User Experience

If you don't have these features, get them. If you have them, follow the guidelines to improve them.

5. Polish Confirmation Emails

People long for the comfort of knowing that they didn't click the Buy button in vain, and that their purchases are actually on the way. And people are never more anxious to be informed than during the holidays, when they're typically shopping at the last moment, having purchases sent to different addresses , and will be seriously embarrassed if the presents don't arrive on time.

Improving the usability of your confirmation email messages will both improve customer satisfaction and keep people from calling customer service to ask about their order's status. The cost of fixing these messages will be recovered many times over in reduced call center costs.

6. Analyze Call Center Problem Reports

In the preseason lull, while call volume is still fairly low, ask your call center to analyze customer support inquiries for the top problems and questions. You'll likely find that some calls are due to poor website usability or missing information on specific pages. Fix the problems. (Adding a FAQ question doesn't fix the root problem, but it's better than nothing.) Other calls are likely due to poor confirmation emails. Fix them.

7. Analyze Returns

Why do people return their purchases? Often because of poor or misleading product descriptions. Identify the main reasons people order the wrong thing, and improve your product pages accordingly.

In doing so, you'll not only save a bundle on returns processing, you'll increase sales by retaining people who would otherwise leave because of unclear product descriptions.

8. Brainstorm Holiday Decorations

It's often a nice touch to decorate your site for the holidays with anything from a subtle homepage snowflake to a site-wide holiday theme or special pages about gift-giving.

Plan for Next Year

Sure as clockwork, every October we get calls from companies that want to improve their site conversion rates before the holidays. Sorry: too late. It is often possible, however, to identify specific violations of e-commerce usability principles, fix them quickly, and boost sales by 10-20%. To double your conversion rate, your best bet is a fundamental redesign for usability.

January is the time to initiate in-depth user research to identify the deeper reasons that people leave your site without buying, as well as how to increase shopping cart size for those who do buy. Most likely, you'll find that your site and its content require substantial changes. By getting an early start, you'll have sufficient time to prototype alternative designs and test several iterations with users before next year's holiday blitz.

This year, your action item is to monitor your holiday shoppers' behavior to generate hypotheses for next year's testing. Of course, during the busy season, you should devote most of your resources to keeping your site running and fighting the inevitable fires. But if you conserve a little, you can start the new year by launching a major usability project.

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