Why your website probably isn’t the problem

I met with a fairly successful eCommerce website last week.

In fact, in their category, they’re the largest player in Australia and growing at a nice trend.

This said, they don’t feel their growth is quite on the right trajectory, especially as they feel they’re seeing growing ‘exit-rates’ from their website and less sales as a percentage of customers.

Fair enough a point, at least at first glance; something is wrong with their website and increasingly.

As web designers, we have been trained to immediately hone onto any given website and to find faults in construction, usability and performance as the basis of any undue underperformance.

We look at the colour of buttons, the size of text, whether content is above ‘the fold’ and so on; and required to come up with an answer for why a website is not sprinting in terms of performance, we naturally find blame in the website.

And it is true that even the most optimised websites will contain inherent faults hindering sales and performance.

But is the website all that is at fault?


Think laterally

I am in the throes of purchasing a Chiminea (an outdoor, Mexican fire-pit) for home:

My old Bunnings Chiminea – made of clay – finally caved in on itself after many outdoor fires and so determined to find something more long-lasting, I turned online.

The quality of websites selling Chimineas in Australia (and really anywhere) is atrocious and predictably so.

But the appalling nature of these Chiminea websites hasn't stopped me from browsing and enquiring.

Sure, if the different Chiminea websites I have looked at were actually ‘functionally’ broken, I might not have made the enquiries I did, though save for looking visually terrible, the websites worked functionally fine.

Which, in my opinion, supports the notion that what a website looks like is not really what determines whether the website will work or not.

Over and above this notion, I sometimes refer to a concept I call ‘user perseverance’.

My concept is simply that under certain circumstances, users will actually put up with a poor experience, merely because they think they need to (i.e. you’re the exclusive seller of a product) or because they have to.

As a good friend of mine who works for a major insurance company, pointed out to me that despite the atrociousness of his company’s mobile offering to customers (i.e. mobile users have to use the desktop website), the conversion rates across mobile and desktop were consistent; if a user needs car insurance and they need to organise it on their mobile, they’ll slug their way through it.

They’ll persevere.

Indeed, my friend pointed out that whilst many web designers had pitched him on improvements to poorly-performing parts of his website in terms of sales and ‘conversion’, my friend’s research in fact revealed that the real reason the a certain part of his website wasn’t performing was because people do not purchase discretionary insurance online.

Having built a few insurance websites – especially in life insurance – I can assure you that this is correct; the website isn’t the issue, the product is.

“People don’t buy life insurance. They’re sold life insurance.”

Which brings me to my point of being and thinking lateral about your digital business.

Optimising a website in of itself, is a great and important thing.

But there are many other factors at play in a digital business.

And it is these many other factors that are often ignored.

Do you have the right range and enough range?

How is your pricing?

Is your content mix right?

Is your messaging consistent with your users need and want?

Are you better to get your users onto your call centre?

These are just a few questions you might ask yourself, though as I speak to my clients this year, it’s clear that the trend for 2013 is that ‘it’s not the website that’s broken’.

It is everything around it.



As keen as I am to sell anyone a new website, that might well not be your digital boggle.

Sure, at the hyper-level of selling that ASOS and eBay and Amazon work at, there is an unquestioned and constant program of website optimisation and improvement.

But these companies are focused right across the whole gambit of their businesses.

For the rest of us, we naturally have a more narrow focus by the mere fact of having less resources and capability; we can only focus on one or two things at once.

What I am suggesting is taking a more holistic view to your digital business than simply focusing on the website and its ‘conversion’.

Buy some reports.

Get a consultant in.

Talk to your users and ask them about your broader offering.

Look at your competitors and understand their strengths and weaknesses compared to yours.

Do a customer journey map and understand the sentiment of your users from the very outset that they encounter you.

By all means, keep plugging away at improving your website, though it is very arguably not what is broken.