6 - Optimize for Relevance

The author compares prospects to animals (EN: which I loathe) who react to the strongest stimulus of the moment and are incapable of thinking further. A small predator follows the scent of his prey, and does so doggedly unless something else comes along that takes his interest - such as the scent of a mate or the appearance of a larger predator that could be a danger to him.

People also exhibit the same tendencies: when they are idle, they respond to a stimulus that suggests danger or opportunity; and when they are in the process of pursuing a goal, they generally stay on track, following a scent-trail, unless something interrupts their progress. (EN: I think Jared Spool was the originator of the notion of "the scent of information" - this author may have come to the same idea independently, but see Spool for another perspective on this.)

As a marketer, it is in your interest to create and support the scent trail to keep the customer on focus, to ensure that the scent of success is strong enough to keep them on task, and to eliminate distractions insofar as you are able.

In plainer terms, this "scent trail" is called "relevance" (EN: no, it's not. Relevance is an entirely different concept, but the two are related) and the author means to discuss five areas:

Each will be considered independently.

Marketing Funnel Relevance

The author notes that the marketing funnel begins long before the prospect arrives at your Web site. The prospect already recognizes that he has a need, and already has some sense that you offer something that might address it. That is to say that he has already decided you are relevant to that need.

Your task, from the very moment he arrives, is to support that notion or relevance. The page on which he lands must provide a clear message that you can address his need, or else the scent trail is immediately lost and he will go back to foraging for a different one, likely with your competitor.

The funnel is created by all the pages the visitor navigates through, from the moment he arrives to the moment he leaves, whether he has made a purchase or not. It is also not limited to your site, as the customer may use different channels to investigate you. And it is also not a contiguous activity, as the customer may visit to gather information, leaver, and return minutes or months later to continue toward to purchasing goal.

Particularly in regard to multichannel and fractured timelines, it is important for the scent trail to be consistent. If your web site says something radically different than a sales brochure the prospect has read, or says today something that is radically different than it said on the last visit, this will create dissonance which will shake him off the trail.

Source Relevance

Visitors to your website arrive from somewhere, and whether they continue deeper into your site or bounce out immediately depends on your site's relevance to the source from which they were referred.

Companies approach to source relevance can be active or passive: they can actively pursue being associated with specific topics and keywords to get links from sites and search engines, or they may passively observe the sources that are currently referring people to them and attempt to be relevant.

Relevance to Ad Messages

Advertising that interrupts people who are in pursuit of something else are much less effective than advertising that is relevant. This speaks more to the way in which you place advertising than what to do when people arrive on your site, but it is a significant problem in which advertisers seek to catch the attention of people who aren't shopping for their product in hopes of distracting them from other goals.

(EN: This calls to mind the problem of spamdexing, in which companies attempted to make their page come up in search results in relation to generic terms such as "free" or even "sex" in hopes of catching general attention. This resulted in a lot of expense in exchange for a lot of visitors who left immediately, on the misconception that some small percentage of people who are trying to find something else would be distracted into considering their product offerings. As I recall this was not a complete failure, but the percentage of conversions was very small, and virtually nil.)

Email marketing has an abysmal conversion rate because when people check their email they are scanning for messages from people and firms with which they are already engaged and anything else is clutter. The same has been said of social media marketing: people on Facebook are looking to communicate with friends, not shop for products.

Another common problem is that even when an advertisement is relevant to the interests of a visitor on another site, the page on which they land is not always relevant to the content of the advertisement, which is another major cause of bouncing visitors.

The author advises testing on both accounts - test both the source from which a user was referred as well as the content of the page on which they land. Ideally, this should be done in a multivariate fashion, because the interplay between the advertising message and the content of the landing page is more significant than either factor in isolation.

Relevance to Search Keywords

Visitors who arrive at your site from a search engine are in a better mindset for action than those who have been waylaid by advertising, because these visitors are actively looking for something - generally a solution to a need - and are willing to give their attention to relevant information.

As such, your search terms should likely speak to the needs of the prospect as well as describing your product. For example, a person may search for "bleach" or they may search for "how to remove stains" - as some will know the product they are seeking, while others know only the problem they are trying to solve.

Also, be aware that synonyms are invisible to most search engines, which use very simple text-matching comparisons (given hundreds of millions of pages, they have no need or interest in broadening matches), such that if you title and position your site as having "automotive parts and accessories" it will not be returned for users who search for "car parts" or "supercharger" - nor should you attempt to use every term you can think of as a synonym, only those that are relevant to your page content.

This is where creating multiple landing pages or encouraging search engines to link to "deep" pages within your site becomes very important. The author mentions that, in his consulting business, this often needs to be explained to clients who want to send all of their traffic to their home page, which is often a generic description of their business, in hopes of forcing customers to enter the funnel at what they perceive to be the "top" (which is highly counterproductive to conversion).

Consider, also, that a significant number of people conduct image searches, particularly when they are in search of a particular product. A person looking to customize their car with an after-market grill will likely want to look at pictures of the options available from all vendors, and may click through from the site.

Naturally, all of this speculation about what customers might do and how they might search is secondary to actual data you can collect from your Web site's statistics, as well as things that you can test to determine the conversion rate: adding an image of a product, adding an image of a customer, focusing copy to match keywords, writing a headline that speaks to the benefits, using a video instead of a photo, adding social media testimonials, etc. All of this can be tested, but the test should be segmented according to the source. Ultimately, you may find it worthwhile to create multiple versions of your home page to serve as lading points for different search techniques and methods.

Not only do search engines conduct pattern-matching, but the human brain functions in much the same way. A person has something very specific in mind when he is searching, and a result that does not match the terms in which he phrases his problem is likely to be ignored in favor of others that do. While people may shop around for a better deal, their initial inclination is to find something, and many do not seek further once they have found the first match, particularly if the product is commoditized and the price is regarded as fair.

The author also mentions the practice of dynamic keyword insertion - such that an advertisement can automatically match the exact term for which an individual searched. That is to say, the ad copy may not be "great deals on auto parts' but 'great deals on [part]" such that it will match whatever part name the user searched for (radiators, spark plugs, hub caps, etc.). This is only partially successful because the landing page may not contain the term that was used in the ad, and dynamic terms are not a sufficient solution - i.e., a person who searched for "spark plugs" sees an ad for that term, then sees the term in the headline of the landing page, but doesn't actually see any spark plugs on the page and has to hunt for them.

(EN: I also suspect that the practice is so widely abused that users are beginning to disregard certain phrases as indicators of spam. An ad that says "great deals on X" or "save money on your X" or "everything you want to know about X" smells funny to a person who has been duped in the past into clicking through to an irrelevant site.)

Relevance to Email

Relevance to email campaigns is even more important. Customers who click through from a search engine may be forgiving if what they see does not match exactly what they hoped to find (EN: this is changing because search engines are improving and the tolerance for bad results is decreasing - but the disappointment tends to accrue to the search engine rather than the site) but they are unforgiving if an email message you wrote links them to a page that is not relevant to the content of the message.

Since you control the message, the link, and the landing page, it is unforgivable for you to fail to ensure they are relevant. Essentially, this means that the page that is linked from an email message should echo the relevant information from that message - reference to specific products or offers that were presented should be repeated, and the user should not have to hunt for the information from the landing page - this presents a barrier the recipient must overcome, if they are motivated enough to continue.

The author also mentions segmenting email messages by factors such as the recipient's gender, purchase history, or other factors to test whether specific verbiage has a better impact on certain groups of individuals in order to better tailor email campaigns.

Ideally, the entire experience of an advertising campaign should be carefully planned, from the way the message will look in their inbox before it is opened, and after that every page they will encounter to the completion of the transaction. There should be a very strong scent trail that guides the user from one click to the next.

Create Landing-Page Source Relevance

The author mentions three basic approaches to maximize the relevance of a landing page to advertising:

(EN: The author provides no guidance for which approach to choose, but I would suggest it has to do with sufficiency of audience. If a selected or happenstance segment of customers is below a certain number, it's not worth pursuing for most businesses. Ten thousand seems about right to be able to test with statistical significance, but if the per-customer profit is sufficiently high, such as selling luxury automobiles, it may be worthwhile to accommodate a segment of a dozen customers even though that's not enough to test.)

Target Audience Relevance

Good communication is only "good" if it speaks to the interests of the listener, and motivates them in the way that the speaker intended. In that sense, you cannot tell if a proposed change to a site is "good" if you cannot answer key questions, such as:

Without those considerations, you are not in a position to evaluate whether a design suggestion is worthwhile to implement. (EN: That is to say, if someone asks "why is it good?" then you are left without an answer other than "because I say so.")


The more you know about your audience, the more relevant your message can be - but because you may have a sizable audience, it would be a mistake to assume that everyone who arrives at your page has the same interests or is motivated by the same things. Segmenting your audience and speaking to a more well-defined set of needs and interests would be more effective.

(EN: Here the author gives a quick and dirty overview of segmentation methods that is too dirty for my liking. Refer to a resource on consumer marketing for a more thorough and reliable consideration of the topic.)

One drawback to segmentation is maintenance cost: if you have a dozen different versions of a landing page and information must be updated, it must be updated on all twelve of them rather than in a single page. The numbers become large when you do further segmentation: if you have fifty products and six audiences, this creates 300 pages that have to be individually maintained. Content management systems (CMS) promise to simplify such a task, but they have been around for decades and have not lived up to the promises they've made (EN: and from all I have seen and heard, they make the job even more difficult).

The author also speaks to the labeling risk of audience segmentation: the way that you think of your audience is not necessarily the same as they think of themselves. This is particularly bad when sites expose their segmentation such that a customer realizes how you consider him - i.e., asking him to visit the "affiliate" or "vendor" or "advertiser" section of your site. There is the risk that a member of the audience might consider himself to belong to a different category, or choose the wrong category because he doesn't know where he belongs, or even take offense at the label you have placed upon him.

(EN: In general, exposing segmentation labels to the audience is a miserable practice. Better to present the information to all and let people choose where they wish to go. For example, rather than requiring a person to self-identify as a "candidate," create and "employment" section of the site and trust that candidates will find their way there - specifically, naming navigation for the goal rather than the segment. One notable exception is when a segment speaks to a status of which members of the group would be happy to identify: "gold card members" or "new mothers" are labels people happily embrace.)

Navigation Support

Most pages on your Web site should seek to minimize decision making for visitors by giving them a clear path to the next page in sequence. There are few instances in which the decision of where to go next is truly arbitrary (if you consider the user's goal and your own). On pages where there are multiple paths a user might take - but likely one that best serves his needs given his situation.

In general, the more options that are provided, the more behaviors you accommodate, but the more difficult it is for the user to find the option that suits his needs of the moment (flexibility at the cost of simplicity).

The wording of a call to action serves as encouragement or instruction to the user to act upon it to draw closer to his goal, and it also serves to set expectations of what he will see next. A vague call to action leaves the user uncertain as to what might happen if he clicks it; and an inaccurate on will leave him feeling that he clicked the wrong thing after he sees the next page. (In general, people expect to see the same words on the page that loads as they clicked to get there, either as the header or in a prominent location).

Tone Relevance

The language of a page should speak in terms that are understandable and familiar to the user. A thirteen-year-old-girl speaks in different languages than a fifty-year-old corporate buyer, and people respond best to pages and sites that speak their language.

It's also noted that people in general have very sensitive "marketing detectors" and are turned off quickly by language that follows traditional sales patter. (EN: This is more strongly pronounced in Generation X buyers, but is evident in Millennial and Boomer generations - and oddly, Silent generation buyers are reassured by sales patter because they know and do not mind that they are being "sold" something.) The author cites a project in which removing "elements that set off marketing bells" increased trial software downloads by 15.5%.

Navigation Relevance

Ideally, customers arrive from an outside source to a page that perfectly suits their need of the moment - but in other instances the referring source will dump users unceremoniously on your Web site's home page, where they must find their own path - at which point you must consider whether the methods you have provided for navigation provide users with an option that clearly leads them toward their goal.

The author asserts that some users "like" to browse categories of products, others like to use search engines, others seek a site map, etc. (EN: Usability studies show that the latter two methods are fallbacks when the main navigation method of a site does not provide a clear path to success. That is, people do not "like" to use your site map, but do so more often because the navigation bar is broken.) He also asserts that users have different methods of browsing a site. Some people tend to click text links, others click on images.

From the site owner's perspective, the ideal plan is to seek to accommodate all behaviors and mindsets, which often results in a very messy interface in which no user can seem to find what he is looking to find. That is, each user to your site has one set of preferences, and accommodating it is key to reaching him - whereas accommodating any other preference is an unnecessary clutter.

For that reason, the better approach is to test to determine what the actual audience of your site prefers. (EN: And again, because users use one form of navigation doesn't necessarily mean they prefer it - they simply cannot find their preferred method, or find their preferred method to be unusable on your site.)

Competitive Relevance

Finally, consider that customers do not consider you in a void, as if no other option existed for them to serve their needs. There are many other companies that are seeking to serve them, and customers will often browse multiple sites, sometimes simultaneously in separate tabs or windows, in deciding where to make their purchase.

This has been known in the advertising trade for many years: when a perfumer advertises in a fashion magazine, he is aware that several other perfumers are also going to advertise in the same magazine, and plans his ad to be distinctive and more appealing that competitors.

The author asks: "But do you lay out your creative beside your competitors' ads too? Do you modify your messages based on competitive activity?"

(EN: This is a good point, but this is outside the author's area of expertise, which is optimization testing. Arguably, you could gather information from customers about what other providers they considered, but this would not seem to be an adequately detailed or reliable approach.)