A Beginner’s Guide To A/B Testing: Exceptional Web Copy

Optimizing the copy on your website is at least as important as optimizing the design, especially if the primary goal of that site is to convert visitors. A pretty design can only get you so far. If you really want to gain new customers, you need to optimize the text on your site to instill trust in visitors and make them want to purchase from you.

We often spend hours or days reading about the best techniques to use to sell products. But that doesn’t give us a complete picture, and what works great for one company or one product might not work at all for another. A/B testing is the simplest type of testing you can do to figure out which variations of copy, headline, and other factors are most effective in direct relation to your site and your offerings. This is part two of a series of posts on A/B testing, which will be published in the coming weeks.

Things to Test

There are a ton of things you can test on your site to see what’s most effective. Besides design elements, there are things like headings, calls-to-action, and your specific offers. Proper testing of these things can triple or even quadruple your conversion rates—and sometimes multiply them even more!

Here’s a brief list of the web copy elements on your site you might test:

what to elements ab test

  1. Headline: The headline is what grabs your reader’s attention and gets them to keep reading. Test different wording, as well as different text sizes here, to get the best results.
  2. Call to Action Text: The exact wording of your call to action can have a surprising impact on your conversion rate. 37signals has done extensive testing of their call to action text, and finally found a phrase that delivered 300% more signups than other versions.
  3. Call to Action Position: Where you place your call to action can have a huge effect on how well it converts. Test a few different positions (above body copy, beside body copy, below body copy, within body copy, etc.).
  4. Call to Action Style: How you style your call to action includes whether it’s just a text link or a button, the size, and the colors used. These things should be tested individually for the most accurate results.
  5. Copy Length/Style: The length and formatting of your body copy makes a huge difference in how many people actually read it. Test out different formats (lists, lots of headlines and short paragraphs, etc.) as well as different copy all together to see what works best.
  6. Corresponding Images: While not strictly copy, the images you opt to use with your text can have a huge impact on conversions, especially when selling a physical product. Test out which images work best, how many images are optimal, and how large those images should be.
  7. Different Offers: You may want to test different offers to see which one works best. Try to set your offers up so that they have similar values (to prevent skewed results). For example, you might offer one group of visitors free shipping, and the other group 10% off.

Make a list of the elements you want to test, and then figure out a strategy for testing them. Since you only test one element at a time, it’s important to craft a plan prior to starting to test, so that you can make sure everything gets tested. You should also have baseline readings ready prior to testing, especially if you aren’t going to use your existing design as a control.

Once you have a testing strategy mapped out, look at the tools available to help you carry out a successful test, and further refine your strategy based on the tools you decide to use.

Tools for A/B Testing

There are a variety of tools out there for conducting and monitoring A/B tests. There are two basic types, and some tools provide both: you need a tool (generally a script) that will randomly deliver one version of your page or the other to your visitors. The other tool you need is something to monitor the results for each page (which also keeps track of which page the visitor was shown).

One of the best tools out there is Google Website Optimizer. Combine that with KISSmetrics tools for tracking your sales funnels and conversions, and you’ve got a powerful suite of tools for A/B tests.

Here are some useful guides we’ve written on Google Website Optimizer:

A/B Testing Best Practices

A/B testing is an important part of any successful marketing effort. Here are some best practices you should follow when conducting an A/B test.

  • Test Early and Test Often: You should run tests as early as possible when considering a new promotional technique or when launching a new product. You want your site optimized as soon as possible, so you aren’t losing sales.
  • Always Test Simultaneously: Running tests on both variations at the same time is vital, to prevent skewed results based on timing.
  • Run Tests on New Visitors Only: Don’t use your existing customers as guinea pigs for changes to your website. Their preconceptions can skew your results and cause inaccuracies.
  • Listen to the Results: Resist the temptation to listen to your instincts if the empirical data is telling you different. You’re running controlled tests for reason. If in doubt, re-test.
  • Allow the Test to Run for Sufficient Time: Cutting the test off early just means there’s more room for error. The same can be said for letting it run too long. Try for a time period of a few days to a couple of weeks, depending on your site traffic (you want a minimum of a few hundred test results before drawing any conclusions, and preferably a few thousand).
  • Run Site-Wide Tests Where Appropriate: If you’re testing a call to action or a headline that appears on more than one page, make sure you test it on every page.
  • Make Sure Repeat Visitors See the Same Variation: You don’t want repeat visitors who saw variation A on their first visit to see variation B on their next visit. Make sure you have provisions in your code to show them the same page until the test is complete. This is especially important if you’re testing different offers, not just different wording.

The key to a successful A/B test is consistency and control. You want your data to be as accurate as possible, and that requires careful planning and execution. By following the best practices above, you’ll have a successful A/B test with sound results on which you can base important decisions.

We’ll be posting a number of other posts on A/B testing for email campaigns, pay-per-click advertising, and SEO landing pages in the coming weeks, so stay tuned!

About the Author: Cameron Chapman is a freelance designer, blogger, and the author of Internet Famous: A Practical Guide to Becoming an Online Celebrity.

  1. Awesome follow up post.

    A/B testing is crucial and will definitely begin to plan my own test today.

  2. Kirby Freeman Feb 10, 2011 at 10:01 am

    Have definitely learned the hard way that it pays to have a plan and fight the urge to change many things at once (we KNOW this is better…). Thanks for laying it out nicely so others can do it right the first time. :)

    • You always end up saving a lot of money in both the short and the long term, right? Let us know how you put this into play and the results you get.

  3. Great information Cameron. Testing is key, but you really verbalize it here in an easy to understand format. I will be sharing with my clients! BTW I found you through Twitter.

  4. Thanks Cameron for this detailed post. I loved the each point of your post and I am sure this post is going to be a lot helpful for me. thanks again:)

  5. Maybe this is explained in the guides, but how do you ensure the test is only shown to new visitors?

  6. Great post Cameron! This will be a very helpful guide indeed. Have you found any limitations using GWO? (small vs larger sites)

    • I think it works for the majority of sites, small or big. Bigger sites just tend to be interested in different data which is why they use other tools.

  7. Thanks so much for the post Cameron. My question is, how effective is this at the beginning when for example you only get 2 visitors a day, and for how long do you run the test?

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