I hear this all the time. “Our competitor, X, is doing Y, we should do that too” or “X is market leader and they have Y, we need to have Y“. There are 2 key things wrong with this reasoning:

  • The reason they setup Y (menu, navigation, checkout, home page layout, etc) is probably random. In 50% of cases the layout is what their web designer came up with (he/she most likely did not perform a long, thorough analysis and testing), or they simply copied another competitor.
  • What works for them won’t necessarily work for you

You’d be surprised by the number of people who actually know their shit. It’s (maybe!) 5% knowing and 95% opinions. It’s the blind leading the blind!

“Don’t focus on the competition, they’ll never give you money.” – Jeff Bezos

Your competitors don’t know what they’re doing

I talk to a lot of people about their websites and conversion challenges – many of them large, well-known companies. I’m constantly surprised by how many of these companies’ actions are opinion-driven, and how little actual data is gathered and used. When I ask them questions about their customers and their website, most of what I hear is “I think that”, “it seems to me” and “in my opinion”. Sadly, opinions matter little, sometimes not at all.

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So bear in mind, in most cases, your competitors themselves don’t really know which part of their website is working and which part is failing. Their whole site was probably put together by a committee of opinions. Their CEO and marketing team assembled a task force who looked at a bunch of competitor sites, picked pieces from here and there, and inserted a lot of opinions into the mix. In my experience, this is a common way to build a website.

The other common way these companies setup a website is to hire a web design company. The designer, who didn’t use any data and looked at a bunch of websites for inspiration, basically slapped something together that makes sense and looks all right.

It’s rare that somebody has a completely data-driven site. It’s rare that your competitor is a super genius. Keep that in mind the next time you want to copy them.

You don’t know what’s working

Trying to copy someone else’s formula for success can be very tempting. I get it, and I see it all the time. Newcomers enter the market with a website that’s basically a ripoff of the market leader’s website. An eCommerce site goes for a design makeover and copies their biggest competitor. That’s stupid.

First of all, you don’t know what’s behind their success. It’s probably not their site layout, cool navigation, or the way they categorize products. It’s more often the workers that contribute to the company’s success. If you go to the best violin orchestra in the world and steal every last Stradivarius, you’ll still sound like crap.

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The problem is that copying a design style, information architecture, web copy, service claims, or sign up flow is not copying a formula for success. Even if you copy something that’s working for them, it doesn’t mean it will work for you.

“But the conversion rate of my competitor is X%!”

Know the conversion rate you should be going for? Better than what you had last month.

If you somehow find out that your competitor has a better conversion rate, that doesn’t mean much. He might have better traffic sources, more targeted ads, and/or better client relationships. Your competitor’s success may have nothing to do with its website at all.

Also, your sales can go up, while the conversion rate goes down (e.g. you get 1 million untargeted visitors from StumbleUpon, and one of them buys something). So you should first and foremost optimize for revenue/profit, not conversion rate. Want to increase your conversion rate 1000% right now? Lower all your prices to 1 cent.

So no, don’t copy your competitor if you hear their conversion rate is better.

Data-driven approach drives growth

Data is not something abstract, and web design is not about creativity (in fact, the more constraints the designer adheres to, the more room there is for possible creativity). Web design exists for a purpose, right? Eventually we want people to buy our stuff, fill out our forms, sign up, and so on.

How can we drive an increase in those numbers? Numbers increase by measuring and observing what’s happening and drawing conclusions from the data collected.

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We can measure everything

You can measure what people do on your website. You can measure what they click, where they click (and if what they click on is actually something clickable), how long they stay for, if they scroll, which eCommerce category pages perform and which don’t, and where in the funnel people are dropping off.

If it can be measured, it can be improved. And in the end it’s about helping your website visitors do something a little more successfully (and thereby driving revenue growth).

The whole point of data-driven design is to use the data to identify what’s working and what’s not, and to improve productivity. Improving your site by ripping off your competitor is like trying to win a lottery – it involves mostly hope and luck. And if you count on luck to grow your business, you’re doing it wrong.

A study by Forrester Consulting showed that 60% of firms surveyed had seen improvements in their website due to data use.  And, if the company also reported they had a repeatable design process the numbers grew to 71%.

Of course, you have to know which data to use and how to use it. The same study showed that sites are often measured on metrics that don’t show business value. For instance, 46% of respondents indicated they used “time on site” as a key measure. Now that’s ridiculous. Time on site can go down (maybe because the navigation was improved, usability made better and site made faster) and sales can go up at the same time. Time on site and bounce rate can provide additional insight, but are not key metrics.

This post has a great list of metric-driven design articles.

If you want to copy, run an experiment

I’m not saying your competitors are not getting some things right. You just don’t know which factors are correct. So instead of just blindly copying something, make sure that you don’t just change your site. Have the mindset that you’re running an experiment. The thing you copy is a hypothesis – and you need to test it.

Run it against your current site and see if it makes a difference. Then either implement or discard.

Conclusion

I bet you’ve heard a statement like this: “If X does Y on their website, we should do it too. They must have done that for a reason.” Yeah right. You know better.

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