Critical Page Optimization is a highly effective method to improve any business website that could have instant results.
You know the sentiments:
We just want to make our website better. We just want more online sales. We just want better content that we can show our customers.
We just don’t know how…
I completely understand. There are a billion and one things you could do to try and get the word out online, but even when your goals are simple, deciding what exactly you need to work on is a challenge.
Your market, your objectives, your resources and your needs are different to every other business out there, so how do you know what advice will work for you?
In this post I take you through an approach that works for pretty much any website, and can bring some fast results. It is called Critical Page Optimization.
I explain how to use this method to make the most of four key areas of your website: the pages where most people come in to your site, the pages where most people leave it, the best performing content and the worst performing content (in terms of traffic).
This isn’t about dramatic changes and expensive redesigns; the things you do to your site will actually be quite small, but the results will compound over time. Here’s the full method:
- Step 1 – set up the project and collect the relevant data,
- Step 2 – optimize your landing pages so they are more useful to traffic coming in to your site,
- Step 3 – improve your exit pages so that fewer people leave your site,
- Step 4 – make better use of the most trafficked pages on your site and learn from them,
- Step 5 – improve the least trafficked pages to try and get more people to view them,
- Step 6 – build on what you’ve done for the future.
Sound good? Read on to improve your website today.
Step 1 – set up the project and collect the relevant data
Firstly you need to know how to actually run and track a project like this. We’ll keep this simple however so you can get going quickly.
The first step is to collect and organize the data that you need; so start a new spreadsheet with four separate sheets corresponding to the four different categories of critical page that you will be editing:
- Landing pages
- Exit pages
- Most trafficked pages
- Least trafficked pages
In each of these four sheets, create a table with a column for the page name and another for the page URL ready to be filled in.
Next, for each sheet you need to find and choose the most relevant page or pages to work on – it is up to you how big you want this project to be but if in doubt just go for three pages in each category for now – you can always add more later.
To locate the relevant pages from each of the four categories and benchmark the important data, you need to access your analytics.
If you do not actively use an analytics package (which you should – so maybe use this opportunity to get set up on Google Analytics) or if your traffic is so low that the data won’t be very useful, then you are welcome to skip this step and simply choose what pages on your site might correspond to the four categories based on your own judgements. If this is the case, add the details of some pages for each category in the spreadsheet and then go straight to step 2.
However, if you do have accurate information to work with then you can find the right pages for each category, and the corresponding data, in the following ways – note that the screenshots are specific to Google Analytics (as it looks in September of 2017 anyway) but other packages may obviously have slightly different processes and terminology:
Landing pages – these are the pages on which website visitors land first, whether they’ve clicked on a link on social media, on another site, in an email, from search engine results or even just typed in the URL.
To find them, in Google Analytics go to the left-hand menu and select Behavior > Site Content > Landing Pages as shown below. Your home page is likely to be a major landing page, but there may be others on your site that you weren’t necessarily aware of that could be put to better use. On your spreadsheet record the pages along with the bounce rate in the third column.
The bounce rate shows what percentage of website visitors left your site from this page. In step 2 of the Critical Page Optimization project we will use content best practices to try and decrease this number so that more of the people landing on your site view other pages of it. Make a note of the bounce rate now so that it can be checked again and compared once the improvements have been made.
Exit pages – these are the pages where people leave your site; perhaps by closing the tab or browser, clicking on a link that takes them to a different website, or by typing a new URL into the browser bar.
To find them, in Google Analytics simply go to Behavior > Site Content > Exit Pages as shown, and then record the names and URLs in your spreadsheet. The data we need here for step 3 of the project is the % Exit which shows how often people leave the site from the page.
Note that some of your pages may be both popular landing pages and exit pages – if this is the case then keep them on both sheets of the spreadsheet for now, and as you work through the rest of the steps in the process, decide whether or not they need to be there.
Also note that there are certain pages on your site that you may want to be exit pages. For example, if your goal is to generate leads that contact you after learning about what you have to offer, then your contact page might be your highest exit page – and that’s a good thing. Also if you sell a product and your order confirmation page is your highest exit page then well done – people are probably buying.
In cases like these there isn’t a great need to decrease the % Exit of these pages right now, so ignore them and select just pages that are more important.
Most/Least trafficked pages – these are quite simply the most and least popular of the pages on your website. Again, these may be landing or exit pages, but they should still be recorded on the spreadsheet in all relevant categories for now. To find them, firstly, in Google Analytics go to Behavior > Site Content > All Pages as shown:
Next, scroll below the graph to the table and select the Unique Pageviews button as shown below, checking that the Primary Dimension is set to Page:
The pages will now be organised with those that get the most visits at the top. These are your most trafficked pages – the arrow pointing downwards means they are in descending order. If you click again then the arrow will change to point upwards, and you will view the column in the reverse order with the least trafficked pages at the top instead.
For the most trafficked pages record the bounce rate on your spreadsheet. A lot of people find and view these pages, and if you could help them out by linking to more relevant information on other pages of your site then you will be able to decrease the bounce rate and keep more traffic flowing through it.
For the least trafficked pages record the unique pageviews or unique visitors metric on your spreadsheet instead. This shows how many people see the pages, which is the main thing that you will want to increase.
Once you have populated the spreadsheet with the page name, page URL and important metric (bounce rate, % exit or unique pageviews/visitors) for each of the pages you have chosen in the four categories explained above, there is one final small task.
Add a new column to each sheet with the name Status. In this column you will track the progress of each page to ensure the project remains on track. Once this is done you are good to go!
Before you move on, note that being informed and led by analytics is a vital part of any content strategy, and the more used to your data that you get, the better decisions you can make. So this project is not only about making immediate improvements to your website, but also about learning how to approach and understand your data better.
Step 2 – give a better welcome
In this part of the project the goal is to decrease the bounce rate. As the landing pages are the most popular places where your traffic is already accessing the site, you don’t necessarily need to worry about increasing how many people see the pages – you just need to try and get those people to stay on your site.
This can be achieved by trying to work out the intent of your visitors as they reach the page. If you can ascertain what they are trying to do or what information they are looking for, then you can do a better job of making a website that meets their needs. Here are some ways of achieving this:
What not to change
Don’t alter the URL of the page – this is already a page that is bringing visitors to your website, and they might be doing this through links on other websites. If you change the URL then you will lose this traffic. Also, if search engine traffic is important then changing the URL could possibly alter where the page is positioned in rankings as well, so don’t risk this either.
Don’t change the title of the page – like the URL, this might be a big reason why this page gets more people to come to your site – so don’t mess with this just in case it has a negative impact.
What to change
The changes you make to the page need to be driven by the intent of the traffic visiting them. To find this out, look at the traffic sources in analytics and see where the visitors are coming from outside of your site – what are they searching for?
Also, use a free backlink checker tool to find other sites that are linking to each landing page, and then look at each of the links to see how your site is referred to, and what sort of information you think that the visitors to the external site are looking for when they click on to yours.
Armed with this information you can then make the following changes (tracking the work on your project spreadsheet of course):
Web description – Change the web description (the bit of text that appears under the title in search results) so that it better explains what is on the page – that way the traffic will know what they are getting. Don’t worry about putting any SEO keywords in this, and don’t repeat what is in the title as it appears underneath it – try and optimize the description to get more clicks.
The opening – Change the opening 100 words of the page so that you provide the answer or solution that you believe your audience is looking for. This only needs to be an overview as the details are likely to be further down the page – but if you can be clear in the opening to the page then people are more likely to read the rest. Also include your target keyword for the page in the opening 100 words, as close to the start as possible; as long as it reads well to do so.
Next action – Identify at least one other page or action on your site that it would be logical for your visitors, given the information they are trying to find, to go take next. Then make sure these pages are linked to in the body of your landing page – by selecting words or phrases that relate directly to the content (i.e. not ‘click here’ or ‘read more’) and making them text links. Also, if a logical next action would be to join a mailing list or fill in a survey then make sure that this is prominently linked to as well.
Layout – Change the overall layout. Take a step back and look at the overall structure of the page to see if you can work out why a visitor might click off. Is there enough content above the fold (meaning above the imaginary line at which visitors start to scroll down)? Are there distracting banners at the top that might be putting people off? Is the content a dense block of text that looks hard to penetrate? Make some layout changes to better space out the content and you might be able to get more people to read it.
Mobile ready – Take a look on a mobile. As mobile traffic increases your site needs to be responsive so that it looks great on the smaller screen. You might even be getting penalized in Google search results if you haven’t set this up. So make sure your site looks fine on cellphones and tablets, and try and make some changes to the content if it doesn’t.
If you can follow some of the advice above and lower the bounce rate on your critical landing pages then more traffic will soon be flowing through your site. The next job is to keep them on there.
Step 3 – Make it hard to say goodbye
In step 3 we turn our attentions to the exit pages – the places on your site where most people leave it. Maybe never to come back. We need to decrease the % Exit of these pages so that more people hang around.
If your website is a bucket, and your traffic is water, then exit pages are holes from which people are leaking out. Here are some ways to patch them up:
Headlines and titles – People may be leaving the page because they don’t know what it is all about, and so can’t make a judgement on whether or not they should bother reading it. And when people feel this way online it is far easier to close the page than to read on. So make the page title and headline more descriptive and it will help people decide if this page is where they want to be.
Routes and links – Look at how people get to this page. Work out whether they are most likely clicking a menu link, or a link in a page that is displaying prominently – or maybe they are getting to it from another website, social media updates or from an email campaign. Once you have this information, look at the way in which the page is described or linked to, and try and improve this so that it more accurately explains what is on the exit page. A major reason people are leaving your site from that page is usually because the content on it isn’t what they were looking for. By making the links and routes to it better you will help people find content that they were actually expecting to see.
Destination – Give people somewhere else to go. People might be leaving the site simply because this page doesn’t link to any others – or at least doesn’t link to other pages that a visitor might logically be interested in going to next. Add some links or actions that they can take to carry on their journey or conversation, and then maybe they won’t be tempted to click off!
Encourage action – Help people do something. It may not be enough to simply add links to other pages – you also need to get people to click them. It is difficult to try and get people to take action online – but there are some techniques to use that can help:
- The placement of the link or signup box is important – make sure it is clearly visible and stands out from the background.
- Provide a bit of the detail about what the linked-to content holds, but not the whole story. If you give the full answer then people have no reason to click.
- If linking to a page at the bottom of content (as opposed to in-context in the body of a page) then you can be a bit more insistent about getting people to click. Use words like ‘click here’ or ‘find out more’ and you can compel more people to view another page on your site.
Use the previous advice – Some of the changes advised in step 2 are also relevant here too: make sure that the initial section of content sells the rest of it, put good introductory content above the fold, improve the layout and consider how the page looks on a mobile. So incorporate all of these things, and you should be able to encourage fewer people leave your website.
Plugging the holes in your website can keep plenty more of your interested visitors moving through it, and boost traffic to other pages. Once you’ve made some progress with improving the exit pages, let’s next look at how to better use the most trafficked pages on your entire website.
Step 4 – use the best bits a bit better
The most trafficked pages on your website are powerful pieces of real estate. More people see this content than any other, so making sure that you make the best use of it.
There are two parts to this step of the Critical Page Optimization project – the first is to ensure that these pages are used well, and the second is to try and replicate the best aspects of them on to other pages of your website. Let’s take these in turn:
How to use your most trafficked pages better
- Add links to other relevant pages – keep more of the traffic on your website by incorporating both in-context and out of context links on this page. Ensure that you send people to another page that has a related topic to the most trafficked page.
- Add email signup links or boxes – get more people to join your mailing list with a signup box or link on this page. Even if there is one in the sidebar or at the bottom, maybe add another one further up the page so that more people see it.
- Mention your strengths – as well as linking to other relevant pages from this one, also mention the strengths and benefits of the topics that you link to. A lot of people are viewing this page, it will definitely benefit you if some of them not only have the opportunity to click onto other content on your site, but are also compelled to in your messaging.
These three improvements are all designed to reduce the bounce rate (hopefully by now you’re realising how important bounce rate is in critical page optimization) – meaning that more of the people who are looking at the most popular pages on your website then look at other pages on it too.
What to learn from the most trafficked pages
Alongside making the actual improvements to the content of these pages, the value of the most trafficked pages also comes in learning why they are so popular with readers, and trying to duplicate that success across your site. Look at the following elements and make a note of anything that stands out in the relevant section of your spreadsheet:
- Look at the tone and voice – think about the way things are described and the sort of terminology used to get your message across. Can this information be used elsewhere?
- Look at the topic – can you create more content on this or related topics?
- Look at the links to this page – how are people likely getting to it? Are they following a menu structure that highlights it? Or are there loads of links to it in the body of other pages?
- Look at how long the page is.
- Look at the sort of keywords used – are they leading to more search traffic?
- Look at the page’s web description – it may be doing a great job at encouraging people to click.
These details will be really useful for the next stage of the project.
Step 5 – improve the worst
The final stage of the Critical Page Optimization project is to improve the least trafficked pages on your website so that you can try and get more people to view them.
The first job in this section is to go back and have a look at the list of pages you have chosen, based on analytics data, and decide whether or not they are really that relevant.
For example, perhaps your least trafficked pages are things like a terms and conditions page, or your website sitemap. If this is the case then do you really want to bother trying to get more people to see this page?
Make sure you only spend time and energy on the lowest trafficked pages that it would be beneficial to improve!
Once your selection has been narrowed down let’s compare each page to the highest trafficked pages and use the things learned in the previous section to make the content and site structure better:
- Are there enough links pointing to the page from elsewhere on the site?
- Is the page included in site menus correctly?
- Is there enough content on the page?
- Is there enough content above the fold?
- Can you incorporate better, relevant keywords in the content (particularly in the headline)?
- Is the web description good enough to encourage a click?
Answering these questions and improving the least trafficked pages accordingly will hopefully give you an increase in traffic and boost the lowest performing areas of your website.
This is the last piece in the puzzle – the least trafficked pages need the most improvement, and if you can make them better, after first doing your best to keep more people on the website and get them moving around the site a bit more, then you will feel the benefits sooner or later.
Step 6 – Critical Page Optimization conclusion: building for the future
If you have followed the previous 5 steps of the Critical Page Optimization project then you will have set your website on a great path to become a real revenue-generating machine.
Once you’ve completed each step be sure to go back and check the vital metric over time. Date the metric columns when you do so that you can track your progress too; this is particularly helpful if you want to see the results of a big change.
Optimizing the critical pages is a good project to use to start learning the different aspects of content strategy that can have an almost immediate impact on your website traffic.
But don’t stop there – once the most critical pages have been worked on then make some changes to the next most critical. If you have seen success with increasing how many people see your least trafficked pages for example, then they should go up in the rankings in your analytics – and you’ll have a new set of pages to improve.
Cycling through the different areas of your website, and incorporating new insights, ideas and content projects as and when they arise results in continuous improvement of your 24/7 shop window. It also gives you an opportunity to make a better publishing workflow so that all subsequent changes increase in value.
There’s a lot in this post that can help virtually any business develop a better website – take things step by step and follow your data to find the most critical pages, and you’ll soon be on the path to success.
I’d love to hear how you get on in the comments!
Also published on Medium.