Steal the secrets of building high converting websites from codebreakers

Cracking the code to high conversions

Say codes and encryption and you probably think of invisible ink,James Bond and hackers.

But leave governments and militaries aside. Without encryption, even your bank account and inbox won’t be secure.

Throughout history major world events have been shaped by the deviousness of a cryptographer in designing codes or the ingenuity of a  codebreaker in deciphering secret messages.

The neutral US entered the WWI not because of German U boat attacks that drowned hundreds of American citizens  or strenuous British diplomacy but because of a single decrypted German message.

And the WWII could have gone on till 1948 and millions more would have died had Polish and British  codebreakers failed to crack  the Enigma code used by the Nazis.

If the code is the case of the Hound of Baskervilles, think of a codebreaker as Sherlock Holmes.

Building a high converting website or redesigning an under performing website seems very far removed from the arcane world of codebreaking. No one would mistake a copywriter or a web designer for a mathematician or a CompSci PhD at NSA.

But scratch below the surface and you will realize that conversion centered web design is not that different  from codebreaking (more on than in a second). And if your new year resolution is to convert your moribund website into a money making machine you won’t be disappointed if you turn to these tenacious geniuses for inspiration.

Get the right people

From the times of the Greek  and Persian wars (think This. Is. Sparta, Leonidas and the movie 300 ) to the Renaissance codebreakers used to be geniuses and polymaths like Leonardo da Vinci who worked alone, sometimes devoting decades of their life to deciphering a single code. But modern code breaking teams focus on speed and are made up of a cross functional team of mathematicians, computer scientists, experts in linguistics, historians and even crossword addicts.

Likewise, your website redesign is not a single person endeavor. You need

  • Copywriters, designers and SEO experts to create the actual pages.
  • A single decision maker who is responsible for signing off on all copy and design decisions.
  • The involvement of nearly every department, from marketing, sales, HR and operations for inputs.
  • A project manager who is responsible for allocating responsibilities, managing resources and setting goals, expectations and deadlines.

I would highly recommend that you invest in a project management tool like Bootcamp to keep all communications in one place. In my experience, long term projects like these that involve so many people quickly descend into chaos with email.

Collect raw data

Plaintext is converted to ciphertext by using an algorithm and a key and then transmitted. The only thing that’s accessible to the world is the ciphertext, and sometimes, the algorithm.

Therefore the first stage of decryption is to collect as much ciphertext as possible. In ye olde times messengers were bribed by the enemy or post offices and embassies infiltrated so that a copy can be obtained. Today intelligence agencies like the NSA also use fiber optic wiretaps and listening posts, snooping in on every byte  of Internet traffic and every burst of radio signal.

The more raw data you collect the greater are your chances of cracking the code, mainly because patterns might start emerging because of human error in picking an easy key or a flaw in the algorithm.

Building a high converting website too needs a lot of data. During this stage collect data on

  • Different audience types that you intend to target, both internal and external (aka user personas)
  • The business landscape and your primary competition (aka market research)
  • Keywords (aka SEO)

This data collection won’t end after the brand new website is up and running. You will still need to collect data related to

  • Headlines
  • Copy
  • offers
  • landing pages
  • navigation and site architecture
  • call to action buttons
  • form design
  • usage of whitespace
  • color schemes

How well your website converts depends on how well you know your customers and competition #webdesign #conversion Click to Tweet

There are a variety of tools and tactics that you can use for data collection- face to face and telephonic interviews, social media networks, survey tools like SurveyMonkey,  industry research reports etc. Scroll below for other tools related to optimization, analytics and SEO.

Do the actual work

Now the hard work begins. Depending on the raw data, codebreakers will use a variety of techniques and combine knowledge of different fields like linguistics and mathematics to crack the code. Codebreakers sometimes also invent new techniques- it’s not a coincidence that many advances in pure mathematics and computing have happened because codebreakers rushed in where angels fear to tread.

When it’s a new code, the codebreakers will occasionally run into many dead ends. Before mechanical machines and computers came along to speed up the task these laborious forays could take up decades and even centuries. And I am not even talking of the massive financial resources that went into the hardware and software.

Fortunately, designing a new website won’t take a decade and intense intellectual gymnastics. The basic principles and techniques are all well known and with proper planning you can get a shiny new website in a few months. These tactics should help:

1. Define your site architecture: The data you have collected can be slotted into different pages. Depending on their content some pages will be more important to viewers and thus sit on the top level of the navigation bar. In most websites these pages will be typically

  • About Us
  • Products/Solutions
  • Resources
  • Blog
  • Career
  • Contact Us

Each of these pages can have two or more subpages. So the About Us page can have sub pages like Mission and VisionOur Story and Meet the Team. The Resources page can similarly be subdivided into Whitepapers, Case Studies and Webinars. 

There is one type of page which won’t appear on the navigation but is absolutely critical to increasing your ROI. They  are Landing Pages. Depending on what you are selling your website can have anything from one to multiple landing pages. Well optimized landing pages are critical to the success of just about any Call to Action (CTA): newsletter sign ups, whitepaper downloads, PPC ads, request for a quotes etc.

One thing to note in this stage is that every page needs to have a goal. In web content development it’s a cardinal sin to have pages just eating up space without a definite CTA. Hence you should approach this task with the mindset that every page on your site is a landing page.

Every page on your site should be thought of as a landing page #webdesign #conversion Click to Tweet

Having a clear cut goal for each page is also a hedge against meandering copy that makes readers hit the back button.

2. Write persuasive and clear copy

Once you know the goal of each page it becomes easier to identify the ideal reader for that page. Based on the research you have done in the data collection stage you can start with the writing process. Some quick guidelines

  • Use compelling headlines and descriptive subheadings for every page. Boring headlines chase readers away and are fatal for conversions.
  • Use power words in every page and on every CTA button. They persuade and grab attention. Some examples of power words that should be on every page are you, free, because, instantly and new.  
  • Break up the copy into chunks. Use short paragraphs and bullets to create visual breaks so that the page copy is skimmable. Use short lines. You can also use bold text, italicized text, underline text or a combination to make crucial points.
  • Supplement your textual content with visual content. One example of an effective visual content is a relevant client quote along with the client photograph.
  • Junk creativity in favor of simplicity. Sexy copy might win ad awards and give you an ego boost but test after test have proven that when stacked against clear and simple copy the latter always leads to higher conversions.
  • Assume that whatever the goal of the page is- completing the Contact Us form, signing up for newsletter, downloading a case study- readers are going to say no. If your user persona research is robust you will already uncover pain points that hinder decision making. Focus on taking down these hurdles through your body copy and provide additional information that will help them with the CTA.
  • Another way to ensure that your copy is conversion centric is to pretend that the reader will ask two questions: “What’s In It For Me?  and “So What?” after every line. Answering the first question will keep your copy focused on specific  customer centric benefits. Answering the second keeps you from writing stuff that bores or confuses readers, a guaranteed way to repel them.
  • In certain contexts concepts like scarcity and urgency can result in higher conversions. Amazon is a prime example of this but even non e-commerce websites can use these psychological cues.
  • Adopt a mobile first approach to crafting copy. Force yourself to think in terms of small screens and short attention spans and accordingly prioritize the order of content. Your lead paragraph and above the fold content should contain the most important takeaway or the central theme of the page.

High converting web copy answers two questions asked by the reader- What’s In It For Me and So What #webdesign #conversion Click to Tweet

Just remember this while writing web copy: readers and prospects don’t care who you are. They are selfish and only want to know how their problems can be solved with the minimum possible hassle. Your tiny startup may be up against a multinational conglomerate but if you do a great job at outlining your value proposition you are one step closer to acquiring loyal customers.

3. Support copy with great design

A well written webpage or a landing page won’t convert only because of the words. Design decisions can play a powerful role in creating favorable and instantaneous first impressions that increas conversions.Few prescriptions:

  • Use as much whitespace as possible. While whitespace is free, open space of any color white in whitespace is a safe choice for most websites.
  • Use a high contrast color palette. For example, use black or dark grey text on white background. Color choices, especially on CTA buttons, can influence conversion rates.
  • Use design principles like encapsulation (using borders around important areas like forms) and directional cues (arrows, straight lines  etc) to get prospects to complete the CTA
  • Test after test have demonstrated that faces work wonders for grabbing attention. Your conversion rates will skyrocket if the face is looking at the button or click you want the reader to click.
  • Test form lengths and compulsory fields. Rule of thumb is to keep the form as short as possible.
  • Don’t confuse the user. If you need her to click on a button tell her exactly what she is getting out of it. If you want him to download a whitepaper specify if it’s a web or a PDF version.
  • Cut down on loading times as much as you can using light and clean code. You will reap massive SEO benefits.
  • For a mobile first approach to design that is targeted at conversion optimization go with a responsive approach. This ensures that you don’t have to maintain multiple versions of the site for multiple platforms. Design big buttons and contrast them with the background. Incorporate local into design and simplify navigation as much as possible.

If your website design does not follow a mobile first approach you are throwing money away #webdesign #conversion Click to Tweet

4. Adopt SEO best practices

I don’t need to underline the importance of SEO in website redesign. Elsewhere on this blog, I have written about the importance of site audits  in website redesign.But that’s just one of the many aspects of SEO. Instead of putting my own spin on things I am going to leave you with an authoritative list of resources that should help you hit the ground running.

Test, verify and measure

You have been tasked with decoding a ciphertext  and after many days of hard work you have guessed that QUIBT stands for  ASSASSINATE. But will this be valid for every word in the ciphertext? You apply the same algorithm and key to OGBU, the next fragment and it decodes into GEORGE.

That sounds reasonable. Let’s decode the third fragment BPD. Applying the algorithm and the key  will now yield SCOTF. Bummer! Back to square one now, we need to revise our assumptions and try a different line of attack- change the algorithm, change the key or both.

The situation is not so different in web design. You might think that you have written the perfect headline and created the most beautiful design layout but you will never know  until you have analyzed the traffic and conversion numbers.  And even if the numbers match your expectations there is always room for improvement.

How can you get the maximum returns on your investment? Get started with these steps:

  • Link your your website with a web analytics tool. For most websites, at least in the beginning, Google Analytics should suffice.
  • Pick key metrics to monitor and choose goals that tie in with your business objectives. The metrics that a small  business should track are Cost Per AcquisitionBounce RateCheckout Abandonment Rate and Macro Conversion Rate. For a medium sized business some additional metrics include Click-through Rate, Page Depth, Loyalty (visit count per person), Micro Conversion Rates and Per Visit Goal value. For a big business some other metrics are % new visits, Events/Visit, Days to Conversion and  % Assisted Conversions. Check out this awesome blog post by Avinash Kaushik for more details.
  • You can also use heatmapping tools (e.g. Crazy Egg) and user feedback tools (e.g. UserTesting) to understand how your viewers interact with the content.
  • Based on this data create a test hypothesis, set up a control, a new treatment based on your hypothesis and check if the latter beats the former. If yes, the treatment (new headline, change of button color, a female face which replaced a male face) becomes the new control. Rinse and repeat.
  • Some elements can be checked with A/B tests. Others need A/B/C or even multivariate tests.
  • Always be testing. All the elements on a typical web page or a landing page should be tested, either in isolation or in combination. You can get surprise wins from unexpected areas.

Don’t rely on your gut feeling in website design. Always be testing #webdesign #conversion Click to Tweet

 Make 80/20 your friend and ally

Codebreakers, when confronted with a ciphertext, always look for patterns in the raw data. And patterns do exist, regardless of how strong the code is.

For example, an army follows a rigid template while preparing weather reports which are then encoded and transmitted to all units in the field. If the enemy has  access to the template (lets say that the first word in a weather report is always “weather“) and access to several days or months worth of raw data  containing encoded weather reports they can make an educated guess as to which segment of the ciphertext corresponds to the plaintext word “weather“.

This was one of the tactics that Alan Turing, the famed British codebreaker and computer scientist, adopted to crack the fiendishly devious Enigma code. In codebreaking parlance such a segment of relatively easily guessed ciphertext is called a crib. 

The crib, then, is an example of the 80/20 principle in action. And as with any other form of human endeavor the full force of 80/20 can be brought to bear upon website design. Get started with these ideas:

  • Take a deep dive into your analytics report and focus on improving those pages that are connected to your goals.
  • Relentlessly test sections like the ease of checkout process, placement of CTA buttons (above or below the fold and left or right), length of forms, prices, offers and shipping options.
  • Keep testing your homepage and your landing pages. Perform A/B and A/B/C split tests on everything: headlines, bullet points, micro copy on CTA buttons (using get instead of click bumps up conversion rates), number of product or solution choices (less converts more), photographs of the product or users, video length, customer testimonials, navigation bars and sidebars etc
  • Use the Problem-Agitate-Solve formula in your body copy. Here, the problem is something that’s making your prospects’ lives hell. Again, this is only possible to implement when you have solid research on your reader personas.
  • If your copy is not overwhelmingly written in the second person (see what I did there?) things need to be changed. Cut down on “I” and “We” as much as possible.

Use the 80/20 principle to improve pages in a website that are critical to business goals #webdesign #conversion Click to Tweet

The basic goal of this exercise is improve the usability of important portions of a website. Think of it as constantly repairing bridges, traffic signals and roads on a heavily trafficked route so that accidents and gridlocks are kept at a minimum.

A fantastic tool you can use to improve your website is the free Google Website Optimizer. Tim Ferriss has a detailed case study on how GWO improved the homepage conversion rate of a website by 20%+ by using the 80/20 principle.


A codebreaker’s work is never done. Robust encryption means that even if the actual algorithm remains the same the key used to encipher the plaintext will keep on changing. In WWII Germans used a new Enigma key everyday to encode their military and diplomatic communication. On the Internet, algorithms like AES and RSA use a key so long that using current methods all the computers in the world combined together would need more time than the age of the universe to decrypt the cipher text. They are still not broken, which means efforts are on to find a flaw in these algorithms.

A website is not meant to be a static repository of code. Both Google and readers punish stale and outdated websites. Like your organization or store, it’s meant to be ever changing. While not every part of the website can and should be changed, some parts needs to be refreshed on a fairly regular basis. One way to do this is to implement a content marketing strategy so that fresh content in the form of blogs, newsletters, whitepapers, case studies, demo videos, slides, infographics and press releases is produced.

Cracking the code behind a website that converts like crazy is not a dark art. It’s equal parts painstaking research and persistent hard work with a dose of customer psychology and loads of patience.

This post is based on my experiences with an extensive website redesign project I completed a few months ago. If you have a website that you are unhappy with let’s talk.

About Bhaskar Sarma

I am a conversion copywriter, content and growth marketer and I work with B2B companies to build user acquisition systems, decrease churn, and increase conversion rates. If you have an underperforming website, are bleeding users and customers, or have trouble educating and communicating your value to your market let's talk