Vancouver studio helps boosts YouTube conversions by 16%

Every week Techvibes will be republishing an article from Business in Vancouver newspaper.

This article was originally published in issue #1036 – September 1-7, 2009.

YouTube LLC admits that a revamp of its website was long overdue.

The San Bruno, California, company, which operates one of the world’s top-five most- visited websites, employs a number of web designers and other creative folk, but to conduct the revamp, it needed a fresh perspective and expertise that could only be found outside the firm.

It called on Vancouver’s VKI Studios Inc. for help.

VKI, a 16-employee firm founded in 1998, doesn’t build elaborate, slick websites.

Rather, it’s carved out a niche helping companies tweak small details of their websites to convert more passive visitors into active clickers and, ultimately, account- holders.

VKI is a Google website optimizer authorized consultant (WOAC), meaning it’s certified by Google as an expert in using the free website testing and optimization tool, Google Website Optimizer.

Website developers like VKI use the tool to create multivariate tests, in which slightly different versions of the same website are shown to visitors over a test period.

For YouTube, VKI made changes to three sections of the company’s homepage with the goal of increasing the number of people who sign up for an account.

VKI experimented with different “call-to-action” messages, colours and shapes and fonts, eventually creating 1,024 different versions of YouTube’s homepage.

Standing 20 feet away from a computer screen, many of the changes are hardly noticeable, but according to VKI’s principal John Hossack, even the slightest changes can influence the way a visitor navigates a page.

The 1,024 pages were then displayed to visitors of YouTube’s U.S. English site – the company’s busiest – over a two-week period.

Citing competitive reasons, YouTube wouldn’t disclose how many viewers visit its site daily, but Curtis Lee, a product manager at YouTube, said that millions of visitors viewed the changes over the two-week period.

The top-performing incarnation of the website – which included a red box with the call-to-action “Don’t Just Watch, Participate” – increased YouTube’s conversion rate by 16%. That resulted in thousands of additional sign-ups.

“I was a little surprised in terms of how much a small difference can create such a big change,” said Lee, “especially when you’re at the scale of YouTube.”

The challenge for VKI was attracting the attention of YouTube visitors away from the advertising and video frame that dominate the site.

“With the restrictions we had, we couldn’t just put a big call to action on the middle of the page saying ‘sign up,’” said Hossack. “They need to keep that prime real estate for videos and advertising.”

VKI, which had $1.75 million in revenue last year and is projecting $2 million in revenue in 2009, conducted a similar test for a fertility clinic in California that resulted in a 120% increase in conversions on the clinic’s website.

Multivariate testing has existed for many years, but until recently was used only by larger and advanced firms.

Free tools, such as Google Website Optimizer, which was released two years, have automated multivariate testing – imagine creating 1,024 different versions of the same website manually – making the testing available to any company that wants to improve its conversion rate.

One catch is that websites need to have high traffic rates for multivariate testing to work.

Hossack said it can take up to a year of testing on a low-traffic website to get an accurate portrait of how visitors navigate the site.

Lee said YouTube’s next step is to incorporate some of the test’s findings to make permanent changes to its site.

It’s also getting companies like VKI to run multivariate tests to improve the conversion rates of YouTube advertisers.

“It’s a scalable tool that everyone should be using,” said Lee.

“The higher ROI [return on investment] that [advertisers] get from a particular page, the more dollars they’re going to spend in terms of advertising on that specific page.”