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Conversion rate optimization (CRO): the user-centric approach

Forget about best practices and quick hacks: to increase website conversion rate, your best move is to understand your visitors, users, and customers, and give them what they need.

In this guide, we dispel a few myths about conversion optimization, talk to 20+ conversion experts, and give you a free, downloadable 3-step CRO plan to help you gather the data you need to improve your conversion rates over and over again.

Last updated

13 Dec 2023

Reading time

9 min


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Forget about best practices and quick hacks: to increase website conversion rate, your best move is to understand your visitors, users, and customers, and give them what they need.

In this guide, we dispel a few myths about conversion optimization, talk to 20+ conversion experts, and give you a free, downloadable 3-step CRO plan to help you gather the data you need to improve your conversion rates over and over again.

What is conversion rate optimization (CRO)?

Conversion rate optimization (CRO) is the practice of increasing the percentage of users who perform a desired action on a website. Desired actions can include purchasing a product, clicking ‘add to cart’, signing up for a service, filling out a form, or clicking on a link.

A more user-centric definition of CRO

Standard definitions of CRO, like the one we just wrote above, place their focus on conversion percentages, averages, and benchmarks. This emphasis on a numerical approach comes with a downside—the more you look at spreadsheets full of conversion data points and actions, the less you think of the individuals behind them.

Here is an alternative, more holistic and user-centric way of defining CRO: think of it as the process of focusing on understanding what drives, stops, and persuades your users, so you can give them the best user experience possible—and that, in turn, is what makes them convert and ultimately improves your website conversion rate.

Why do we think this second definition works better? Because focusing on the final action—the conversion—is obviously important, but in reality, a lot happens before that point:

  • Specific DRIVERS bring people to your website

  • Specific BARRIERS make them leave

  • Specific HOOKS persuade them to convert


When you’re working to improve conversions, not every problem is quantifiable, backed by hard numbers, and with a clear-cut answer. Yes: sometimes, an obvious bug is blocking 80% of your users from doing something, and fixing that one bug will save your entire business; other times, your website functions perfectly and yet people still are not converting. When this happens, you’ll need to dig deeper to understand the why beyond the data you have—you’ll need, in other words, to focus on your users first. And that’s what we at Hotjar think CRO is actually about.

Whether you own an ecommerce site or manage online marketing or SEO (search engine optimization), CRO will constantly be a top-of-mind topic to help your organization grow.

How to calculate conversion rate

Conversion rate is calculated by dividing the number of conversions (desired actions taken) by the total number of visitors and multiplying the result by 100 to get a percentage.


For example, if your web page had 18 sales and 450 visitors last month, your conversion rate is 18 divided by 450 (0.04), multiplied by 100 = 4%.

What is the average conversion rate?

Depending on what you read, the average conversion rate is anywhere between 1% and 4%.

But let us come out and say it: this figure is sort of meaningless, since:

  • Conversion rates differ wildly depending on the conversion goal (ad clicks, checkout completions, newsletter signups, etc.)

  • Every website, page, and audience is different

  • Most people don't share their conversion data publicly anyway

Averages may be useful as starting points for benchmarking, but what do they really have to do with YOUR website?

There is no actual, ultimate industry figure you can rely on or compare yourself against with 100% confidence. Obsessing over an average percentage figure, and trying to squeeze as many conversions as possible just to stay in line with it, is not the best way to think about conversion rate optimization. Once again, you’re better off focusing on developing an in-depth understanding of what actually matters to your users, so you can give it to them—and then, conversions will naturally follow.

Conversion optimization best practices—and why they’re dangerous

In the world of digital marketing, a CRO best practice is a commonly-held belief that a particular optimization action will guarantee an increase in conversion rate, for example:

  • Use a strong color for all CTA (call-to-action) buttons

  • Place CTAs above the fold

  • Use urgency (e.g., time-limited offers) to drive sales

  • Always display testimonials

  • Use fewer form fields on your forms

Are these best practices good for improving YOUR conversion rate? Debatable.

First of all, best practice is—by definition—past practice: it's something that worked in the past for someone else. You can’t guarantee it’s going to work today.

Second, just because it worked for someone else, doesn’t mean it’s going to work for you.

Blindly applying existing best practices puts companies in a perpetual state of playing catch-up—while more progressive and experimental businesses are busy improving and making the changes that will be recognized as 'best practices' in a few years.

#The performance decay (in red) of a company blindly following and applying best practices (in blue)
The performance decay (in red) of a company blindly following and applying best practices (in blue)

📚Useful extra reading: here is our philosophy about best practices, and how following them blindly can end up being counterproductive and hurt business.

There is, however, one core principle we can recommend as always valid: spend time understanding your users and customers—or, as we like to say around here at Hotjar, build a customer-centric culture by obsessing over your users and customers. They are the people who matter to your business and have the answers you need to improve it. Fixate on their needs and desired outcomes, learn as much as you can about their concerns and hesitations, and then deliver solutions that address them.

In the long term, what leads to growth is not blindly applying best practices that you see on other blogs or hear from your boss(es). The winning approach is investing in understanding and learning from your users and using the insight to build an optimization strategy that continuously improves your business.

How to do this in practice is covered in the 3-step CRO program chapter of this guide; before then, let’s take a rapid look at the tools that will get you there.

The best conversion rate optimization tools

It may sound weird coming from a company that sells a tool that helps people optimize websites—but, as a principle, we believe that the best optimization tools are free.

<#The best optimization tools are free
The best optimization tools are free

Your brain, ears, eyes, and mouth are the primary tools you need to understand your customers, empathize with their experience, draw conclusions based on the data, and ultimately make the changes that improve your product conversion rates.

(Sidenote: here is a great example of what can happen when you don’t use these tools, make assumptions about what people need, and build something that nobody uses.)

How do you use these free tools?  

  • Listen to what your users have to say about your website

  • Watch how people use your website

  • Immerse yourself in the market

  • Talk to whoever designed and built your site (and your product/service)

  • Speak to the staff that sell and support your product/service

  • Draw connections between different sources of feedback

All the other, traditional optimization tools are simply the means that help you do it. And they help in three ways:

1. Quantitative tools to uncover what is happening

Quantitative tools allow you to collect quantitative (numerical) data to track what is happening on your website. They include:

2. Qualitative tools to uncover why things happen

Qualitative tools help you collect qualitative (non-numerical) data to learn why your website visitors behave in a certain way. They include:

  • Website feedback tools (on-page and external link surveys) where visitors are asked questions about their experience

  • Website session recording/replay tools that show how individual users navigate through your website

  • Usability testing tools where a panel of potential or current customers can voice their thoughts and opinions on your website

  • Online reviews where you can read more about people’s experience of your brand and product

3. Tools to test changes and measure improvements

After you’ve collected quantitative and qualitative feedback and developed a clear sense of what's happening on your website, testing tools allow you to make changes and/or report on them to see if your conversion optimization efforts are going in the right direction. They include:

  • A/B testing tools that help you test different variations of a page to find the best performer (recommended for high-traffic sites, so you can be certain your results are statistically valid)

  • Website heat map + session recording tools that allow you to compare different variations of a page and the behavior on it

  • Conversion-tracking analytics tools that track and monitor conversions

  • Website feedback tools (like visual feedback widgets or NPS dashboards) that help you collect qualitative feedback and quantify it, so you can compare the before/after response to any change you made.

The remaining chapters of this guide cover:

  • Our 3-step CRO program: a free, downloadable 3-step CRO process that helps you understand the drivers that bring people to your site, the barriers that stop them from converting, and the hooks that persuade them to stay.

  • Landing pageCRO: a case study: a practical case study on how to use the 3-step CRO plan to optimize a landing page and drive conversions effectively.

  • 20+ expert CRO tips: 20+ expert CRO practitioners answer the question: What's the one thing you recommend to people working on improving their conversion rate?

  • 10 CRO tools: find out which popular conversion rate optimization tools will help you improve UX and increase conversions.

  • 6 benefits of a user-centric CRO approach: you’ve done the hard part: getting potential customers on your site. Now, discover what you stand to gain from a higher conversion rate.

  • How to perform a successful CRO audit of your website in 9 steps: a step-by-step guide on a proven CRO audit method to identify opportunities to improve your site’s conversion rate. 

  • 7 CRO strategies for ecommerce businesses: improve the UX throughout the entire ecommerce conversion funnel, from product pages to the checkout process, to turn site visitors into paying customers. Reduce shopping cart abandonment and increase conversions with CRO strategies specific to ecommerce stores.

  • 10 key conversion rate optimizationmetrics and KPIs to track: from bounce rate and CTR to user behaviormetrics like click and scroll depth, learn about the most important metrics to keep an eye on for CRO.

  • CRO glossary: an explanation of the most commonly used terms in CRO, from split testing and CTA buttons to multivariate testing (MVT).

Conversion Rate Optimization FAQs