What if you built a site and all the right people showed up, but none of them bought anything? What if you looked at your traffic reports and analytics and you saw traffic streaming in in droves for all the keywords that perfectly describe what you do? What if you had killer content and tens of thousands of links, but sales were flat? What if you knew you had the best prices or the most unique offerings in town and STILL no one was buying?

What would you do?

Would you realize you probably had some usability issues? Hopefully. (If not, let's hope I just clued you in.)

So what do you do about it?

What if it's Not Them, it's You?

Sometimes it's the simplest things that throw people off course. Earlier this year, the guy who heads up our analytics department stumbled across something interesting. We had a site that was built with a fluid design. (Meaning as you expanded your browser window, the content of the site stretched out to fill the space.) He noticed the primary conversion point on the web site was in the upper right hand corner of the site. That meant that as the browser window grew larger, the conversion point moved further and further away from where people's eyes naturally looked.

He dug into the analytics for the site and sure enough, as a user's screen resolution increased, their conversion rates went down. It didn't matter how targeted the traffic coming in from the search results was, a major usability issue on the site was standing in the way of their conversion.

Restructuring the site to place the conversion point in a better position that wasn't affected by screen resolution did wonders for the site's conversions, giving the client an increase in leads and sales without us ever having to drive a single new search visitor.

The Mom Test

In the world of small business where staffs are small and budgets are tight, shelling out for a usability analysis isn't always (ok, is almost never) feasible. Heck, many small businesses are already digging spare change from the couch in the lounge just to pay their hosting bills. That's why it's important to remember the single most cost-effective usability tool you have in situations like this: your mother.

Don't have a mother? That's fine, get the mother of one of your employees. Get the mother of your SEO (but not mine, she's so web savvy she runs backlink checks), or the mother of your accountant. Any mom will do, though it's best if she's over the age of 50.

Then sit her down at your site and ask her to do whatever it is you want someone to do. That might be sign up for a newsletter, it might be purchase a product or it might be download a white paper. Just start her off on the site with no instructions other than "do this." Then watch.

If she can't quickly and easily find her way to what it is you want her to do, chances are good you've got some usability problems. If you're standing behind her wanting to yell "it's right THERE!!!" while she leans forward and stares at the screen, you've definitely got usability problems.

Photo courtesy Flickr Creative Commons License from user AMagill.

Sometimes finding the problem is as simple as getting an outsider to take a fresh look at your site and to see how they interact with it. If the mom in your experiment can't find your subscribe button, you need to move it. If she gets to the checkout page and says "holy smokes, that shipping cost is insane!" you need to adjust your shipping options or make sure they show up earlier in the checkout process.

Observe the problem, then get creative about solving it. (And find a new mom for your next round of testing.) It's not a scientific method, but on a tight budget for a site getting solid search traffic on targeted terms, it could make a big difference.

Analyze the Performance of Your Site, Not Just Your Keywords

In the world of search engine optimization, it becomes all too easy to focus in on the keywords and phrases you've optimized for and to look at which ones convert while ignoring the role your site may be playing in those conversions. It simply doesn't matter how targeted your SEO campaign is if you're feeding people into a site that makes it difficult for them to buy.

That's why it's essential to realize search engine optimization is only part of what your site needs to get the job done. You wouldn't dream of spending a ton of money on advertising and promotion for a brand new club without also investing in a good architect and designer. After all, if your patrons can't find the dance floor or the restrooms are hidden behind unmarked doors...all those new customers will probably leave as quickly as they came.

That's why the best SEOs will encourage you to invest in analytics and site reviews as part of your campaigns. They know they can maximize the impact of all that targeted traffic by looking to see how people interact with your site and what ultimately drives them to become a customer.

If your search firm simply spits out a list of keyword rankings and traffic referrals each month and calls it a day, chances are high you aren't getting everything out of your site you should be. If your site isn't performing as well as you'd like, consider the mom test. Even if it's simply a launch point to going back to your firm for some real usability testing, it may tell you a lot about what you need to do for your site.

Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.


A great write up indeed. I have to admit that the "MOM Test" is an extremely interesting approach and by far an excellent way to test the accessibility of a website. I live in Portugal and my MOM is in Brazil. Nevertheless, I just spoke to a friend of mine and he said that his MOM will be available for this "Test". Can't wait to find out the results:)

I think if you managed to do all the right things for the wrong reasons, you completely missed the point and the fact that right things occurred is merely coincidence. I don't believe that anyone should be considered good because they did right by coincidence.

I tried this Mom test and was informed the importance of Buy buttton on my site.
Excellent post!


I have yet to find a search-usability specialist that talks about best practices for online video, which is explosive from both an SEO and engagement standpoint.

"The Mom Test"
Imagine that becoming the next great Buzzword for web development.

Trust XYZ Web Developers! Our Designs Are Mom Proof!

That's a heck of a useful article you just wrote. There are so many variables to consider when maximizing conversion and there can always be that "needle in a haystack" problem-child variable that you aren't even aware of. Thanks for making me think.

We've been designing systems and training with some of our core client groups - 40-60 year old, not particularly tech-savvy people for a while. I'm going to get into trouble here and say that the picture I have in my head - and the one I get our developers to imagine - is a 55 year old office administrator who has been told by her boss to update something on the website. If she can do it, anyone can...


Your advice is spot on! Before I start on an SEO project I require the client to fix any usability issues first, then I will do the SEO portion. I believe that it just doesn't make sense to drive traffic to a defective so I just will not do it!

Your MOM test is a great idea.

A great post, thank you for the tip. Going to try that technique instead of just testing blindly.

This is a quite nice write-up to read. I have to agree that from your 1st paragraph, sometimes, bad things do happen to 'good' people. Just when you think the site you have constructed is almost perfect, it doesn't sell anything, as if no one is interested to view it. Although, sometimes it is true that the larger the page resolution, the more the people can't find what they are looking for is sometimes true since people can have short attention span, I think there are many more factors that affect usability and just like what you said, analyze your site's performance, not just your keywords.

Great article. Conversion is much more important than traffic. It is definitely wise to make sure a website is user friendly and has a good conversion rate.

I have had the same exact issue on many of my sites. I though I was doing good when 1 person aout of 100 actually left their information. Boy was I wrong. I hired a marketing professional to take a look at the consumer appeal of my site, I revamped it, and it did wonders for me! mortgage

Ha ha ha! very interesting writing Jennifer and very true!

I always recommend and ask help from "first time" visitors, but the idea of the "Mom test" is excellent!

Not that I have anything against "moms" but it most are like mine, they don't know what a window is (on internet I mean)... so this kind indeed be an excellent usability friendliness test!

Great article Jennifer. Usability testing is very important but something that clients often don't prioritize, and sadly some designers also need Usability 101 lessons. I will definitely tell my friend about this so he can use the MOM TEST for his jade jewelry site.

Hey Jennifer, Happy Mothers Day!

What a great post here. As a small business operator, some of us only pick up bits and pieces of all of this web site stuff, albeit being pretty important, there are sometimes only so many resources, be it time and or money.

However, I often wonder, how many of us just take a few minutes to regularly visit our own web sites, with the simple question of, what do we want the prospect to do? And, if we have defined that critical question, to your point, can the prospect figure that out in the shortest amount of clicks.

Love the advice of ask a Mom, what a classic, and highly effective, and economical solution!

I like the "over 50" usability test, but since I'm 51 can we change that to "over 60"?!

Great article! I was giving a talk this morning about SEO but touched upon the importance of analytics in terms of 'completing the loop' so it was strange to read that here today... Spooky.

Anyway, I like the idea of a mom test (don't forget about dad's, girlfriends and other family) to get some of the most basic issues thought about, often it's the most obvious things we miss!

Yes, our observations can be a good way of managing tricky situations but this articles gives me a good insight of handling ironic situations through MOM test. I'll try this test and let a good MOM find what is not right behind all the right things for the wrong reasons.

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Great way to approach conversion. Many times when I watch a user navigate my site they don't always do what I think they should be doing. Drives me crazy, but you have to learn from it if you ever want to be successful.

The article pretty much sums up the problems I am having with a couple of the site I run. I need to look into each one and find the logical solutions. My end goal is to maximize conversions.

May I suggest the "daughter" approach. That is the younger, more Web savy to evaluate. We have tried this technique which has brought a lot of insight good information into our Web building techniques.

Great article and some good comments. We used to run a similar test in our office with someone who hated computers. Figured if she could get it right then anyone could... Sadly even this proved to be incorrect at times. But generally a good yardstick.

Jennifer thanks for your great article. For a small business owner I do everything from the website to the marketing and I really enjoyed reading and will implement some of your ideas.

Hi Jennifer, thanks for sharing this idea with us.

Laval Wong, you are so right: conversion is way more important than traffic. This is why the best web analytics solutions are those that let you do A/B page split testing by measuring the conversion rates of the "winner page". (and not just traffic to it).

There is a web analytics program called Logaholic that actually lets you test the different layout of the same page of your site in real time, and see the conversion rate each version of the page yields.

Great tip on using mothers for useability testing - although, I think if we used my mum, then every website on the entire planet would be classed as 'completely unusable' !

Many Thanks,

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Search Engine Guide > Jennifer Laycock > Website Sales Slow? It's Time for the Mom Test