Window Shopping

What are web conversions?

When reading about making sites successful, one of the concepts that is always mentioned is conversion rate. But what does that stand for? What are conversions, and do they only apply to commercial websites?

Photo of Koen Platteeuw
Fri, 2015-02-06 10:36By koen

Main image: "Window shopping in Cowbridge" by Jonathan Billinger and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Licence.

Starting with the basics, what’s a conversion? 

Put in a simple way, a conversion happens when a user performs the action we want them to do. The conversion rate is therefore the percentage of users that perform that act, compared to the total amount of users that made it to the decision point.

Let’s simplify with an example, unrelated to the web. A high street shop. Think of a shop window. The task of the shop window is to attract attention and get people to enter the shop. The conversion would be a person entering the shop after seeing the window. It’s the act that the shop owner wants to trigger. The conversion rate would be calculated as the percentage of all people that pass by the window who eventually enter the shop. 

But the ultimate goal of the shop isn’t people walking in through the door, rather, it’s leaving the shop with a shopping bag in their hands. So a second conversion needs to happen: get the client, who is now in your shop, to buy a product. And here we have a new conversion rate. How many of the clients that enter the shop actually buy a product.

Intermediate versus ultimate conversion 

This example also shows the different type of conversions. You have intermediate conversions and ultimate or overall conversion rates. In our example, the percentage of people entering the shop is an intermediate conversion. The overall conversion rate would be the percentage of people walking by the shop that actually buy a product. 

Now let’s take this back to our website.

Conversions for E-commerce sites

If the key aim of your site is selling a product, it is easy to translate the above example. E-commerce sites have clear intermediate conversion goals: High search engine rankings so more people “walk by your store” -> an attractive site layout so bounce rates are low -> a clear product layout so people find what they're looking for -> a user-friendly way to add products to your shopping cart -> minimal sign-up requirements or user friendly forms so clients aren’t dropping out in the process -> and finally, easy payment systems for maximum conversion. Each and every one of these steps will have its own conversion rate. Combined, they provide the overall conversion rate.

Conversions for non E-commerce sites

But what if you’re not running an e-commerce site? How to interpret the concept of conversions? Well, there is no unique answer. Make your own definition of a conversion, depending of what your site tries to achieve. Here are some examples:

An ad based news or content heavy site: 

The ultimate conversion goal will depend a bit on your advertisement model. If it is it based on clicks, then the ultimate conversation goal will be having a higher rate of users clicking on ads. If your advertisement model is impressions-based, then the ultimate conversion goal will be increasing the number of ad impressions.

In order to have a good understanding of user behaviour, it will be as important to set up intermediate conversion goals: 

  • the number of pages visited per session (more pages visited, meaning more exposure to ads);
  • number of sessions (getting more traffic);
  • returning users (seeing site users return shows your site has content people like);
  • lower bounce rates, social shares (which could generate more traffic to your site).
Subscription based news site

While similar to the above, here the ultimate conversions are new subscriptions and renewals. So hitting the send button on sign up forms for new subscriptions will be the key action you want to track and obtain. Many of the intermediate conversion goals will remain the same, although it will be important to monitor paying and anonymous users separately as they have a different ultimate conversion goal.

For signed in members these would be:  

  • Pages read per visit;
  • Total time on the site; 
  • Recurrence of user visits over a certain time period.

For anonymous users:

  • Exit rates after seeing snippets;
  • The amount of visitors looking for pricing information;
  • New newsletter subscriptions.
NGO sites

The three most recurring goals of NGO websites are raising awareness, raising funds and recruiting volunteers for the organisation. If that is the case with your site, all three goals should be reflected in the ultimate conversation goal. Raising awareness, raising funds and recruiting volunteers could, for example, respectively be translated into content sharing, sending donations online and submitting a form to sign up as a volunteer. 

B2C company websites 

B2C company websites tend to focus on providing product information, be a channel for customer service, as well as selling products and services online. Again, conversions should be related to these. Examples of the type of conversions B2C organisations would measure are the rate of visitors of product information that end up making a purchase online. Or from the angle of client support, a high exit rate on customer service pages might indicate users find the information they were looking for. A high rate of visitors of the customer service section that look for contact information after having visited your client support section, might indicate the opposite.

B2B company websites

B2B company websites often function as a lead generation tool. Page views of the section in which we promote our services would be a nice intermediate goal, while the rate of contact form submissions would be a typical ultimate conversion goal.


The above examples show that the relevant conversions are different for each use case. It is important to identify the key conversions during the planning stage, so that mechanisms for monitoring their performance are built into the site. While many traditional conversions are tracked by default in Google Analytics, you should also consider configuring event tracking in Google Analytics for site specific actions which don’t appear in the standard dashboards. For more information on event tracking, you can read this little “how-to” guide

Summarising, conversions are the actions we want our users to carry out on the sites we manage. There is no single key conversion that fits every website, rather the ultimate conversion goals will be different for each site. Identify these key conversions during project planning and set up mechanisms to monitor their performance.