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As a conversion optimizer, I cringe at the phrase “best practice.” Best practices may be quite reliable when it comes to personal etiquette, getting dressed, driving a car, or skydiving, but in my line of work, you gotta be careful about putting too much stock in them.

My personal mantra when it comes to online marketing is, “Testing is the ONLY best practice.” What may work amazingly well for me may fail miserably for you. The only sure thing is to think your situation through, test your ideas, see what happens, then learn from it.

With that in mind, I wanted to look at some of the common “best practices” for high website conversion, then throw back the curtain to show you their warts. I’ve broken it up into four posts in order to give each best practice a bit more attention than if I jammed them all together.

For Part 1, let’s look at…

“Above the fold”

For the uninitiated, here’s how Wikipedia defines “above the fold”:

“Above the fold” is a graphic design concept that refers to the location of an important news story or a visually appealing photograph on the upper half of the front page of a newspaper. Most papers are delivered and displayed to customers folded up, meaning that only the top half of the front page is visible. Thus, an item that is “above the fold” may be one that the editors feel will entice people to buy the paper. Alternatively, it reflects a decision, on the part of the editors, that the article is one of the day’s most important.

This term has been extended and used in Web development to refer to the portion of a webpage that can be visible without scrolling.”

Since monitors come in a wide variety of screen resolutions, the location of the fold can vary widely, as opposed to the actual fold of a newspaper (one reason we should all agree to ditch the phrase in referring to websites, but I digress).

Generally speaking, designing a webpage with the fold in mind is a very good thing. Keeping your most important information (product benefits, calls to action, product images, incentives, etc.) above the fold ensures that it will be more readily seen or read by visitors. You don’t want to make customers work hard in order to learn how your product will benefit them, so it helps to put the good stuff front and center.

When to ignore it:

“Above the fold” has been taken to an extreme by some marketers who try to cram everything above the fold and end up with a cluttered, confusing webpage.

The space below the fold is not a black hole. Customers will scroll down to find additional information that they believe will be valuable to them. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that since your most important information is above the fold, you can get away with halfheartedly dumping the rest of your relevant page content below the fold because it doesn’t matter.

If you are as careful about constructing your below-the-fold content as you were about your above-the-fold content, you will gain more freedom in your design, the entire page will flow together more tightly, and customers won’t feel burdened by having to scroll a little bit.

Some landing pages perform extremely well with key content and/or calls to action located below the fold, because each element of the page has been carefully constructed to get customers more engaged in the experience and moving deeper into the content.

Consider this interesting case study from Conversion Rate Experts on behalf of SEOmoz. After a thorough study of the target audience and SEOmoz’s product, Conversion Rate Experts created a landing page that goes on for miles, but it converted over 100% better than the previous, short form page.

I’m not trying to make a blanket statement that long-form pages are better than shorter ones. The idea is to carefully consider the experience you need to provide on a given page. Don’t arbitrarily conform to a page layout. A page layout never sold anybody on a product (except maybe graphic design services).

If you make sure to consider the needs/questions/anxieties/motivations of your customers and organize your landing page or product page accordingly, customers will buy more frequently– whether they had to scroll or not.