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When evaluating the influence and quality of your website, sometimes it helps to take a step back and prioritize the site’s fundamental needs from the ground up.

Often times we get so entangled in optimization tactics that we don’t realize that the most vital elements of our websites can be what’s hindering its performance.

Before you start investing a lot of time and energy into improving advanced characteristics of the website, it’s important to ensure the most basic needs are met.

Mapping web optimization priorities in an anthropomorphic manner can help to understand the best way to prioritize website improvements.

While there are various website maturity and conversion rate models, a helpful way to think about website optimization is through personification.

Enter Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, the most well known assessment of human motivation. The motivation theory suggests five separate levels of basic human needs that must be satisfied in sequential order to ultimately reach self-actualization.

Let’s take a look at how this theory holds up when applied to websites.


First need: infrastructure

Like the human body, a website has fundamental needs in order for it to survive and function properly.

  • Hosting Priority. While the cloud continues to present risks, there are too many examples of major website outages to list in this short post, it remains to be a top option for hosting. However, it’s essential to research and determine the best fit for your website’s needs and if it might be time to switch.
  • Programming Language. A switch from one hosting platform to another could present significant challenges because of the programming language the website was originally written in.

    It’s important to select a developer, and therefore a programming language, that best suits your company’s long-term needs. It’s a strategic decision often viewed technically, but has long-term business implications. 

Second need: safety and stability

Like Maslow’s theory for human motivation, once we have our physical needs met, we must then have safety and stability. A website should be viewed no differently.

  • Safe and secure. Security is frequently an afterthought once a fully robust website is up and running. More than $130bn in corporate losses in 2011 were due to data breaches, according to the Ponemon Institute. If your site has yet to have safeguards in place, then there is no point in implementing more advanced website tactics.
  • Calculating load times. One value step in this process is testing how long a website takes to load, which can be done using a simple resource like Pingdom Tools. The site will need reworking if it takes longer than 10 seconds. It may be that you need to reconsider the site’s hosting provider (you get what you pay for) and/or the site architecture.
  • Usability test. Visitors have preexisting notions of how certain elements on your website should function and your website should align with these intuitions. To test the usability, first map the most important interactions your users will have with your site then run it through a sample audience. The Five Second Test is a free tool to run simple user tests to ensure your website is properly understood and navigated accordingly.
  • Task test. Beyond the navigation, Usability Hub is a tool that allows you to ask users to perform certain tasks to test how they use your site.

Third need: being found

Once you meet the physical and security needs of your website, you can start focusing on connecting. Your site must be listed where your consumers are looking to learn more about your products and services, which includes visibility in social media profiles to search engines.

As with Maslow’s hierarchy, this stage focuses on social connectivity and acceptance.

  • Web trends. Google’s lesser-known but very useful tool Trends helps you identify what terms and keywords are currently trending. It also provides a forecast of how those terms are anticipated to change in the near future, enabling you to boost your web copy, searchability and online advertising.
  • Social integration. With Facebook now entering the world of search with Graph, it’s more important than ever to look at your social presence as part of a larger search strategy.
  • Content marketing. A comprehensive content offering might be the missing ingredient in your search strategy. The value of having high quality content goes beyond providing some SEO bumps and actually builds your brand, increasing visibility and influence.

Fourth need: optimized for conversion

Now that the website is being sought out and discovered, it’s important to start optimizing it for conversion. Maslow’s Hierarchy’s fourth prong is esteem, and it can only be realized when a website successfully leverages optimization to dually serve your business’ and the users’ purpose.

Whether your site is just an online catalog or provides full-fledged ecommerce offerings, the objective is to generate conversions. To do so, your website’s mechanics have to be data-driven, so you can define and measure its effectiveness to feed the conversion funnel.

  • AnalyticsFocus efforts on understanding what’s happening to users in the conversion funnel to identify where you are losing them.
  • A/B Testing. Develop hypotheses for optimizing crucial aspects of your pages, then play with headlines and call-to-actions to test how people respond. It’s best to start simple, but make a habit of updating elements of your site regularly to track the impact of the changes. There are great (and free!) platforms out there for A/B testing, such as Optimizely.

Fifth need: predicting user behavior

In order to really make your site flourish, you need to need to surprise and delight users with the unexpected.

This is the hardest strategy to implement, but it also enables your site to really recognize its fullest potential. 

  • PersonalizationUsing a tag-based system, you can easily implement different user experiences for different user groups. This makes each browsing experience unique to a user’s expectations and reinforces your conversion funnel.
  • GamificationTry offering different incentives that will evoke the desired behaviors from your users and see these incentives draw results. Moreover, this experiment will help you understand the motivations of your users so you can tap into their motivations and hone in on specific outcomes like, of course, conversions.

[An example of how Facebook delights users by personalizing their search fields; just one example from Little Big Details]

Ultimately, you should identify where your site is in this framework and work through the layers in this systematic order. There’s no reason to add personalization to your website if your site doesn't work with Internet Explorer or has broken links.

Once you’ve gone through this process, you’ll enter website nirvana and your business, along with your customers, will thank you.

Phillip Klien

Published 14 March, 2013 by Phillip Klien

Phillip Klien is CEO and Co-Founder of SiteApps and a contributor to Econsultancy.

3 more posts from this author

Comments (5)


Climax Media

Awesome read! Definitely agree with the "infrastructure first" approach. Deciding on a programming language based on business needs is a clever way to start. Good stuff!

over 3 years ago


Chris Kent, Freelance

Excellent article and an innovative approach by applying Maslow to websites – I really liked it and helps clarify thinking particularly when, for example, a client thinks they are level 4 when reality would suggest otherwise. It provides a framework to examine the shortcomings of their existing approach and helps in developing a structured way forward. In Summary: very clear, very concise, and very usable - and thought provoking!

over 3 years ago



IMHO "personalization" and "gamification" are solutions to fulfill the need for conversion. They're not a "need" themselves.
I'd expect something like "customer care" or "post-purchase services" on that level.

over 3 years ago

Jennifer Smith

Jennifer Smith, Product Leader, Consumer Engagement at MasterCard

Really neat - and it helps one to consider up the pyramid when laying down the 'infrastructure'. If we were 'building a human' it would be advantageous to consider up the same way. If we could build a human with high self-esteem for example, their physiological make up would be of a certain kind that accounts for that...if that makes any sense?!

over 3 years ago


Johnny Philavanh

Very interesting article in comparing social-psychology to website analytics. If, anything, the practice of website optimization is really an interdisciplinary discipline!

over 3 years ago

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