Almost every site that sells something online could use improvement in their conversion rates. Prospective ecommerce clients frequently ask what causes poor conversion rates, thinking that a broken checkout process is the answer. Often, it goes far beyond the checkout process. When I perform a site audit, I look at three factors (and yes, one of them is the checkout process).

Look upstream

Many online retailers don't realize that factors influencing conversion rates occur before customers visit your site. Some shoppers are price shoppers, while others are goal-oriented. Regardless, visitors most frequently find web sites as a result of some marketing activity.

Whether it's an organic SEO campaign, a paid search campaign, an online shopping guide, buzz, noticing your web address on marketing collateral or good 'ol fashion word-of-mouth, it's typically marketing that brings customers to a retailer's web site. Retailers need to understand that the message customers get from the marketing campaign influence their attitudes when they visit the retailer's site.

Understanding this is critical, because if retailers can maintain clear, consistent messages in all marketing vehicles, then it makes the web site's job easier.

The web site

Of course, the web site is a factor in conversion. I'm not speaking of the checkout process here, but instead the user experience starting on the homepage or landing page, and radiating throughout the other pages customers look at on the web site.

It's critical to reinforce the marketing message on the web site to bridge the gap between marketing and the web site experience. I wrote a while back about how Verizon Wireless likely lost customers when they advertised a service but the service was not explained on the homepage of their web site. Creating synergies between marketing and the web site help to orient the customer and make them comfortable and more informed about the product or service.

Navigation and labeling on a retail site is also important. One challenge retailers that sell many products face is categorizing the products in a manner that is intuitive to their customers. Site search becomes a factor also, and building a robust search engine for a web site can not only help customers find what they are looking for -- it can also upsell and expose customers to similar items they might not have otherwise considered.

High consideration products need a sufficient level of detail to make the customer comfortable with purchasing the item. Product information could include large or multiple views of products, what's in the box, requirements to use the product and items that accessorize or make the product more enjoyable. Great sites always find a way to engage customers. In addition to describing the product, it also helps to show customers how the products are used in everyday life. Crutchfield's "digital drive-thru" is a great example of a site feature that provides product detail on iPods but also helps the customer choose the right iPod and gear to hook it up properly. Integration with Crutchfield Advisor throughout the site gives great information on how to install and enjoy products and even shows examples of how other customers have installed and use their electronics.

Color and positioning of page elements also play a factor in conversion. After all, if a customer can't find an add to cart button, you won't get the sale.

Finally, messaging is important. Ally any customer apprehension by clearly showing pricing, offering a privacy and security policy, shipping rates and information, and other industry-specific considerations. Don't forget to ask for the sale, and use strong call-to-actions.

Downstream -- your checkout process

Whether retail sites have a one-step checkout process or a multi-step process is largely irrelevant. What's critical in checkout is to keep the customer focused on making the purchase and removing distractions. Removing site navigation can aid in improving conversion rates in some instances. Clearly showing all prices and shipping costs early in the process will help customers decide if price is a major consideration. There's an opportunity for multi-channel retailers to send customers to a store nearest them if shipping costs are perceived to be too high.

Design-wise, highlighting required fields and keeping the page design clean is important to encourage users to check out. Upselling and cross-selling in checkout is a risky proposition, so retailers should test it carefully before deciding to sell anything in checkout. Making action buttons primary and any "back" or "cancel" links recessive will provide adequate navigation while urging customers forward. Never label the button that completes an order "Continue." Retailers should instead be more descriptive by labeling the button "complete order" or "send order."

Retailers should also remind customers about privacy and security during checkout, and it should be more visible during the payment step.

Hopefully, reading about these factors have given you a to-do list that will help your conversion rate soar. My take is that it's never okay to be normal when it comes to conversion rates, so periodic assessment and testing of your site will help your conversion rates improve over time.