knowing when to re-optimize your website

Google recently made website optimization freely available to everyone. Perhaps this truly is a key element in Google’s plan for world domination. But in any case, it’s good news for those times when you want to choose data analysis over whimsy and hope.

A danger of free, fast, and easy testing might be that its users will become complacent about the background structure of testing and optimization. Statistical tests always depend on background assumptions about data-generating processes. For example, when the number of users of a website increases by orders of magnitude, the attributes of its users (age, sex, internet experience, etc.) may change. What had been an optimal content design may no longer be optimal.

Economists have long pondered problems of behavioral estimates. To get a sense of the issues, suppose that you observe that over the past ten years both the price of widgets and aggregate sales of widgets rose strongly. That doesn’t mean that raising the widget price will increase widget sales. More likely the opposite is true. Increasing demand for widgets may account for the correlation between higher prices and greater sales.

The problems for human behavioral estimates are far worse than those of omitted variable biases in other physical systems. Humans are good at collecting and sharing information, and humans often change their behavior in response to new information, new rules, and new incentives. In economics, the Lucas critique is a famous recognition of this reality for parameter estimation.

Among empirical economists, a commonly expressed goal is to estimate “structural parameters.” Structural parameters are interpretable parameters relatively insensitive to plausible changes in the environment and rules of the game.[1] When you optimize with respect to such parameters, your optimization is more likely to be valid over time. Moreover, since you can interpret the parameters, you can anticipate changes in the environment that are likely to invalidate your optimization.

Economists have produced a huge, complex literature on structural estimation. But probably all you really need to know from it for website optimization are a few points:

  • Website optimization is not forever. Changes in circumstances (New Year’s Day promotions won’t work year-round), changes in user characteristics, changes in the experience of users with other websites, and changes in your business reputation may change the optimal configuration of your website.
  • Seek some understanding of what works for you. Testing can help you discover what works. But sound interpretation and knowledge remain valuable. Understanding why a particular configuration works can give you insights into when it might need to be changed (or re-tested). In addition, understanding what works might provide you with more general insights into your users.
  • Expect your users to learn and respond to what you do. If an aspect of your optimization involves baiting and screwing your users, they will learn about it and adapt to it. Your optimal screw of your users can turn to screw you.


[1] To economists, parameters describing preference functions (demand) and cost functions (supply) are structural parameters. That economists consider parameters describing preferences and technology to be relatively stable may seem laughable to persons engaged in viral marketing and rapid web service development.

ikebana: D.C. No. 1

Living in Tokyo in 1956 with her husband, a general in the U.S. Army, Ellen Allen Gordon founded Ikebana International to promote “friendship through flowers.” When Gordon returned to her home in Washington, D.C. she established the organization’s first chapter outside of Tokyo — Ikebana International, Washington D.C. Chapter No. 1. Ikebana International now has 165 chapters in 60 countries, including Chile, South Africa, Jordan, Germany, Russia, India, Australia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. May friendship and flowers always occupy lives around the world!

Members of the D.C. Chapter No. 1 displayed their creative flower power at their annual exhibition this month at the the U.S. National Arboretum. Full appreciation of ikebana, like life, occurs only in person. Moreover, the video below shows less than a third of the arrangements in the exhibition. Even this partial, poor sense of the exhibition I hope you will enjoy.

COB-22: recruiting new bureaucrats

In an article entitled “C’mon and Be a Bureaucrat,” a U.S. national weekly magazine discussed the importance of recruiting new U.S. government bureaucrats. The article noted:

When an interest group wants to torpedo a government initiative, it simply invokes the “bureaucrat” as an emblem of ineptitude. “We saw a slight change during the ‘West Wing’ era,” says Pat McGinnis, president of the Washington-based nonprofit Council for Excellence in Government. “But otherwise it’s just been nonstop portrayals of the bungling bureaucrat. It takes a toll.”

Bureaucrats need to develop a thick skin and the ability to focus on doing their jobs. They also need to develop confidence in their own importance. Max Stier, president of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, observed:

“It’s not about what you can do for government. We need to convey what government can do for you.”

The Carnival of the Bureaucrats aspires to convey what bureaucrats can do for you, not just in government, but also in the many different organizations in which they work.

Occasionally critics acknowledge their mistakes. Steve Thurston at The Buckingham Herald Tribblog called a woodpecker stupid for banging his head on a metal electrical tower. But as Louis Quay explained, the woodpecker was not attempting to peck wood, but was making noise to mark territory. Pecking on a metal pole does that effectively. Readers should think about this example next time they feel inclined to use the phrase “stupid bureaucrat.” Thurston appropriately acknowledged his mistake.

Last month the Carnival of the Bureaucrats discussed sacrificing people for the organization and cited the superb example of Duke’s actions in the Lacrosse Rape Hoax. Subsequently, the law firm representing the plaintiff in the civil suit against Duke filed an amended complaint. One point of many from the amended complaint directly addressed this issue:

454. In response to a plea for Duke to show some measure of support for the students who were being framed in plain view of the University’s leadership, the Chairman explained, “sometimes individuals have to be sacrificed for the good of the Organization.”

Bureaucrats regularly sacrifice themselves for the good of the organization. Note, however, that such sacrifice does not include being sent to prison for decades on false charges.

M. B. Herrera discusses leadership. He states:

Albeit leaders are oriented to their work (and not to their self-exaltation), they are a symbol of the group, which may easily mean that they are a symbol of your company.

We believe that this statement applies generally to bureaucrats.

David at DirtFromTexas submitted a post entitled, “Texas Gestapo To Perform DNA Test on FLDS Kids.” He remarked in his submission, “Why is the State on Texas hell bent on ripping this kids from their Parents all the while violating their Constitutional rights?” Answering that questions is not our responsibility at the Carnival of the Bureaucrats. David should contact the Texas state government office in charge of providing reasons.

Edith Yeung documents and compares the Obama and Clinton campaigns’ Web 2.0 functionality. How these metrics relate to the candidates’ bureaucratic credentials are not clear. As innovative technology, Web 2.0 is a bureaucratic negative. But as a symbol used mainly for discussion and creating documents, Web 2.0 is a bureaucratic positive. Perhaps the Obama and Clinton campaigns could form a joint committee to explore standard metrics for evaluating the bureaucratic merits of Web 2.0.

That’s all for this month’s Carnival of the Bureaucrats. Submit your blog article to the next edition using our carnival submission form. Submissions should conform to the Carnival’s regulations. Past editions of the Carnival of the Bureaucrats can be found on the Carnival’s category page.