Web Analytics: Measuring Success By the Click

As appeared in the Presence Pointers column of the December 2008 issue of “Business Watch” magazine.

Is your Web site successful? Was this year more successful than last year; this month more or less successful than last month? These are important questions to try to answer. If you sell online, success might be based on selling more. This may be a start, but it may not be the entire picture. If you don’t sell online, this may seem even more daunting.

The beauty of the Web is that you can gather and measure more information to answer these and many other questions much easier than you can in the offline world. For those who feature both a brick-and-mortar location and an online presence, there are even powerful ways to connect the dots between the two.

Why Measure?

Measuring site performance is important because it helps understand what works and what doesn’t. It helps determine where to focus efforts and resources. What days of the week or month does the site get the most visitors, and perhaps more importantly, sales? And are the two correlated in any way? What other sites send traffic? Are people finding what they are looking for on the site?

The right tools, approach, and a little planning can even turn your Web site into a tool for measuring the effectiveness of your offline marketing. For instance, which papers or magazines send the most traffic? Is the Sunday paper more effective than any other day?

How to Measure?

There is a myriad of performance tools you can tap into. At the most basic level is log file analyzers and basic Web stats programs. These provide a basic glimpse into various metrics, but for more useful information, you need to step up to a Web analytics package.

Web analytics packages run the gamut from highly complex to rather simple tools, and from several thousand dollars to free. In fact, one of the most popular and fairly powerful tools on the market is offered for free from Google.

The complexities of implementing Google Analytics on a Web site may vary. Most sites though can probably get by with simply copying and pasting in a bit of code into each page (for static sites) or into the page templates (for dynamic sites).

What to Measure?

As you’ve gathered, there is an endless supply of metrics and data points that can be examined. What these are and which ones should be monitored vary from site to site and may depend on whether it is a large site or a small one, ecommerce or otherwise, and so on.

There are some metrics that are universally important though. If you are just getting started with analytics, then these are the best ones to start looking at first. Start by looking at the visitor patterns — what days are high days for traffic versus low days? Then look to see the makeup of how visitors get to your site — what percentage of traffic is direct versus search engines versus other sites (referral traffic)? Then look at which pages get viewed the most? Then look at the keywords that send search engine users to your site.

That should keep you plenty busy for awhile. As you become more comfortable with your analytics package, you can start to drill down into each of these areas (and others) in more detail. You can even find out what keywords drove traffic from the Yahoo search engine on the second Tuesday to a specific page if you’d like.

Web analytics can be extremely powerful and is a tool that every site owner should tap into. Like any tool though, wielded improperly, it can do more harm than good. It’s easy to draw correlations in data that aren’t there. Web analytics tools are less about providing answers, and more about providing information to help answer questions, and often, identify new questions to ask.

Maximizing Measurements

  • Double check any assumptions made from the data collected.
  • Don’t make correlations or connections between data that isn’t there.
  • Use the analytics package and your site to test theories.
  • Pick a metric to track over time, identify the direction you want it to move, then work to make it happen.
  • Always look at the data from different angles and perspectives, looking for patterns and trends.

Buying Position with Paid Search Marketing

As appeared in the Presence Pointers column of the November 2008 issue of “Business Watch” magazine.

You’re on the verge of the holiday season. You’ve had best intentions to audit your Web site, employ some best practices around search engine optimization (SEO) or accessibility — but the reality is, that didn’t happen, or it didn’t happen soon enough. Or maybe you did all that, but are still challenged to achieve search results positions that deliver the needed traffic. All hope is not lost.

Paid search marketing can be especially useful when you simply can’t achieve the natural listings you want, are trying to drive traffic and results within a very short window (30-60 days or less), or with regards to content ads, are trying to reach a specific target through a relevant website. Online marketing may serve as a complement to your natural search efforts even when you perform well naturally.

Paid Search Models

Rather than trying to detail the specifics of all online advertising opportunities, let’s focus on just the paid search programs. And rather than delving into the specifics there, such as the difference between Google’s AdWords and Yahoo Search Marketing, let’s focus on the overall concepts.

I liken Paid search to outdoor advertising, or even broader, “location advertising.” This might include bus shelters, buses, and even restroom ads — any kind of advertising that is based on a location.

What’s unique about this kind of location advertising is that there may be some demographic element that can be tapped into. A particular restaurant may cater to a specific demographic — hopefully that demographic also frequents the restroom. Or it may simply be based on traffic flow — a lot of drivers frequent this roadway and hopefully a lot of that traffic is at least somewhat interested in what you have to offer.

Paid search is similar and may provide even greater demographic connections. PPC ads within the search results are hopefully somewhat relevant to what the searcher was searching for — this is already one step better than a purely “high traffic” model. Content advertising is when you open up your ads to be displayed on other websites who may have elected to show ads on their websites, and similar to the restaurant, may carry a higher correlation of interest based on the target audience.

Maximizing Your Spend

Like gambling, you have to approach paid search marketing smartly. If you don’t, you can quickly burn through your budget, and lose your shirt if you are really careless. But you can also win big if you know what you are doing and the cards are right.

Don’t let the low cost fool you. Spending less than a buck per click might seem like low risk, but if you aren’t careful, you can burn through a lot of clicks on traffic that doesn’t convert. Even worse, due to quality scoring, your landing page may be perceived as a poor or misleading user experience, result in high bounce rates, and that under a buck click rate might suddenly turn to a $5/click or more cost.

Rather than sending all your clicks to your site’s home page, develop highly relevant landing pages for your paid search campaigns (be sure to block these pages from the search engine crawlers though). Focus your ads and landing pages tightly, rather than broadly trying to capture everyone — remember that one-size fits all generally leaves everyone feeling dissatisfied.

Until you get a handle on what you are doing, stick with a small number of keywords to target, focus on exact match or phrase match to avoid serving up ads on searches that aren’t relevant. Monitor daily and quickly determine what works between target keywords, ad copy, landing pages, etc.

Understand, this was a very high level overview to get you started, which might mean seeking out professional online marketing services. But whether you go it alone or hire, don’t be afraid to complement your online advertising with paid search, especially if you aren’t driving traffic naturally. SEO is a must for every Web site owner, but if you are in or heading into your peak selling period with 90 days, relying on SEO alone could leave you more than a day late and a dollar short.

Paid Tips … For Free

  • Starting out, stick to the major paid search programs — Google, Yahoo, and/or MSN.
  • Tighten up your keyword targets through phrase match or even exact match, rather than broad match.
  • Monitor daily and closely, discarding what doesn’t work quickly.
  • Be focused, not only with your ad and the product/service you are offering, but with the audience you are targeting. Multiple targets and products should have multiple ads and dedicated landing pages.
  • Fine tune your campaign delivery around your target demographics — not just keywords but geo-location and time of day.

Are You Accessible? – Accessible Web Design

As appeared in the Presence Pointers column of the October 2008 issue of “Business Watch” magazine.

What has always fascinated me about the Web isn’t all the graphics, images, sounds, and videos; it’s the ability to access all kinds of information. Just about anything you could ever want to know is often just a few clicks away. That’s pretty incredible. All that other stuff is just icing on the cake.Yet for some people, the access that many of us now take for granted, still seems like a distant dream. Believe it or not, I’m not talking about people in far away countries who don’t have the technology to access the Web or who may be prohibited from or limited in their access. I’m talking about people right here who may even be your neighbors.

What Is Accessibility?

In regard to the Web, accessibility refers to uninhibited access to information and in interacting with and navigating a Web site. Confused? Under a narrow definition, this typically refers to users who have some form of disability. This might be blindness or vision impairment, but also deafness or hearing impairment, or motor skills impairments.

But a broader definition that some of us in the community like to adhere to include everyone and anyone. While this might still be based on a person’s physical abilities or limitations, it might also include someone without any of these challenges, but who may be challenged in other ways – perhaps by a small laptop screen or Web-enabled mobile phone.

In either case, accessibility is something that every Web site owner needs to become aware of. Target just settled a class action lawsuit regarding the accessibility of Target.com in relation to visually impaired users – to the tune of $6 million. It’s time accessibility became a priority.

Why Is Accessibility Important?

Let’s set aside the notion of, “because it’s the right thing to do.” The real question is, “why would you turn away any customer?” When you think about it, the Web could serve as a great asset to those who experience any of these challenges. I know how challenging it is just trying to pick out cold medicine even when I can see all the boxes and read all the labels.

Now imagine if you were blind. How challenging must it be to go shopping even for everyday items? Imagine being able to go online to shop and have your purchases delivered to you. Just having that as a viable option must be rather empowering.

There are assistive technologies, such as screen readers that vocalize the content of a Web page, that help those with various impairments to use computers and the Web. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Web sites present far too many barriers even for these tools. So while the technology is there, many sites are way behind.

Understand that many of these challenges are also prohibitive to mobile browsers, which is a large and quickly growing market. Or realize there is a very large, aging population that will be facing increasing vision and dexterity issues simply due to age. And last time I introduced you to search engine optimization, or SEO. You might like to know that search engine spiders often face the same accessibility challenges, so the more accessible your site, the more SEO friendly your site.

If I was Target, I’d go out of my way to develop the best, most accessible Web site around. I’d become the go-to site when it comes to ease of use, tapping into this under-served market while every other site tries to catch up.

Everything that is done to improve accessibility is beneficial to all users. It’s a no-brainer.

Tips Toward Developing Accessible Web Sites

  • Use alt attributes on significant, non-purely-decorative images.
  • Use HTML elements properly (headings, lists, etc.).
  • Use CSS and table-less design to structure Web pages.
  • Use textual links instead of images and be sure the anchor text is descriptive, rather than “click here.”
  • Provide no-script alternatives to script-based functioning, Flash and AJAX.
  • Provide alternative navigation to jump to key content areas on Web pages.