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.

Being Blog Worthy

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

Are you plugged into the blogosphere? Do you follow bloggers you enjoy reading, and maybe even participate on their blogs by sharing your comments? Has your company built up a following with its own blog? If not, then you may have some catching up to do.I’m sure some of you have just come to the realization that you need a website, so hearing that you need a blog may not leave you dancing for joy. The good news is, depending on your business, Web site needs, target audience and goals, you might decide that your Web site should in fact, just be a blog.

What Are Blogs?

Blog, for those who aren’t quite up on their Web lingo, is a Web log. Okay, that still doesn’t mean much. Originally, these Web logs started out like online diaries with entries that visitors could read and comment on. Blogs have come quite a ways since that definition.

Now blogs are more than just a person’s recounts of events. Bloggers still include individuals sharing their lives and stories, but they also include companies, shared-interest groups, non-profits, and so on, sharing thoughts, ideas, tips and information. Anyone can blog, and while not every business has to blog, most should at least consider it.

Why Your Company Should Blog

Blogging opens up an unmatched channel for communication with your target audience. Good blogs convey a sense of direct communication between the blogger and the reader. Allowing readers to comment and replying to comments creates an opportunity for participation and interaction.

The interaction of blogging can help companies, at least through the blogger, to connect on a more personal level with their audience. The blog puts a human face on the company, giving it a voice that is more personal and less business. Or at least it should.

A blog will also give you greater opportunity to share information or carry on discussions that you might not include on your current Web site. Where your product or service pages may be more sales and feature focused, a blog post gives the opportunity to share more general thoughts, or specific ideas or tips on using a product, or even the opportunity to solicit the readers for their input on what features they most want in a product.

Regardless of the industry or topic, if you do a little searching online, you are bound to turn up a blog covering it. When considering a blog for your business, remember that any topic is blog worthy as long as there are readers who share an interest in the topic. Success in blogging comes when a blogger writes about something they are passionate about, in a way that also connects with the interests of the readers.

Blog Basics

  • Generally best to setup a blog on your Web site, rather than on a new domain or one of the blogging services, that way your entire site will benefit from any links to the blog.
  • Blog posting goal should be at least 2 posts a week, and 4 to 5 would be even better. Posts don’t have to be long, just interesting to readers.
  • Don’t use the blog as just another advertising or sales channel. Focus on building rapport and interest with your audience.
  • Communicate with your audience through the comments, but also by seeking out other blogs of mutual interest and participating there as well.

It’s That Time Again – Christmas in July

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

Thoughts are turning to that exciting time of the year again – no, I don’t mean evenings outdoors, barbecuing, or networking on the golf course – I mean Christmas. Seems like just yesterday the last bit of snow finally melted away – come to think, it practically was yesterday.

It’s the other Christmas in July. While the online world gives the impression of instantaneous-ness, the reality isn’t always so. Sure, you can often make changes or updates to your Web site faster and with less effort than anything comparable in the offline world, but most from a marketing point of view, the online world isn’t that much different than the offline one.

Online retailers understand this fact, but the principles apply to anyone with a Web presence. Even if your key time of year isn’t the holiday shopping season, forethought and preplanning out from key dates should be a part of your Web marketing calendar. Let’s take a look at some of the key drivers to plan into your calendar.

Code Freeze

Most online retailers know this one well. It is that point when all changes and anything beyond basic content updating stops. This may be 30, 60, or even more days out from your peak online period. The reasons for a code freeze are hard to argue with, since whether your make or break period is during the height of holiday shopping or summer vacation planning, the last thing you want is a site that isn’t functioning properly, or goes down entirely due to a major site update.

Organic Search Traffic

While I haven’t gone into depth regarding Search Engine Optimization (SEO) yet, anyone can appreciate the wonderful benefits of coming up in the top spots of the major search engines for highly relevant searches. Understand though that these positions rarely come without cost. While these natural search listings don’t carry a per-click cost, they do carry other costs – the cost of hiring and training staff or the cost of hiring a search marketing firm, not to mention the cost of time.

The financial costs are the easiest to reconcile. Compared to other forms of marketing, they quite often pay for themselves many times over, or at least cover enough to justify. Time however, as in anything we do, is the hardest challenge. The problem is when there isn’t enough time left; at that point, it’s still a sunk cost even after the fact.

Unfortunately, this is a reality that still catches far too many unexpectedly. While you may get lucky once in awhile – your site was already strong for a particular search phrase, some of your key search phrases aren’t overly competitive or are very brand focused (your brand that is) – this is a rarity that is becoming rarer every day. Ideally, you should plan three to six months out for top positioning for natural search results, and possibly more for highly competitive phrases. This of course is just the planning … how you get there is another article.

Planning for the future

  • Start planning major site changes such as redesigns, script or structural changes 6-12 months out from your code freeze.
  • Create an event calendar around your peak sales and traffic times, and then back out at least 3 months for your deadline date for any SEO related tasks.
  • Keep and maintain permanent landing page URLs for any seasonal or regularly recurring events, rather than creating new URLs. Continuing using your “Christmas” page for year-round for extra holiday clearance items or start a prediction list or pre-buy opportunity for the coming season’s predicted hits. This URL will gain age and authority over time and may rank better than creating new URLs each time.

Search Friendly Website – Talking to Spiders

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

On the simplest level, a Web site visitor can be classified as human or spider. Of course human visitors are obvious and highly desirable as they are the only one of the two that can buy from us. Back in November of 2007, I talked about the importance of making sure your Web site met your human visitors’ needs in the article, It’s not about you.

But what about these spiders? Is your Web site about them, and how could it be if it is about your human visitors? Thankfully, your site is still about your human visitors, even when the spiders come crawling. While your message doesn’t need to change, we may need to change how it is delivered to get the most out of the message for both humans and spiders.

The search engine spiders, or sometimes called crawlers or bots (short for robots), spend all of their time crawling the web. Their crawling is the first step that enables a Web page to be returned for a search in any of the search engines. There is much more that goes on than just crawling – the crawling is actually the easiest thing to understand about search engines; the indexing and retrieval aspects are far more complex.

For our sake, what is important to understand is that these spiders see the Web differently. Actually, they don’t see at all, which is one of the challenges. Without question, a Web site needs to speak to its human visitors, but we also want it to be meaningful to spiders too since it may be the search engines that help deliver many of our human visitors.

Spiders are all about text. Not only are they able to consider all of the words on a page through complex processing, they are also often able to understand some of the basic meaning and overall context of a page. Because of this, they can often determine the correct meaning of a word based on the other words around it and on the page.

Certain aspects of a page carry greater importance in establishing context. The title of a page, which appears in the top “chrome” of the browser window, is the most important element to a spider in understanding what the page is about. Headings on a page (e.g., h1, h2, h3, etc. tags) carry considerable importance to and their proper usage helps create content hierarchy.

Perhaps the next important element that you can control on your site is links. Links are a little different though than titles and headings as their primary signal is about the page the link leads to, rather than the page they are on.

So there we have three absolutely critical elements to focus on. Of course you want to make sure that the rest of your site is meaningful as well. Doing so will make sure that both types of visitors find what they want, what you have to offer and keep coming back for more.

Being Spider Friendly

    • Page titles (found within the title tags) should be topically relevant to the page they are on. Ideally they should use some of the most important keyword phrases related to the page. Most importantly, every page should have a unique page title.
    • Page headings should reinforce the page titles.
    • Links should be text-based, preferably, or if image-based, contain alternative attributes. The text, or alt text for images, should be topically relevant to the destination page, rather than things like “more,” “next,” or “click here.”
    • Any important text on a page should be in html rather than an image.
    • Flash®, which I covered in last August’s article Is your Web site Flash in the Pan?, is best used for accent and user interaction, but not as the primary page content or to deliver important information since spiders have a difficult time accessing and understanding text within Flash.

Realizing Recessionary Gains

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

Economy got you down? Talk of recession and overall uncertainty keeping you up at night? If you said yes, you can at least take comfort in knowing that you aren’t alone. But the real question is, “what does this mean for your Web presence?”

The thought might surprise you, but possibly now more than ever, your Web focus should be stronger than ever. Let’s take a look at what this economic condition might mean and how we can best position ourselves.

Don’t panic. No deep macroeconomic discussion here. Essentially we are talking about an economic period of negative output — whatever that means. What it means to us is we are going to be more cautious with our money.

Let’s take a look at how we can use our Web presence to address some of the key recessionary thought drivers.

Careful Spending

We may become more selective in our spending, determining what is necessary or not, and investing more time before making purchases to make sure that we are spending wisely. Especially with high gas prices, more and more research will be done behind the mouse than the wheel.

Make sure your site has detailed product information. Add a frequently asked questions or FAQ section. Enable a way for customers to easily connect with you for more information if they need it. This may also benefit your business if you’ve had to cutback on customer support staff by allowing your Web site to handle some of the more routine needs. And if you offer money back guarantees or free shipping, be sure that’s highly visible on your homepage.

Maintain & Retain

It also means that we may decide to get by with what we have, where we typically may have replaced before. We may turn to a greater focus on maintaining and retaining. Rather than upgrading to the newest model, we may upgrade the model we have. Rather than replacing items, we may look to fix or repair them, and focus more attention on upkeep to maximize the life of assets.

Is there information on your homepage about extended warranties or service plans? Do you provide useful information to help your customers get the most out of your products or services? Make sure your Web site addresses these needs.

Finance & ROI Drives Decisions

Now more than ever, Finance rules the decision making. Are purchases sound financial decisions? Can expenses be put off until another time? Are we maximizing our return on investment (ROI)?

This may be where your Web site can really shine. Tie your site in with all of your other initiatives. Use your analytics program to track effectiveness of traditional marketing. Determine what customers are looking for based on the sections of your site they frequent, and focus your attentions there. Focus resources on search engine optimization to get targeted traffic from searches.

Offer a loyalty program or discounts for larger purchases. Create an RSS feed your visitors can subscribe to that features special sales of the day or week. Get creative, and the list can be endless.

Whether we are talking about individuals, households, small businesses or global corporations, recessionary concerns will enter into our world in one way or another. Fortunately, with the right strategy, the Web can be an ally in any economic condition.

4 Tips To Stay On Top

  • Simplify printed marketing materials and use your Web site to deliver the details.
  • Test & track traditional ad channels by routing them through specific URLs to determine which channels deliver the most bang for the buck.
  • Improve your site for searches to drive natural search traffic which may allow you to reduce acquisition spending elsewhere.
  • If you use paid online advertising, go targeted rather than broad to make sure you aren’t wasting money.