Measure for Success: Web Analytics Ensure Continued Value

Hits? Visits? Sessions? Unique visitors? Page views? Cookies? Trackers? If you're like most Web professionals, you've probably at least overheard some of these terms being thrown around in the context of measuring how successful your Web site is. If you're surviving the current economic climate, there's a strong chance an interactive marketing investment is contributing to that survival and success. Your Web site is likely the most cost-effective way to get your messaging and value proposition across, and like any successful program, you need to measure this investment and make future investment decisions based on those results. Here's a primer on how (and how not) to measure Web site success.

Hits vs. visits

First off, it's a sure bet you've heard something resembling the following: "We got 100,000 hits on our Web site last week!" That's great news if you're the IT guy in charge of hosting, but it might not be great news if you're the marketing professional responsible for getting return on investment from the Web site. A "hit" is a technical metric—any time a Web server delivers any file to a browser, that's a hit. Your home page alone might have 25 or 30 files that are used to make it look, feel and function the way it does, including text, graphics and flash animations. What's more, each time the same user accesses that page, there's a chance that they'll download each of those files again—so now you've got as many as 50 or 60 "hits" for a single individual to look at one page. It's easy to see how this adds up quickly. Bottom line? Hits are for systems administrators to measure server performance—not for marketers to decide where to put budget money.

Get general, get specific

What you really need to know—what's really valuable—is a combination of general and specific reports. For instance, you do want to know general things, like how many unique visitors came to your Web site, what the percentage of new vs. returning visitors was, average amount of time per visit spent on the site, and a breakdown of how visitors found it—and you want to look at these trends over weeks, months and years. But you also need to know more specific things, like how many unique times a particular page was accessed, which group of content is most popular, which keywords were used to find it from a search engine, or even a "scenario analysis"—where you want to measure how many people took a particular "click path" that you designed when you built the site. All of these data points are attainable, but two things will affect your ability to get accurate reports: First, your site must be designed and configured to be analyzed; and second, you must be using tools designed to capture and analyze that data.

Know what you want before you make decisions about a solution

It's an excellent idea to brainstorm out some reports you'd like to see. For example, in addition to your standard metrics like unique visitors, you probably want to know:

  • How many people responded to a given campaign (e-mail, direct mail, banner ad, print ad)?
  • How many visitors actually took an action during their visit? (Example: filled out a request form, bought something, registered for an event)
  • Did visitors take a path you expected (or wanted) them to take to a product or service page?
  • Is your pay-per-click advertising campaign yielding visits? Is it yielding sales?

Having this jotted down ahead of time will make your selection process much more clear and easy.

Designing and configuring for analysis—capturing the right stuff

It's important that your site's pages are named in such a way that you'll be able to recognize them in a report. In particular, having a sensible directory structure along with good page titles will give you a good deal of what you need to get good reporting.

There are essentially two ways to capture the data required to provide valuable reports; through log analysis or tracking URLs embedded in HTML page code.

Log analysis method

If you're using the log-analysis method, your Web server needs to be set up to log specific information. For instance, it's important to set up your Web server to log as verbosely as possible in order to capture useful stats like keywords used on search engines, the referring URL used to find your site, and what browsers and platforms were used to access your site.

Some low-end packages use only the visitor's Internet Protocol address as a unique identifier, but this is a very inaccurate way to analyze your site's traffic. In dial-up Internet service providers and corporate networks, it's very common to have a group of users sharing a publicly facing IP address using a proxy server or port address translation device, like a firewall. This can actually provide falsely low unique-visit statistics. Including a "cookie" in your log will help your reporting package to determine far more accurate uniqueness and will get you much more accurate reports.

The log analysis method is more accurate and reliable, but it does have storage and infrastructure requirements that aren't found in the tracking URL method. Logs can become very large, and they must be stored and processed by a server or a group of servers to be analyzed. This can be an expensive proposition for small businesses, unless they have a unique hosting setup with a development or ISP facility that includes these metrics as a value-added service.

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DevTalk
Seth Miller
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Seth Miller is president, CEO and founder of Miller Systems Inc., a technology consulting and award-winning Web development and engineering firm in Boston. He can be reached at seth@millersystems.com.

Tracking URLs in HTML method

The second way to capture the right analysis data is by embedding special tracking URLs and metadata in your Web pages themselves. Usually, this is done in concert with an application service provider (ASP) that collects (essentially, logs) the data found in these URLs and metadata, and provides reports for the customer. This method is a little more complex to implement, and more importantly, maintain, since it's actually dependent on code in the individual pages of your site. If a developer forgets to enter or modify this code on your pages as they're built, you'll be missing the data from those visited pages. Also, if the visitor's machine can't connect to the ASP's server, the visit might not be logged. The tracking URL approach can be implemented relatively quickly and inexpensively, depending on the number of pages in the Web site and the service provider chosen.

What you should expect

Regardless of your choice, you should be able to receive, at a minimum, weekly and monthly reports of your site's statistics that are password-protected, browser-available and automatically published. More expensive solutions will allow you to run ad hoc reports and drill down into stats.

Who is an expert? Who provides these services?

Many of the software solution providers and ASPs have a list of approved partners and resellers that can consult with your business and provide you with the advice and technical expertise to make your analytics project a reality. Lastly, a solid development shop with a unique hosting environment may also provide a single solution source for site development, hosting, analytics and other related services.

When it comes to measuring the ROI of your Web site, investing the time to research and explore the best options is imperative to your continued success on the Web. Make the commitment to measure Web statistics now, and your investment will pay off in the long term, enabling you to market with increased accuracy and generate more opportunities and revenue.

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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