As a teaching consultant of On-line Marketing courses, I frequently formulate similar questions to audiences that generally include sales directors and marketing executives from medium and large size companies. My listeners are always amazed when they realize that even though their companies are investing large sums of money to conduct market studies or purchase marketing results (e.g. Nielsen) to learn about their client’s preferences, they are not taking advantage of analyzing and interpreting the data from their own web traffic statistics.
The differences between the two primary sets of web traffic statistics –server activity analysis and real-time statistics via script controls and cookies- have already been covered in a former write-up (see “What is behind all those web traffic reports”, 9/2/03). This article will now focus on those pieces of information, contained in a web traffic report, that are of most interest from a Marketing perspective. After learning where to look and how to interpret the data, one will feel more encouraged to embark in the apparently arduous task of interpreting web traffic statistics. Our prize at the end will be a significant increase in web site performance, greater traffic, better search engine positioning and a deeper understanding of the expectations and interests of our web visitors. All this combined can translate into additional sales, more registered users and a larger amount of frequent users. Let’s explore what we need to consider first.
Hits, visited pages, number of sessions… Rather than being overly concerned with the absolute values of these statistics that, incidentally, may vary dramatically based on the type of software being used to measure the web traffic, we should pay attention to the evolution of these values over time while maintaining the measuring software the same. One can click on a weekly or, better yet, monthly view report and the graph will quickly show whether our traffic is increasing or decreasing, and a simple mathematical computation (perhaps the tool automatically provides it) of dividing the number of visited pages by the total number of visitors will tell us how many pages a visitor views on average. Whether our traffic increases, decreases, or remains stable, it will be interesting and valuable to see when a particular trend changes and analyze if the change is caused by a previously planned action, such as the launch of an on-line publicity campaign, the agreement to exchange web links with other sites, or the start of search engine positioning services.
In this section, it is important to distinguish between unique visitors and repeating visitors. If one of your goals is to sell a service or product on-line, a high degree of repetition from your visitors will likely indicate a high level of customer commitment to your service or product. However, one must exercise caution when evaluating the number of unique versus repeating visitors. If your tool, for instance, uses the visitor’s IP address to determine whether the visitor is unique or not, the tool will at times count multiple visits from the same user as unique. This can happen when a visitor uses a dial-up modem to access the Internet, since each call will likely get a different IP address assigned. Conversely, if a group of users is accessing the Internet behind a router or proxy, they will all share the same IP address and the tool will count them as a single repeating visitor. If cookies, on the other hand, are used to determine the uniqueness of a visitor, the data collected will be much more reliable.
Other useful information typically associated with visitors is their country of origin and their language, which may prove useful when considering international opportunities or the value of creating a version of your web site in another language.
Determine which pages are visited the most besides your default page, which tends to register the largest number of visits since it is the typical point of entry to your web site. Identify those areas of most interest to your visitors. By analyzing the most common navigational routes, discover how far your visitors click. If the report, for example, reflects a large number of visits to your home page and classifies them as unique page visits, it could mean one of two things. Your site is experiencing low quality traffic, with visitors not interested in your products or services and therefore not going beyond your home page, or you may want to consider redesigning the home page, since apparently is not generating enough interest among your visitors and thus, they are not navigating deeper into your web site.
The report will also identify the most common exit point out of a visitor’s session. Once this exit page has been identified, its design can be reinforced to include new points of interest with links to other sections of your web site.
Sessions and visit duration
This value tries to measure the amount of time that a given user spends navigating a web site. One must be careful, though, when considering this piece of information, since a visitor could inadvertently leave a window, and therefore a session, open and minimized. This would be measured as an active session, even though the user was not actively navigating through the web site. In any case, a large number of very short visits could indicate an erroneous positioning of a web site. In other words, the web site is attracting visitors who cannot find what they were expecting.
Referrals and search engines
One of the most valuable pieces of information that can be obtained from a web traffic statistical report is the origin of the visits. In other words, it is extremely helpful to know the web site that visitors were navigating prior to reaching ours. We will be able to distinguish between users who clicked on a link at another web site in order to reach ours from visitors who clicked on one of the search results returned by a search engine. In this latter case, the report will also identify the keywords that were used to launch the query.
A large number of referrals will come from other pages within your own web site, while the rest of the referrals will typically be from external web sites or search engines. In occasions, you will also find visits from web based e-mail services or directly from a visitor’s Internet browser, indicating that your site is probably stored as a favorite, or the URL has been directly typed on the browser’s navigation bar.
It is important to regularly track those web sites that act as referrers to our web site, or those search engines that most frequently locate our web site with a given set of keywords. A final word of caution: be careful not to click directly on the links included in the report belonging to the referral web sites. If you do, the statistics report page may appear as a referral to their web site, and depending on the security of your server, your statistics report page could be accessed by the owners of the referral web site.
Search keywords are those words or phrases that Internet users provide to a search engine in order to find new web sites. Phrases are typically more valuable than isolated words, but both can be used to identify the interests of your audience. In some cases, you may be surprised to learn some of the keywords that were used to locate your web site as well as those terms that were never used. It will be interesting to observe the evolution of a particular term over time. For example, if your web site promotes real estate, you may detect changes in customer preferences for certain areas based on the number of search keywords associated with specific locations. If a location rarely shows up as a search keyword, it may be a good indication that your customers are not interested in real estate there. Likewise, terms such as buying or selling will suggest the type of transaction that your clients are looking for.
Internet browsers, operating systems, screen resolutions…
Finally, it may be helpful to check on the type and version of Internet browser being used by your audience, as well as the type of operating system and screen resolution. These are mainly technical aspects, but may prove very useful for redesigning or optimizing your website. For example, a web site can be optimized for a specific Internet browser or a particular screen size. At times, one will notice that different markets will favor certain computer configurations.
Web statistics provide such large amounts of data regarding the activities taking place inside a web server that processing all of it may become an overwhelming task. However, once you become accustomed to locating inside your own web analysis tool or service all the values described in this article, you will be in a position to properly evaluate the information that is being conveyed, as well as observe its evolution over time. This will allow you to take action and make the appropriate marketing decisions that will maximize the performance of your web site. Soon, you will identify your most important metrics, what you want to measure with them and the reason why.
Most professional web hosting service providers include some type of web traffic control system for their customers. If your provider does not offer this capability, you will be able to find equivalent services from other Internet-based companies that provide web traffic statistics. After you start receiving your traffic reports, allocate in your weekly schedule adequate time to evaluate the information. You will discover soon that this invested effort will start paying dividends!
Fernando Macia is Human Level Commuications’ CEO, a company with offices in Alicante, Spain and Dallas, Texas. We specialize in web design, CMS development, search engine optimization and traffic statistics data mining. www.humanlevel.com