Knowing what you know

If store owners had their druthers, they would hire people to follow you around and note every move you make. If you made a beeline to the power tools rather than zigzagged, it would be duly noted.

Everything you touched, picked up or perused would be jotted down and put in a file. At the end to the day all of the data would be tabulated and the store rearranged to better fit the average shopper. To some extent, this sort of exercise exists today. How else can you explain that grocery stores in Prague, Tokyo and Montreal are all laid out in pretty much the same fashion?

On the Web, this process is becoming possible. Web traffic analysis software has been refined to the point that companies using the technology have a pretty good idea what language you speak and the time zone you live in, not to mention the level of technology you are using to access the Web.

In essence, it all boils down to statistics. Who is visiting your site, how are they getting there, what time of day are they coming, how long are they staying and what are they doing when they arrive? There now more customer information collected and more detailed analysis performed on it.

“The Web is the most measurable medium we have ever had in history, in terms of being able to understand what is happening with the vehicle that you create,” said Shannon Ryan, CEO of, an Ottawa-based Web traffic analysis company.

High technology, like any sector of the economy, tends not to speak with one voice. The exception to the rule seems to be Web traffic analysis. The consensus is that all companies with a Web presence should be analysing their traffic.

size really doesn’t matter

“Without doing any kind of Web traffic analysis, anybody who has put up a Web site really has no sense for what visitors are interested in, looking at or how often they come,” said Vito Salvaggio, vice-president of marketing for Fremont Calif.-based Accrue Software Inc.

Though it may not be immediately apparent, information gathered can prove useful to many sectors of a company, he added. Salvaggio cited the McDonalds restaurant chain as an example. The company is hardly in need of increased brand awareness and unlikely to ever sell its products over the Web, yet it can still gather useful information from Web visitor traffic. The company could track whether visitors are interested in knowing corporate history, the ingredients of a Big Mac or the location to the nearest Ronald McDonald House. This information could then be made more readily available at the individual restaurants.

“Really, no one is too small to need a Web traffic solution,” said Coleen Carey, director of product marketing at WebTrends Corp. in Portland, Ore. “Everybody who makes an investment in a Web site should be tracking it.

“With every click of the mouse visitors are telling you what products they are interested in, what prices they are willing to pay, what promotions they respond to,” she continued. “This is the kind of thing that marketing people die for.”

Pruned down to the very basics, here is the key to success: measure your traffic, figure out how to optimize customer experience, throw in some metrics and a bit of luck, and you are away to the races. Or are you?

For tens of thousands of companies with Web sites and the desire to convert traffic to cash or brand awareness, questions remain. How is their traffic measured, what does the information tell them and, most importantly, how do they know if they are successful?

There are many software vendors looking to answer those questions. Their prices are as varied as their products. Small one-server sites can analyse traffic for as little as US$500, while large-traffic sites might opt for more encompassing solutions costing in excess of US$100,000.

building it log by log

A great deal of information about site traffic is gathered from log files. These are detailed files that list every request made to a server. On their own, they are nothing more than gibberish, but with the help of traffic analysis software they become compelling indicators of site activity, telling companies how many visitors are coming, where they are coming from, how long they stay and, to a lesser extent, where they are coming from.

In the old days traffic was measured in hits, with bragging rights going to the sites with the most. This was never a good indicator of traffic since a page with 30 graphics would register 31 hits: one for the page and one for each of the 30 graphics. Page views were another and slightly better form of measurement since the aforementioned would show up as only one view. But as pages became more complex, with the addition of frames for example, this too became inaccurate.

In response, today’s software solutions are designed to gather a much wider variety of data, much more than meets the eye.

BuyStream Merchant is an ASP-type of solution, according to Ryan. Four or five lines of code are added to a site’s page in order to gather additional information.

The resulting data sizes up the visitor, approximating the real-world retail process. A customer who enters a rare car dealership dressed in an Armani suit projects a different image than one dressed in jeans and a T-shirt. Similarly, Merchant can track browser version, available plugins, connection speed and screen resolution, thus sizing up the visitor’s technological strength. Discovering many of your visitors still use older technology will force management to make some hard and fast decisions about site content and design.

“If the bulk of your users are on a 28.8Kbps modem, then you want to really limit the amount of streaming media that you do, or you want to offer a high bandwidth and a low bandwidth version,” Carey said. Some sites reduce graphic content later in the day to speed up download times. This addresses the fact that home connections tend to be slower than those at work.

“You have to watch these download times because you don’t want to lose people. While your intentions are good [in giving] them more compelling content, you don’t want to lose them with the speed of delivery,” she added.

Cameron Dow, senior marketing strategist for SAS Institute Inc. in Toronto, agrees that download times are a serious issue. SAS’ Web analysis solutions allow users to set page download thresholds and if they are surpassed, system administrators are notified. Traditionally, somewhere between three and 10 seconds is seen as the limits of surfer patience. Dow put it rather simply: “If the thing doesn’t work (properly) you are dead.”

tracking your investment

“I just totally believe in tracking, only because it allows me to manage my marketing campaigns, manage the effectiveness of them,” said Vida Morkunas, group manager of Internet marketing for FutureShop Ltd. in Vancouver.

The Canadian electronics store was able to gather information about the effectiveness of its television ads by tracking the number of visitors who came directly to vs. those who entered via search engines or the corporate home page.

“I believe personally that you cannot manage without measuring. I think that everything boils down to the ROI and it is very critical to set the metrics before you start a campaign, and you have to be quite critical and ruthless in analysing the results,” she said.

Tracking ad and search engine referrals becomes critical. “When I am starting to notice a shear drop off in some search engine referrals over the traditional trended data, it is time to call in the search engine specialists and ask them to update that,” Morkunas added.

Every last bit of data must be scrutinized to get the most from it. Some of the solutions offer benchmarks to compare yourself to the competition, with conversion rate analysis being the do or die number for many dot coms. Conversion rates are based on the number of buyers vs. the number of visitors.

“How do you know a two per cent conversion rate is a good conversion rate?” Ryan said. BuyStream benchmarks specific industries so companies can keep an eye on the competition. If your conversion rate goes from 0.5 to 1.5 per cent you will be happy until you realize the competition has increased their ratio to 3 per cent, he added. “Unless you have these baselines or comparisons, then you have no way of knowing if you are being successful or not.”

allow me to introduce myself

With all of the traffic and data pouring into corporate computers, decisions have to be made whether to track individuals or aggregates. Most consumers are still a little leery about giving out information over the Web and recent hack-attacks on major sites have done nothing to allay these fears.

For the time being, companies rely on cookies, a text file stored on a computer that helps a site identify return visitors.

“You know, I really don’t care about the name and address, I would rather aggregate them into specific groups,” Morkunas said. “Sometimes too much information is just [that], too much information. What I am ready to work on is purchase trends rather than knowing individually everything about each customer.”

But as the Web becomes more focused, so to will the information being passed between consumer and business. “Across the board the level of sophistication is growing because, as the Web becomes the primary channel of communication…businesses want to…have better intelligence on what is going on in this communication channel,” Salvaggio said.

The day will also come when each visitor, whether repeat or first time, will be treated as an individual. “From what we have seen, the move is towards being able to deliver one-to-one personalization,” Dow said.

Morkunas changes her tune a bit when talking about the future. She hopes, eventually, it will start to look a little more like the past.

“I would like to be able to know who the customer is, much like when we were kids and we would go to the corner store, the person behind the counter knew exactly what kind of candy we liked. That is the kind of service I would like to provide to our customers, so we can anticipate and please with very little effort on our part only because we know the customer.”