Believe your statistics, not your gut feel

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Web site statistics are not just about how many hits you’ve had a day. They provide a benchmark for decision making across all aspects of your web site, from conversion rates to information flow and down to the bottom line. Like any other part of your business, if you can’t test and measure performance – then there’s no point.

How do you make decisions when redesigning or modifying your web site?

We often get asked to redevelop an existing website for businesses who are unhappy with their existing ‘brand’ or message. Our first question is “What are your current users doing?” Which is closely followed by “How is your current web site performing?“. Unfortunately, usually the answer is “We have no idea!”

Knowing and understanding your web site’s statistics is the key to building a successful web presence. Running on gut instinct to judge your site’s performance is just bad management!

What do you need?

A good statistical tool should provide you with the following information in a format that is easy to understand:

  1. Standard visitor numbers and page views for a date range;
  2. Popular pages visited;
  3. Where the user came from to get to your site;
  4. What the user did on your site; and
  5. More technical aspects like amount of data transfer and error reporting.

More serious eCommerce statistics should also cover:

  1. Pay-Per-Click conversion rates tracking (Google Analytics); and
  2. Shopping cart usage and abandonment reports

In most cases, we use a combination of free standard webserver statistical tools that come with your hosting package and 3rd party add-ons such as ‘statcounter.com’, which provide more detail about what your users’ surfing habits.

This article could be many pages long, so I won’t go into to much detail here, but let me cover a point related to each of the 5 points above.

1. Standard visitor numbers and page views

This is the main stat that everyone thinks is the most important. I won’t underestimate its importance, but remember:

  • The key number is ‘Unique Visitors’ or ‘Unique Browsers’ not ‘Hits’ – A single ‘hit’ is when one element is loaded to a page ie. An image – therefore, if a page has 5 images in it, then the total hits for that page will equal 6 – one for the page plus 5 for the images. So, it is not a realistic representation of visitor numbers.
  • You may be getting a large amount of visitors to your site, but are they your target market.
  • This number helps you judge the effect of outside influences of site promotion such as eNewsletters that direct people to you site, direct mail campaigns and main stream advertising.
  • The number of ‘Unique Visitors’ is primarily important when selling advertising on your site as you can easily justify how many people will view advertising each day.
  • If your site has a regular readership (like ours) the ‘Repeat Visitors’ may also hold value as it means you can easily communicate with your regular customers and prospects.

2. Popular pages

A good stats tool can easily tell you which are the most popular pages visited in your site. This is important for 2 reasons only:

  1. It makes you feel good about your information planning. If for example, you have a hotel site and the reservations page is most popular; and
  2. It tells you what isn’t working – that is – what pages are unpopular.

Fix what’s not popular!

3. Where the user came from to get to your site

For me, this is the most important statistic and has a direct relationship between Search Engine Optimisaton (SEO) and the relationships you have built online. It should tell you:

  • What key search words where used to find your site
  • The number of visitors that used Search Engines to find your site
  • Where visitors clicked from you get to your site. Ie banner ads, links from other sites etc.

If search results are important for your site (in most cases they are), then this statistic will become your best friend (or enemy)!

4. What the user did on your site

This statistic is the most overlooked and one that most ‘free’ server tools do not include. However, using statcounter.com’s free tools you can track where each visitor went to on your site. This information is extremely valuable when assessing information design or how your site is structured for your target audience. By taking a snap shot of your visitor paths, you can quickly determine the success of how you deliver your information and further streamline pathways to be more efficient. Using this information in combination with your total ‘Unique Visitors’ you can assess whether your site is holding any interest at all. It can also help you overcome bottlenecks and dead-ends in your page structure.

5. Technical Information

All statistical tools provide valuable information regarding information on:

  • What screen resolution / browser / operating system the end user was using;
  • The amount of data that is being transferred;
  • Any errors that are occurring, such as missing pages or image loading failures (all very useful for maintaining an active site)

From a business perspective this may or may not be very interesting, but your webmaster should regularly monitor this data as it is the only way to judge how to test future versions and tailor your site especially for the screen resolutions and browsers that are being used as a priority.

I could write a book about understanding your web site statistics and realistically, we have only scratched the surface of what data you can collect from users on your site. Imagine how much information Google has related your every user’s search patterns and habits. This is extremely valuable information for big business and hasn’t been used to it’s full potential yet.

If you take anything away from this article, it should be that you should regularly know and understand your statistics and modify your web site in response to the numbers, not the gut feeling about user behaviour.

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