May 23 2007

Tracking for Success

10 key Web metrics to monitor


Photo: Robert Houser
CNET Business VP, Engineering, John Potter says user sessions are a key metric in measuring site activity.

A Web server is like a modern-day Oracle at Delphi in ancient Greece. Both the rack-mounted hardware and the seer of Greek legend seem to know everything, but they’re often tight-lipped when it comes to sharing the details.


Indeed, churning through gigabytes of Web logs can lead one down a path of tab-delimited madness. Joint Photographic Experts Group (JPEG) downloads are up 7.5 percent, visitors from Pacific Bell Internet service providers are down 12 percent and visitor frequency is peaking in the seven-day range. The challenge, as with so much data collection, is to convert useless trivia into meaningful strategic intelligence.

Fortunately, there is a set of standard metrics that consistently has value for Web site managers across multiple industries. These are the key indicators for anyone looking to build a strong online presence and convert opportunities into sales.

The most important thing is to create a highly meaningful daily dashboard. In a time-pressed day with only five minutes to spare, pre-load your Web site’s vital signs. Your Web analytics software should immediately provide you with a high-level summary of traffic, conversions and traffic sources. With this view, senior management and site administrators can quickly gauge a day’s activity. Without it, you’re flying a plane without an instrument panel.

Experts recommend measuring the following statistics for your dashboard:

1 Site Activity: The most obvious statistic to measure is traffic. The tricky part, of course, is determining which traffic measurements are most meaningful. Page views were long the dominant data point, but this has gradually shifted toward a preference for tracking user sessions.

“Sessions are a better measurement in general of your Web site’s popularity,” says John Potter, vice president of engineering for CNET Business in San Francisco. “If you’re getting more unique users, you can say ‘I’m getting a larger audience,’ whereas if you say ‘I’m getting more page views,’ it might be that your registration page has two parts instead of one.”

2 Popular Content: Watching the most popular content items, and the time spent with those content items, is important for learning what resonates with site visitors. Can you supplement popular content items with additional information? Can less popular items be improved?

Methods of measurement will vary. The most standard approach is to track popular pages based on views and duration. Potter carefully tracks downloads, user comments and their onsite voting system to gauge what’s most popular. “Those are the things that really show your audience loyalty and your audience participation,” he says.

3 The Goal Conversion Funnel: A conversion is the completion of a desired online task and the submission of information by a sales prospect. But conversions also signal online orders for many business-to-business firms.

“In our case, conversion rate is total orders divided by customers,” says Tom Bianco, owner and CEO of Atlantic Consulting and Sales in Atlanta. “This gives us an overall picture of how the site sells.”

Whichever outcome you choose to count as a conversion, it’s important to track the completion rate of those tasks. A conversion funnel shows statistics for each step in an online process, such as entering a campaign landing page, then visiting a case study, then completing a registration form. The funnel provides a quick view of the volume of leads or sales gained through the Web site. It’s great to have this data at your disposal during internal staff meetings to offer a snapshot of how the Web site supports the sales process.

Conversion tracking also reveals potential problems in the conversion process. For example, if 90 percent of users are dropping off in step three of a six-step process, it’s worth investigating what might improve the drop-off rate.

4 Site Overlay: Available on most of the top Web analytics platforms, the overlay is a graphical representation of your Web site pages, showing the links that are getting the most clicks. For example, with a glance at your home page you could see how many visitors clicked on the Media Center link that day.

The overlay is also a great source for redesign guidance, according to Bianco. His team looks at the site overlay to analyze the click-through rate for each item of content. At his company, they typically test a number of design variations during a 10-month period, and gauge the items that convert the best or drive the most traffic. “Using these methods, we have quadrupled our conversions since our inception,” he says.

5 Campaign Tracking: It’s important to differentiate between the ebb and flow of normal Web site activity and the impact of marketing and public relations activities. Such tracking will require custom URLs in many cases, but in the end, it will all come back to your Web analytics and the reporting data that you can extract from there. Campaign tracking allows you and internal teams to see whether an e-mail, banner or pay-per-click advertising campaign is paying off. Your ability to track these campaigns and monitor their effectiveness over time can have a huge impact on the return on investment of marketing efforts.

6 Search Referrals: Review search queries to determine what drives traffic to your site. “I think the biggest change I’ve noticed in the Web space over the last five years is that you get up every morning thinking about Google because they can make such a huge difference to you,” Potter says. His group tracks the percentage of referrals from search engines, as compared against overall traffic. They also carefully review the specific search queries that brought visitors to their site.

7 Location: For many companies, information about the geographic distribution of customers is vague and anecdotal. With analytics, you can pinpoint your visitors on the map, noting key hot spots. Furthermore, you can segment this data by sales volume. It is valuable input for sales strategies and also for determining whether your site could benefit from localization to support different languages.

8 Loyalty Statistics: How often do your visitors come back? Once you have a baseline for this statistic, you can experiment with your content publishing schedule. For example, if you introduce daily updates, how many more users will come back on a daily basis? Having this data helps you understand when increased effort will pay off, and often helps support a business case for additional funding.

9 Referring Source: Watching referring sources lets you know where traffic is coming from. This is vital for understanding the traffic benefits you receive from search engine optimization, link-building efforts, link swaps with channel partners and so forth. You can segment this data further to explore the source of traffic that tends to convert better.

10 Search Phrases: It’s amazing how companies can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on focus groups and customer research, and miss the most obvious source for addressing customers’ information needs: your Web site’s search engine. Based on actual queries to your site’s search box, what are the most popular items that users are looking for? Are they able to effectively find this content on your site? This information is useful for conducting content gap analysis.

Dan Skeen is director of search engine marketing for Quarry Integrated Communications at www.quarry.com in
Waterloo, Ontario.