Posted on by Chief Marketer Staff

Monitoring a Web site used to be a fairly straightforward proposition. Leading indicators like traffic, page views and sales gave a pretty good idea of how things were going. A more sophisticated check might involve observing how many visitors came through search results or affiliates rather than navigating directly to your page.

But all that’s changed. These days, Web operators who want to get a real handle on their site’s performance have to watch far more gauges and dials. For one thing, there are now many doors into the average Web site: search marketing (on branded or generic terms), RSS feeds, product or merchant reviews on third-party sites, e-mail promotions, and even offline ads that drive consumers to a dedicated URL.

Nor can site operators take their eyes off those visitors once they’ve arrived. Web 2.0 features such as video, blogs or forums, personalized start pages, and consumer-generated reviews offer plenty of new ways to interact with a site. Watching this on-site behavior may help an e-marketer segment customers and focus on the most loyal, or those with the highest lifetime value, or just those who are nearest to converting. Simply tracking hits, page views or time spent on site won’t give a clear picture anymore of the site’s performance or customers’ experiences.

Electronics retailer Circuit City supplies lots of product content in a “click and learn” module that appears on most of its category and product pages, as well as consumer-generated product ratings and reviews. According to senior manager of Web analytics Kim Weller, visitors who view that content seem more likely to convert to a sale than those who don’t. She’d like to know how much more likely.

“We have many different components on our product pages which are key for our customer research,” she says. Circuit City sees offering customers a variety of ways to research products and topics as a point of differentiation that can keep visitors from going to the many competing electronics sites on the Web.

“Our goal is to give our customers the ability to do whatever research they want, find all the specifications they need, and give them the confidence they want before they buy.”

And Weller says getting a customer to use those content elements on the site has been a good indicator of future conversion.

“Forums and ‘click and learn’-type articles are things that people do early in the buying process. Forums convert the best: It’s not a huge group of visitors who use them, but we find they’re very loyal and they do spend more money with us” — perhaps, she speculates, because they ask about accessories and add-ons for the products they buy.

To track that leading-indicator user behavior, has for some time now used the Web analytics platform from Coremetrics, one of the big providers in the field. And Weller says her company plans to turn on the tracking features of the newest version, Coremetrics 2007, as they become available this quarter and next.

That new release will take into account the metric changes that Web 2.0 site construction has brought about.

For example, counting page views as a measure of user activity has become as obsolete as the Automat. Formerly, an online shopper who looked at a product, clicked the “add to cart” button, adjusted the quantity for purchase, added shipping information and clicked to buy would detectably have visited five separate Web pages. But asynchronous JavaScript and XML (Ajax) has made counting those pages meaningless, since pages built with Ajax exchange small bits of data with a server rather than reloading in entirety.

“With a Web 2.0 storefront, I can look at a page of products and filter them dynamically by price, for example, or by manufacturer,” says Brian Tomz, Coremetrics’ director of product strategy. “I can drag a product and drop it into the cart. On a portal, I can customize portions to have an experience that includes 50 touches without ever getting a page refresh.

“The page view used to be the lowest common denominator of Web measurement. But with marketers using Flash, Ajax and other tools to create a more convenient, more dynamic experience on the site, we have to take a more granular view, because a lot of interim things are happening on pages.”

Coremetrics’ new release treats the pages of clients such as Circuit City as mere containers for “elements,” modules that customers can either consume as information or interact with. They can then offer tracking and reporting on these intra-page elements to give a clearer picture of user behavior.

Blending that page-level data with analysis of customer use of blogs, forums, RSS feeds and all the other ways visitors can come to the site and act once they get there, analytics users can then segment their customers more accurately and target those with the highest value, those closest to a purchase, or those showing the most loyalty — whatever metric is worth most to a given user.

Circuit City hasn’t yet deployed the full array of analytical tools available in the Coremetrics suite, but it plans to do so during the coming year, according to Weller.

“One thing I really preach is to look at comparisons and trends, because raw numbers really aren’t going to tell you much,” Weller says. “What’s the value of 70 billion page views?”

The Sterne View

Jim Sterne, president of Target Marketing of Santa Barbara, CA and founder of the Web Analytics Association, talks about the difficulties of measuring Web 2.0 sites effectively and extracting meaningful results:

“The way we surf today, I have three browser windows open with five tabs each. Which one am I engaged with at the moment? You can’t know that about me. How long am I on your Web site? I might be there all day but engaged for only 30 minutes.”

On time spent as a useful engagement metric:

“If you come to, look up a title and click to buy, you may only be on site for 20 seconds, but it’s the perfect 20 seconds. But on most sites, where I want you to come and interact and browse and consume content, 20 seconds would mean failure. And if you’re on a customer service portion of a site and you interact for an hour, clicking and consuming content, that hour may indicate frustration.

“Page views are dead. A Web site is not a bunch of pages that people view; it’s a series of processes that people try to complete. They’re there to discover, learn, compare, consume, join, discuss, complain, purchase — it’s all verbs. What you should measure is whether visitors are doing those things successfully.”


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