While many small business owners have never even heard of web analytics, Jason MacMurray cannot imagine going a day without the stuff. "The better information we have about our site, the better we can run our business," he explained.
As director of marketing at BodyTrends.com, MacMurray wants to know all he possible can about the behavior of users on the site. To glean this information he turns to HitBox, one of the dozens of web analytics software products on the market today. HitBox tells him how many people came to the site, and where they came from. How long did they stay on a given page, where did they click, when did they leave ... and so on.
Experts say such software is practically a must for website operators, especially in today's tight economic times. "In order to ensure continued website success, they must measure the impact of their investment on a regular basis and make future investment decisions based on those results," said Alana Suko, a spokesperson for IT consulting firm Miller Systems.
While prices vary widely for web analytics software, these tools are well within the reach of most small businesses. The popular ClickTracks product has packages starting in the $500 range, while higher-end products for corporate users can easily run to $15,000 or more. (With over 40 vendors in the marketplace, analysts estimate web analytics to be a $400 million industry today.)
One the most basic level, web analytics can be a valuable marketing tool. Take for instance CharterAuction.com, which auctions off private air travel. The company makes note of where customers come from, where they want to go, what source they used to find CharterAuction.com and what search keywords they used. This information has helped the site to build a 17,000-name database and to hone its marketing investments.
Others rely on web analytics to track site performance. The BodyTrends site for example contains more than 3,000 pages, and MacMurray relies on his analytics software to make sure all those pages are up and running. Without ongoing automatic monitoring of the site, "it would take us a long time to react to a non-working page. We might not find out until a customer called up to tell us that a link was broken or a page is not there and that is not necessarily a phone call that you want to take, because if one person is calling you, then probably 15 or 20 people are having the same problem and you are just not hearing from them," he said.
Experts agree, though, that monitoring performance through web analytics software is only a first step.
If the statistics suggest that a web page is not working that customers are leaving before they convert then it is time to take action. "Maybe you need to re-address what that page is saying," suggested Bryan Eisenberg, principal of web-conversion consulting firm Future Now, a part of WebTrends' insight network. "If my web site is bringing in 1,000 visitors and I am only converting 10 of them, I need to understand what is going wrong and then I need to make tweaks."
Beyond guiding specific tweaks, web analytics also offers an efficient tool through which to steer a web site's overall marketing efforts. While the data generated by web analytics tools cannot replace such marketing fundamentals as user testing, "what is really useful is that it tells you what to test," said Sally Falkow, author of Web Sense for Entrepreneurs. Having identified a weak point on a site through web analytics, "I like to get people on site and actually watch them go through that part of the site. I like to be able to ask them questions afterwards: What are you looking for, what are you hoping to find there?"
By pinpointing in advance the weak spots in a site, she suggested, web analytics can make such testing vastly more cost-effective.
It's possible to run such tests without web analytics data as a starting point, but experts say the payoff likely will not be there. "If you make changes without using the analytics, it's like driving in the dark," said Eisenberg. "You are taking guesses based on assumptions" rather than making educated moves.
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