The web analytics category is certainly hot these days. The category used to be populated by expensive consultants and equally expensive software packages that took an advanced degree to understand fully.
Part of the web analytics explosion can be attributed to Google's purchase of Urchin in 2005 and its subsequent decision to offer Urchin for free (as Google Analytics) as a hosted solution. Another part of it is attributable to the success stories stemming from the use of other analytics platforms (like those from Omniture) for strategic leverage and a better understanding of Key Performance Indicators, or KPIs.
The reams of signal intelligence an online marketer can glean from analytics reports certainly help to lend visibility to web efforts, but they can also be misunderstood. From time to time, in speaking with clients and prospects, we come across situations in which the feedback from web analytics software leads online marketers down the wrong path.
Here are some pitfalls to avoid:
Web analytics are a mirror, not a map
Analytics reports can be a wonderful reflection of where online marketers have been and where they are today. However, they're a bit lacking in terms of what to do in the future. On occasion, we've recommended advertising packages with certain websites and have run into resistance because analytics reports don't already show the site we've recommended as a significant source of traffic.
The notion that a site must be an existing top referrer of traffic to a given website represents faulty logic. Web analytics software does a great job of highlighting where your existing traffic is coming from, but it doesn't always illuminate advertising opportunities for a marketer. A site's audience might be unaware of a marketer's online presence, and I'd argue that low organic traffic from another website represents an opportunity to boost awareness and traffic, not a justification for avoiding the site altogether.
Organic referral traffic can provide some visibility into where an online marketing might advertise at first. It does logically follow that more traffic can be encouraged by beefing up one's presence on the referral site, but that doesn't mean other sites should be avoided.
Analytics shouldn't dictate search terms
Likewise, analytics reports provide a good starting point for marketers who want to get into the SEM game. They provide direction as to which terms can produce the most natural search traffic if optimized correctly. They can also give direction on what terms represent low-hanging fruit for a paid search campaign.
Once those fruit-bearing terms have been covered, however, there's no reason to discourage strategic experimentation with new search terms. Most of our clients tend to experience greater successes when they expand considered search terms beyond their existing list, and a "test and refine" tactical approach results in traffic and sales gains that make sense with respect to their ROI and Return on Advertising Spend allowables.
If terms are limited only to what has provided limited success in the past, it has the effect of choking off significant search marketing gains.
Common exit pages aren't necessarily problem areas
When an online marketer finds a significant number of people are exiting his website after viewing a certain page, he tends to look at that page as a hole that needs to be plugged. I'm not sure what led to this emphasis on stickiness, but it can be damaging to a web strategy if exit pages are always identified as problem areas.
Consider that a common exit page might represent a fulfilled need on the part of the customer. Perhaps the customer was seeking information, specs, or an overview of a marketer's product or service, and the last page they viewed fulfilled that need.
Yes, it is problematic if the most common exit page from your website is a shopping cart page or a hiccup in your transactional system. Web analytics tools will do a good job of highlighting that. But what they won't do is give you an indication why someone departed your website from a certain page.
We sometimes forget about the web's strength as a comparison-shopping ally, and as a tool to perform research on considered purchases. With our focus on the web's ability to sell product online, we sometimes overlook the notion that web pages transact information as well as products. Exiting from a specific page can indicate that the page in question does a good job of informing customers. A second look at delayed purchase behavior, particularly when the product represents a considered purchase, can illuminate whether or not a page is helping or hindering sales.
Web analytics software can be a valuable ally in your web marketing efforts, but it's important to remember to step outside the quantitative analysis from time to time for a better look at the total picture.