It wasn't long ago that only the largest companies had the tools to understand customer experience online -- to see what was working on their websites, what was broken and why. These tools, collectively called web analytics, are now within the reach of even the smallest sites.
Jupiter's recent Web Analytics Buyer's Guide found that nearly 90 percent of businesses with public-facing websites use a web analytics tool. And more and more, these tools are free, features are abundant and installation time has never been faster. Executives know what the term "page views" means, and all kinds of people within companies -- not just analysts -- use website data to drive business decisions. As the Jupiter report notes, "The feature war is over and now marketers need to know how to leverage the increased accessibility of analytics tools to develop more usable tracking strategies."
People generally look at web analytics as a way to learn about customer behavior. Used correctly, however, web analytics will reveal something that is possibly even more important: customer intent. Information gleaned through analytics data provides a peek into the hearts and minds of your customers, revealing their most pressing needs and wants. And the results are not always obvious: people's intent on a website can differ wildly from what the web designer had in mind.
Using the data
While many retailers and their designers spend considerable time worrying about aesthetic considerations -- making the site look appealing -- what they should focus on instead is their data. Properly used data can result in drastic improvements in user experience.
A great example of a site doing things right is Zappos.com, which sells shoes, accessories and clothing. The company launched in 1999 with little business and now projects $1 billion in sales this year, becoming the largest footwear retailer on the web. The company's website is mainly meant to be functional. But Zappos does two things well. The first is top-shelf customer service. The second is focusing on data, using it to understand their customers' needs and building their website around that understanding.
You can use analytics data to do the same. Start by answering four key questions about your website:
1. How do your visitors arrive? For those coming through a search-engine query, a list of search terms will tell you what they were seeking when they arrived. Analytics can also give you a list of referring URLs -- websites that send you traffic. The simple step of marrying those referring URLs with conversions on your site will help you identify valuable sources of traffic and sites that send you high-converting traffic.
2. What are visitors looking for? Your checkout page can tell you only where you've succeeded, not where you've missed an opportunity. Search keyword reports and internal site-search reports can reveal what people are seeking, not just what they've found. Another crucial metric is your cart abandonment rate: the percentage of customers who put items in the cart but left your site before checking out. Use it to find if something's amiss with your checkout process.
3. Where are visitors landing, bouncing and viewing? The assumption that user experience begins on the homepage drives many designers to waste hours of work in the wrong place: for customers entering your site through a search engine, you have multiple homepages -- not just a single entry point. Your Top Landing Pages or Top Entry Pages report will tell you where your real "homepages" reside, so you can focus your design work there. Analytics will also tell you which landing pages have the highest bounce rate – pages on which people landed, looked around and left. And through your Top Viewed Pages report, you can see what content interests your customers -- or doesn't.
4. What are your website's trends over time? Analytics can help you understand what drives your performance up or down. E-commerce tracking shows the number of orders placed and the value of those orders, and by segmenting your data over different timelines, you can see subtle buying habits that could have otherwise gone unnoticed.
Web analytics tools have always reflected changes in online behavior -- that's what they track, after all -- and with video, Flash and other multimedia pervading more and more websites, we need a way to measure their success.
You could think of it as event tracking; the events being a visitor's interaction with multimedia elements such as gadgets and YouTube videos. Increasingly, your customers are taking action within a page on your site, not among pages, and so measuring page activity doesn't fully cover their behavior. Event tracking reports can track web applications and interactions without artificially inflating your page-view metrics. These reports are in their early days, just like the media they're tracking, but look for more to come.
When it comes to customer insight, there's no substitute for web analytics, and no time like the present.