Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Do You Know What Your Web Traffic Is Telling You?

by Hermas Haynes

Every time someone visits your website, they leave behind several important bits of data that you can analyze to determine whether or not your site is doing the best job it could. This generic data is stored in your web server's log files.

You can study this data to understand who your visitors are, how they explore your site, and get answers to lots of other questions. The process is known as web analytics, and you can use it to find out things like:

- Where is my web traffic coming from?
- What pages are visitors landing on?
- What other pages do they visit?
- How long do they stay on the site?
- How do visitors find what they want?
- How often are sales made?
- What's the ratio of visitors to sales?
- Are people subscribing to my newsletter?
- What browsers are visitors using?
- Through which pages do they exit?

Knowing the answers to these kinds of questions will give you a strong indication of how effective your website is, and the impact it is having on your business growth.

Say you provide three different ways for visitors to navigate your site - menu links, a search box and a site map. You can study the data to learn, for example, which navigation scheme is the most popular, or which keywords are searched most often.

The answers may prompt you to redesign the site's navigation to exploit the popular choice, or perhaps add a page that provides content relating to the new keywords being searched.

Server log file have traditionally been the default method for collecting user data. Today we can add page tagging, cookies, JavaScript, traffic analysis software and sophisticated online systems to the mix.

They collectively address issues such as speed for real time reporting, accuracy, cost and flexibility for collecting a wider range of data.

Traffic Analysis Definitions

Collected data is usually presented in various formats, such as: reports, charts, tables and graphs. Here are some of the critical areas where user data is recorded.

Page View - a count of a web page that has been viewed by one visitor.
Visit - an uninterrupted web site session that lasts for a certain minimum length of time, usually set for 30 minutes.
Unique Visitor - an individual visitor counted only once, in spite of how many visits they make in a given day.
New Visitor - a first-time visitor.
Repeat Visitor - a visitor who has made a previous visit.
Hit - a request for a specific web server file. (Should not be confused with Page View or Visit, as a web page is typically made up of several files).
Referrers - identifies the source of your traffic by url. e.g. search engine, article site or other incoming link.

Much of the data in these categories is broken down by hour, day, week and month. Statistical averages are also available by category and period.

Important Note About Accuracy

Like everything on the Internet, or in life for that matter, there are no absolutes. Data and statistics are never 100% accurate. There are variables beyond your control that will always affect the results.

For example. A visitor can disable her browser from accepting cookies. She can also delete them entirely from the browser cache. Therefore, in a situation where cookies are used for tracking, a return trip by that visitor to your site would be erroneously recorded as a first time visit.

Also, since the cookie originally assigned to that visitor has now been removed, the data attached to her activities as a unique visitor, will be skewed over time. It's not a perfect world.

Still, it is not unreasonable to assume a degree of accuracy hovering around the 90% - 95% range. That gives web analytics very high marks for reliability.

Even though the data is an important indicator of your site's performance, always be aware that figuring out what the data is telling you and acting on it correctly, is actually more important than the data itself.

About the Author

Hermas Haynes is an experienced marketer and founder of the popular online resource - http://eBizInfoCenter.com - where you can find more marketing articles, ideas, tools and strategies to help you advance your Web business.