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Stepping up Your Use of Web Analytics

You’ve taken the first step, you’ve applied a web analytics solution to your website. You’re familiar with the basics, but how do you make real use out of the numbers? Here are 10 tips for getting more out of your tracking:

 

  1. Hits should be discarded from the conversation.
    Everything on your website is stored on a server somewhere. Each time a request is made from the user’s computer to your server, it registers as a hit. A hit is counted when the page is loaded, when each image is loaded, and when the rest of the content is loaded. Hits were a common term to use in the early days of the world wide web when images took a long time to load and were therefore used sparingly, but a modern website might be composed of hundreds of images and other content types. One visit from a single user would register so many hits the resulting number is meaningless, but the term ‘hit’ has become so common to our vernacular that less experienced website owners might refer to a hit when they really mean a single user visit. Make sure you don’t read or refer to these two statistics interchangeably; it confuses the discussion for those that know the difference.
  2. Views vs. Visitors: It depends on your website
    A visitor is calculated by your analytics software as a request from a unique IP address generated by an individual’s computer. Whether you’re looking at “uniques” per day, per month or per year, a visitor is counted once. A visit, on the other hand, can be generated multiple times by a single user. One person might go to your website multiple times per day, and each time this is added to an overall count of total visits to your website by multiple users. Which of these statistics should interest you more depends on the type of website you manage. On a promotional website for a single item that you only expect someone to buy or sign up for once, you would benefit more from knowing the number of unique visitors, but for a large e-commerce site offering multiple projects, you would most value visits from any number of buyers who might shop many times over.
  3. Incorporate your search terms
    It’s easy to forget that your audience is not like you. Chances are, the public you are marketing to is not nearly as informed about your product or industry as you are. Undaunted, website managers attack this problem by providing a wealth of information and instructive materials on their websites. This approach is very helpful once consumers find your website, but what if they can’t find it in the first place? Analytics offers insight into the keywords that are bringing people to your site, and it’s vital to pay attention to these cues. Users may not be using the same terminology or jargon so familiar to insiders, and a more colloquial term, used more frequently throughout the copy, might draw more visitors. Take advantage of both your analytics program’s capabilities to show what keywords brought traffic in and what phrases they searched for once they arrived at your website.
  4. Be aware of how your traffic is calculated
    Analytics, one way or another, is triggered by code placed somewhere in the coding language that generates your website. Google Analytics, for instance, requires a small piece of Javascript to be placed before the end body tag, and most programmers insert it into the footer code to ensure that it is included on every page. The website analyst should therefore keep in mind that any page that doesn’t have that code will not be counted. Page views of a PDF, for example, will not be incorporated into overall website page views, nor will views of the RSS feed. Websites such as blogs that are highly dependent on RSS views should supplement with a method of tracking RSS statistics.
  5. Visitors from different sources have different behaviors
    Referring URLs is arguably the most valuable statistic that analytics programs offer. General visitor traffic provides much less insight about the type of user wandering your content than knowing where that user came from and what his additional interests are. Once you start noticing a surge of traffic from a particular source, add that referring URL to a segment and let your analytics program show you what users from that source did once they reached your website. You might find that some campaigns convert more sales when targeted to the audience of a particular website, or that they show more interest in some pages than others.
  6. Set conversion goals
    This is an additional step to any analytics program: telling the software what counts on your website as a conversion. For e-commerce websites this might be a page view of a purchase confirmation, for a corporate website, it could be the view of a confirmation after subscribing to the company newsletter. Whatever your goal is, it should be reflected in your analytics program, and most solutions will even give you the option to set a dollar figure to each conversion.
  7. Studying browser statistics is time well spent
    Time is money, so time should never be wasted. Website managers who insist that their development team spend equal time accounting for every browser type back to 1997 may find their programming team putting a lot of man hours into very small segments of your audience. You may have three users looking at your website on WebTV every month, but is that a significant portion of your audience? The internet has advanced too far to design for the lowest common denominator anymore.
  8. Bounce rate should be kept in perspective
    The bounce rate for your website is calculated by determining the number of visitors who go to the home page and then go somewhere else on your website, rather than “bounce” right out again. That doesn’t mean that it makes sense to strain resources in pursuit of 0%. There will always be some percentage of users who reached your site by accident. If someone got to your website looking for information about cats and you build catwalks, that traffic is not useful to you anyway. There are even some websites that offer all of their important information updates on the home page, negating the need for returning users to go anywhere else. Set a realistic percentage for your website and try to stay at that rate.
  9. Technology moves slower than you think
    Everyone’s talking about mobile devices with Internet capabilities, but not everyone has one. More importantly, they probably aren’t using it to browse your website. Across nearly any industry, your analytics program will most likely show that visits to your website from mobile devices accounts for under 3% of your traffic, perhaps much less. Rather than jump to the conclusion that this is because your website isn’t optimized for mobile devices, consider instead the behavior of Internet users. The most dominant period of day, in which a business website will experience a high volume of traffic, is Monday through Friday from 9 to 5, when the American workforce is at the office. Users browse business websites on their computer at work, they play with apps on their phone. You may have an audience in the mobile market, but you may also serve them best by leaving your website alone and developing an app.
  10. Embrace change, but make it an informed decision
    You may like blue, but that doesn’t mean your audience responds to it. Weigh the time it takes to make a change across your website against its performance by testing it on one page and tracking how it affects your conversions. Testing is ultimately the most powerful capability your analytics program will give you.

Best Uses for Flash (not Gordon)

It’s been impossible to miss the storm of controversy in the tech field over Adobe Flash. By blocking Flash content on the iPhone and iPad, Apple has single-handedly inspired clients and advertisers alike to shy away from an industry standard. Under the barrage of ad campaigns and open letters, it’s easy for a marketer or advertising executive to be left wondering which way to turn, especially when so much of the debate is dominated by developers throwing around highly technical jargon. Ultimately, that decision should come from a thorough analysis of what you’re trying to accomplish and who your audience really is.

When marketers refer to using Flash, they are frequently thinking of it as a video compressor, and this is where some of the most vocal opposition to Flash comes from. The complaint is primarily poor performance in regards to CPU usage, but how accurate is that complaint? Flash performance is based on the plugin’s ability to access hardware acceleration, and Apple is not giving Adobe access to the tools they need to reduce the load.  It’s not difficult to conclude that Apple’s block is more about pushing mobile users to buy videos at their store than it is about doing them a service by blocking video readily available for streaming all over the Internet, but the bottom line is the iPhone won’t use it anytime soon. Is the alternative Apple offers in HTML5 a viable option?

According to YouTube software engineer John Harding, the answer is no. HTML5 falls short in dynamic quality control, buffering, the ability to play full-screen and as uncompiled code and suffers from the ultimate shortcoming: no protection for copyrighted material. It’s also far from being an industry standard. HTML5 has yet to adopt a standard video format, and browser inconsistencies will continue to plague HTML5 for years to come.  Video is not its only downfall either. The “canvas element” for HTML5 has been prematurely lauded as a rival to the interactive aspect of Flash. Since current experiments are crude, only sophisticated browsers support it, and few knowledgeable Flash developers would be willing to give up the wide scope of what they can already accomplish to learn it anytime soon. Flash is by nature a compiled application, something Flash game developers rely on to keep their work protected. HTML5 for games would not only require an excessively lengthy amount of coding to do the same job, it would expose it to the world.

There are alternatives to Flash that can accomplish some of the same purposes with fewer drawbacks and higher cross-platform compatibility. JQuery is quickly becoming a replacement for Flash slideshows because it is commonly supported and does the same job – a simple web effect that can take longer to replicate with Flash in terms of load time and future adjustments. Very few websites are built entirely in Flash anymore and shouldn’t be, not only because of compatibility issues and the time it takes to edit, but also because nothing beats the ease of establishing good relationships with search engines like text that lives outside of a compiled application.

Flash continues to have no reliable competition when it comes to interactive games, activities and animation, as the protection it offers and the breadth of its capabilities have yet to find an equal. Offering this kind of rich media should be something your website does as an enticement to engage, but it should not be a cornerstone of your content. This way, search engines and visitors averse to plugins will still find plenty to explore. Javascript is readily available for your developer to include, and will show alternative content should your visitor arrive without the plugin installed. But what about all of the buzz around mobile devices? Who knows who might be looking at your website and what their capabilities are…shouldn’t you leave Flash out of the mix completely just to be safe?

It’s important to keep your audience in perspective. For the average website, between 75 and 85 percent of visitors are on a PC using Internet Explorer, and in spite of the hype, those visiting on a cell phone or iPad will be less than 1 percent. Consider this: are your friends with iPhones using them to browse business websites or do you more frequently see them using applications developed specifically for their device? While the number of users visiting websites on mobile devices will surely rise, analytic trends from the last five years show that these numbers have hardly budged up to this very week, and any change is likely to be slower than you might think.

Although the direction of Internet development is always bright and exciting, it’s also certain to be a vast hodgepodge of alternate technologies, for nothing in the world of competing browsers has ever been consistent. Keeping a close eye on your analytics will guide the Internet developer to the right tool for the right job, and Flash will continue to be one of those tools for the foreseeable future.