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RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY: Do you know enough about your Web traffic?

November 26, 2007

Regular readers know I'm rabid about numbers. It dates back to my childhood, actually. Although I was math-phobic, I was numerically minded, if that makes any sense. I'm still enchanted with business numbers.

I'm convinced that Lean and Six Sigma are sweeping across American organizations for a good reason. And I say unto you that if you're not quantifying what's going on in your Web site, you're losing what could be your most valuable business data. Today's Web analytics are simple, cheap and fast, but frankly most of you aren't doing enough of them.

One of my early business influences was Lewis Kornfeld, once the president of Radio Shack. He was the man responsible for the colorful Radio Shack flier we all seemed to get in the mail during the '80s and '90s. When you bought something at a Radio Shack, they took down your address, and then the fliers started coming. Each flier had a free offer, but you had to visit a Radio Shack to take advantage of it.

Lewis tracked all those free giveaways to see what was working in his flier and what wasn't. He laid it all out in his book, "To Catch a Mouse, Make a Noise Like a Cheese." My old, tattered copy from 1981 is still on my shelf today, and it's still offering great advice.

Two of Kornfeld's principles have clung to me to this day. The first is that marketing is to sell product, and not some nebulous muttering about "building the brand." The second is the necessity of tracking marketing effectiveness. If his marketing couldn't be tied to sales in some way, he wasn't happy, and neither am I.

If Lewis were writing "Mouse" today, he'd doubtless be talking about Web sites, and how to measure their effectiveness. And he'd be talking about Web analytics. That's the practice of tracking how many visitors are going to particular pages, downloading files and doing other things on your site. After all, you're paying for your site some way, in monthly fees, if nothing else. It should be paying you back. But if your site doesn't offer direct sales, you could have trouble linking its effectiveness to your offline sales effort.

Web analytics let you close that gap a little and help you figure out what role your Web site can play in your strategies. For example, if your little microbusiness is doing business only within the Indianapolis area, and your analytics tell you that 50 percent of your visitors are from Europe and Asia, it's time to rethink your Web strategy.

As another example, let's say your consulting company is getting a lot of visits from existing clients. That means they're checking you out a little more at leisure, and it's a great opportunity to give them online tchotchke-like podcasts, articles or links to resources. You can then track those little gifts to see which ones are most popular, and accentuate the winners in the future.

You can count how many visitors came to your site as a result of a marketing campaign, or discover if they're looking at your long columns of text. If they skip out far too quickly to have read all that prose, you can confidently get rid of it, because nobody's reading it. Use that space to better advantage.

It used to be that analytics were only for big commercial sites, but that's not the case anymore. Any competent Webmaster can implement Google Analytics (www.google.com/analytics). It's free and it's a great starter package. Even sites with only a single page can benefit from Google Analytics.

Bigger sites require bigger packages, and there are several players in that space. Some, like WebTrends (www.webtrends.com), offer the option of getting their software for your own office, or using their Web-based one. I recommend the Web-based one for most site owners, because the onsite software needs a lot of care and feeding. Other major competitors are Web Side Story (www.websidestory.com), Omniture (www.omniture.com) and Coremetrics (www.coremetrics.com). And if somebody offers you "log analysis" instead of "Web analytics," turn it down. That's old technology, and not useful nowadays. What you want today is known as "tagging." All major analytics products offer tagging.

And what happened to Lewis Kornfeld? After 11 years as president of Radio Shack and 28 years on the board, he's retired and living in Fort Worth, Texas, writing romance and science-fiction novels. On a Radio Shack TRS-80, no doubt. Never waste anything.

A final word: This is the first of my columns to be included in the IBJ podcast. Check it out at www.ibj.com.
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