Sunday, February 26, 2006

The value of tag based web analytics

What's the difference between the free stats programs offered by most web hosts and professional analytics applications like WebTrends 7.5 professional?

Most people are trained to think of their web stats as nothing more than a way to track unique visitors and page views. For a low traffic site, or one that is no more than a forgotten brochure for the business, the difference is perhaps unimportant. However, for anyone considering their web site as a valuable part of their marketing toolset - the difference is enormous.

Data without reference points is meaningless
Tag based analytics enables the marketer to provide meta data about the information on the web site so that the analytics software can provide relevant and interesting
information on the traffic and usage of the site.

A web server cannot tell one page from another from the eyes of a visitor or marketer. The un-tagged information on a free web stats program will not show if certain kinds of content are more popular than others. It will not show you organic search traffic from paid search, which types of visitors are more valuable, most popular paths through the site, or which groups of pages are more useful than others. To extract this kind of meaningful data about your site the marketer needs to teach the software about the site and its traffic.

Information rich data becomes action-able knowledge
The uses of tag based are as varied as the types of sites it can report on. Lead generating sites, e-commerce sites, advertising supported sites, customer service sites, portals and more can all use tag based analytics to provide business intelligence. It enable marketers to consistently improve their results in iteration after iteration of their web site changes. It enables them to target advertising more effectively. They can improve conversion rates, improve content effectiveness, improve user experience, and more.

Accuracy of Information
Before I move on to give specific examples of the information tag based web analytics can provide I think it is important to discuss an issue of accuracy provided by something called client side tagging versus log based statistics:

All free or low cost statistics programs, (and even higher end analytics software unless configured otherwise) will generate statistical data based on the log files created by the web server.

This has a serious flaw.

Web server log files are the raw data collected by the web server for every hit by a visitor. Every time s request is made on the web server, a hit is recorded as a new line in a text file. This can be a request for a page, an image, a PDF, an included object, or any other file on the web site. Each hit is recorded with a timestamp, and the IP address of the computer requesting it, the browser used, and other various and configurable information.

The statistics program simply reads these log files and organizes the information into human readable reports and graphs. Each unique IP address that shows up in the log file is considered a unique visitor.

The problem is, s unique IP address is not enough information to differentiate one user from another. Five users behind a DSL line in a small office will look like one unique visitor. One hundred users in an medium office may look like one visitor. Tens of thousands of AOL users all over America will look like one user. One user from Herndon, Virginia, in fact - because AOL uses a massive proxy server there so it can cache the most popular content on the intent to deliver it more quickly.

There are other log file methods, such as combining IP address and computer type to differentiate visitors, but the limited ways a standard web server can differentiate between one visitor and another is limited and ineffective. Because of this problem log based statistics should be considered by all to be inaccurate.

To solve this problem tag based analytics software uses a technology called client side tagging to uniquely identify each computer visiting it's website - regardless of whether they are in an environment that would otherwise fool the web server into counting them incorrectly. This "client side tag" is a few lines of JavaScript on each web page being analyzed by the analytics software. Each time one of these pages is requested, the computer requesting it automatically runs a script on the page, and reports back to the analytics server to identify itself as a unique computer.

The result is significantly more accurate statistics (nearly 100%), that typically show a large increase in the number of visitors being counted.

Tagging for content usage
Now that I have explained the accuracy of information issue in the two types of reporting, lets move on to the more exciting benefits of tag based analytics.

Paths and Pages
Starting from the most basic level, page name tagging allows you to provide meaningful names to the pages on the site so that it is easier to tell which pages are being visited.

Without tagging, the only ways to view a page in a report is either by URL (address of the page), which can be long, cryptic or meaningless, or the HTML title - which for un-optimized sites are often all the same, and for search optimized sites are often long and difficult to differentiate.

When you teach the analytics server what the pages mean to you - the results are just easier to read. Home for home, Products for products, etc. When you have hundreds or thousands of pages on a site, especially similar ones, this makes a big difference.

Web analytics software can also measure the order of pages visited by each visitor. It will then calculate the most common paths through the site. For example, an e-commerce sites most popular path may be - home, products, product a, product b, search, exit site.

This kind of information can be enlightening. For example, why don't most visitors go to product c? Why don't they add anything to their shopping cart? If everyone is searching what's wrong with the navigation? Is there something wrong with the search results? You can't test and measure without this kind of information.

Content groups and sub-content groups
On my own site, I have four major categories - email marketing, search engine marketing, web analytics, and reviews. Each category has many pages. Since I have tagged all of the pages in each category as a group, I can look at my online WebTrends reports and see which type of content is more useful or more popular with my visitors. This can be an indication of what the market is most interested in. I can check it against my sales and notice correlations or discrepancies.

To make it more interesting, each major section on my web site is broken down into products, services, and knowledge (frequently ask questions). I have tagged these as well so I can see which sub-sections are most popular.

Pages can also have more than one content group and sub-content group. This allows you to have pages show up in multiple group reports - if product A fits under category A and category B, no problem - just tag it correctly and you will see it in both category reports.

To continue with my example, I have tagged each page on my site to have two groups and sub-groups - in reverse of each other. So now I can look at the sub-sections as major sections to see which major sections have the most popular sub-sections.

Basically, any way you want to group your content can be achieved through a well planned tagging strategy.

Tagging for scenarios and funnels
Tagging for conversion is cool. Let's say you have a membership based site and you want to track how many visitors follow a certain path on your site. For example, you may want to track what percentage come to the home page, click the "learn more" page, click the "sign up" page, and then complete the sign up process. No problem.

In WebTrends, you would tag the series of pages as a scenario. You may choose to call the Scenario "perfect user", or "new signup", etc. You would tag each page as scenario step one, step two, etc., and name each of the steps. The end result is a beautiful graphical report that shows you how many visitors started each step, and what percentage went on to the next step.

Additional, invaluable information in this report is the "leakage" in the steps. Where do visitors go from each step besides where you want them to go? This is the information you need to make improvements on your site that will improve your conversion rates.

Tagging for conversion and sales data
For e-commerce and lead generating sites tags give you the information you need to improve your marketing spend. With tagging you can pull sales data into your WebTrends reports. WebTrends can pick up the items purchased and total sales from your 'thank you' page and display this information in your reports.

For search engine marketing (paid and natural search) you can break down your sales activity by keyword phrase and search engine. You can also see it by e-mail campaign, links form other sites, type of visitor and more.

Geographical reporting
It's one thing to see your visitors broken down by country, but what about province/state, city, area code, company, or designated marketing area? All possible thanks to the built in, up-to-date geo-IP database called GeoTrends. The GeoTrends database knows the location of every IP address in your reports and can therefore provide detailed and accurate visitor location information.

Getting the most from web analytics
A professional analytics program like WebTrends essentially allows you to track whatever data you need and turn it into action-able business intelligence. The functionality for this exists out-of-the-box, however to generate the most interesting reports for your business requires some effort on your part.

The ability to tag information on a web site comes with a responsibility to think through the data on the site and what kinds of reports need to be generated from the data collected.

At Agito, we go through a detailed process on every web site we track to ensure that we have identified all of the information we need and tag all of the pages properly. We go through a mapping process to define all of the desired paths through the site. We consider email campaigns and advertising campaigns and plan landing pages that can be tracked. We build spreadsheets of the web site to list every page and the tags that need to be associated with every page to achieve the desired outcomes.

If you want the most out of your web analytics, make sure you go through a process that will uncover your needs and then teach your software to deliver the results you want. You will be way ahead of those who use only free tools, or even professional tools with only out-of-the-box functionality.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Don't buy into useless search engine submission programs

I can hardly believe that many web design companies are still offering search engine submission programs and calling it 'search engine optimization'.

Let me be clear - submission to search engines is a waste of time and resources. It comes from flawed reasoning that your pages need to be submitted to search engines in order to be found. This is simply not true.

Search engine technology works with spiders that crawl all of the links it can find on the web. The spiders index every page they find. If the spider cannot find your page this is indicative of a larger problem that will not be solved with submission.

Pages that cannot be found are either hidden behind internal site links that cannot be crawled (for reasons like poorly designed Java script coding, complex dynamic URLs or pull down form navigation) or completely hidden from the rest of the web because there is not a single link from another site pointing to the page.

If your pages are not indexed in the search engines, then your site has much bigger problems than submission can solve.

Search engines derive a great deal of information about the content of pages from the sites and pages that link to them. The quantity of inbound links to your pages, the quality of sites and pages that link to them, and the words in and around the links themselves play a major role in the ranking of web sites in the search results. Even if your poorly linked page is in the search engines index because of submitting, it won't have a hope of ranking in the top results without better linking.

With a good linking strategy, your pages will be crawled and indexed by the search engines regularly. With our search marketing dashboard, we monitor the various search engines spider activity on all our clients sites. Typically, we see the spiders on our sites every day.

A note to a possible question that may be in the minds of some - even though search engine submission is useless, you shouldn't confuse this with directory submission. Submitting to directories is an important part of inbound link generation. Search engine spiders often start with crawling the major directories as a jumping off point to find sites and links to crawl.

We recommend submitting to all of the major directories, local directories, and researching industry specific directories related to your industry. It is important also to regularly check the directories to make sure your listing has been accepted and is posted. Many volunteer edited directories, like Dmoz, can take many months to be included.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Search Engine Optimization Now to be a Factor in the YellowPages

Now search engine optimization will affect your yellow pages listings as well:

The Canadian YellowPages are about to launch a new service that will do keyword searches of your web site. Results will be displayed in the YellowPages directory based on the content in your site and in combination with how much you are paying them.

The following information is directly from YellowPages, in response to my evaluation of advertising options for our company:

How can we show up in searches for "internet marketing" "email marketing", "web analytics", "content management system", "Search engine optimization"? eg: do we get to apply keywords to our ad.

YELLOW PAGES: Interesting that you ask because in the not to distant future (June) we are changing the layout of our site to incorporate keyword searches. Those searches will return results of businesses that mention those keywords (in the text of their ad, but also in their websites when linked from the Yellow Pages site).

The important thing to note here is that the results will be re-ranked based on advertising that the business currently does in order to ensure that if someone is for example a national advertiser that they are in fact appearing ahead of someone who is not (even when keywords are used). This will ensure that the value of those products does not diminish in anyway as a result of this more user-friendly interface.

This bodes well for the search optimization industry. It further legitimizes the field and will help it bring the concept into the forefront of advertisers minds. After all, search engine optimization - done well - is really just the perfect classification of your business, the content on your web site, and the linkage to your site.

If your company relies heavily in YellowPages advertising, you should treat this as a wake up call rethink your online marketing. Search Engine Optimization has now become an important factor in your YellowPages advertising.

The YellowPages are still an important method of advertising your business. While SEO is a powerful tool for bringing in traffic and customers, you also need to promote your business where all of your prospects are looking. Our prospects look in the search engines, in the online yellow pages, in the yellow pages book, or ask friends for referrals. We know that - and promote accordingly.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

iDate 2006 Online Dating Conference

Miami - February 2006

The iDate 2006 Online Dating Conference was an eye-opening look at the current state of online dating. I enjoy staying on top of the highest traffic industries on the Internet because the advances and opportunities for testing are more frequent and interesting than in lower traffic situations like the average corporate site. The knowledge I gain from working in industries such as these are immensely valuable in my work in lead, traffic and sales generation for medium sized companies in every industry.

I was a guest speaker at this conference, speaking about promotion of online dating web sites from the affiliate perspective.

The main theme of the presentation was maximizing conversion on web sites from initial visit to free profile, and then maximizing conversion from free profile to paid subscriber with email. Many of the smaller dating sites have not got this figured out yet, while the bigger ones are taking the perfection of this art and science to a new level.

Insights I shared were effective home page and landing page design, including focusing on giving the visitor what they want (the ability to immediately search members) while getting what the web site owner needs (getting permission to market to the visitor via email). It's surprising how many owners thought this was golden information - but when I looked at some of the sites of the attendees after I got home I could how badly this info was needed.

Corporate customers outside the dating industry should take heed to this concept, too. What is it your visitors really want - and how can you give it to them while enticing them to give you their contact information?

The key, of course, to getting conversions to sale is to get the email. Let me repeat that - get the email, get the email, get the email. Do whatever you have to do to get the email. Give away a free e-book, a free prize, access to something incredibly cool and impossible to resist. Once you have an email address you can (and had better) start a calculated campaign to educate, entice, remind and persuade the prospect to become your customer. It is getting incredibly expensive to get a qualified visitor to your site. It is equally expensive, if not impossible, to get them back if you didn't get permission to start a communication with them. Get the email and then start working to get the sale. Very few visitors will become a customer on their first visit to your site, but many more email contacts will become customers over time. If people get one thing from my Internet marketing talks I hope it is this, because this will help them the most.

My other thoughts in this area included the growing importance of niche sites. Since the industry is now maturing, it has become impossible to create a general dating site to take on the leaders unless you have more money than Microsoft. (And Bill, I wouldn't recommend it to you either). With a niche site, at least, you have a hope of becoming the leader in your category. All the profits tend to go to the leader - so be the leader or find something else you can lead in. Niche sites also convert far better, because you can advertise to niche audiences and speak directly to your prospects while having an offer even the leading generalists can't compete with.

Here's another idea - take a page from the adult industry and offer a free tour on your site. New customers appreciate the hand held walk through of your site, how it works, and what they can expect. Visits to tour pages (from my direct experience) are very high. You can tweak them using what you learn from your web analytics software and achieve high conversions at the end of the tour.

One more idea - be different. Don't be a copy cat. Find something that you can do or offer that is truly different. PerfectMatch has their 'Duet' matching system and an ask the expert column called "Dr. Pepper'. Why aren't other sites offering something special like this? It's perceived value that helps the visitor differentiate you from the other sites that they are considering. I heard offering a free e-book on how to meet someone special in 90 days.

Hello! What do people really want? Figure it out and give it to them.

On the topic of affiliate programs, I suggested to the bigger ones that they adopt revenue share and maximize pay-outs because the CPA (cost per acquisition) is getting higher as competition gets more intense. Affiliates take all of the risk and cover all of the expenses in their promotion of your sites, so owners should never think that they are paying too much for sales that they would otherwise not have had. Owners must think in terms of lifetime customer value of sales generated by affiliates. Most good affiliates promote many sites and will send the majority of their traffic to the sites that convert the best and payout the highest amounts. In this respect, web site owners (in any online selling environment, not just dating) are competing for the best affiliates just as they are competing for customers.

I had one very interesting comment from the audience when I hesitantly brought up trust and honesty in payment reporting. I say hesitantly because I didn't want to offend all of the honest owners I suspected were in attendance, but obviously I am naive in this area. I like to believe that most people and companies are honest. Perhaps I am wrong about that because one well dressed attendee immediately commented that "all dating affiliate programs are skimming".

So what I occasionally suspected is true? Is this really why they resist putting my tracking gifs on their pages - because then I will have bonafide proof that they are skimming? This is terrible! I knew the temptation to skim must be too great to bear - but I honestly had no idea that it was the rule, not the exception! At least if this one attendee was correct.

It just plain makes sense to treat your affiliates honestly, because (for me anyways) it's all about the conversion. If I can get I higher conversion rate from site A than site B, I'll do more A and less B - it's that simple.

Some owners mentioned that they only focus on their top affiliates, giving them high payouts and the like. This is a mistake as well. I said, what makes you think that only your top affiliates are super affiliates? I, for example have two sites that consider us "super affiliates". Yet I promote dozens of dating sites via various online portals and such. I am sure the other dating sites that I promote think we're lame ducks - but they have no idea of the traffic we are able to send to them! If you only pay your top affiliates well, you will never know how many sleeping super affiliates are lying in your database just waiting to be activated.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

A Pay per Click Success Story got so many leads through our pay per click and search engine optimization program that they had to ask us to stop!

I am not kidding. The program was so successful at start that they ad to ask us to turn it down for 2 months because they ran out of money to loan out!

How we did it:
They first came to us to help with Internet marketing to the Canadian market for their online payday loan business. After reviewing their site, we recommended they build out a lot more content based around the words we targeted. We told them that a pay per click campaign would get quick short term results and provide valuable research for a long term search engine optimization strategy. The high natural search rankings from the search engine optimization program would provide a better value over the long term.

We came up with a shortlist of keyword phrases and then queried the multiple search phrase databases we use to expand the list and come up with all of the possible variations. The databases we use contain about 300 million of the last search phrases on the Internet and are an invaluable tool for keyword research. We expanded the list to a large number of alternative phrases and then weeded out the ones that would be searched by ones that would probably not be the target market.

The Pay Per Click Campaign:
We created a pay per click campaign based on 768 keyword phrases. We wrote about 50 ads which are specific to the keyword phrases so they convert better, and made multiple versions that we could run a/b tests on them to optimize for the highest converting copy. We set this up in Google (targeted only to Canada), Yahoo (using geographically targeted phrases) and Kanoodle (targeted only to Canada).

We then instrumented the site with our 3rd party bid automation and conversion tracking software. This allows us to automatically raise and lower bids on all the phrases until we find the sweet spot between traffic and cost.

We worked with the client to determine the desired acquisition cost for loan applications so we could set the bidding rules and targets. Because competition was fierce, we also discussed lifetime customer value, so we could consider setting the acquisition cost targets higher if needed to get the customers in, considering that many would come back over and over again.

We now generate weekly reports on all of the costs and conversions so we can see the ROI for each phrase in each engine.

In our regular review sessions with the client we noticed together that the conversions from loan applications to funded loans was following some patterns on time of day and day of week. After discussing the possible reasons for this we came up with an action plan to turn up the advertising during the highest converting times, and stop it during low converting times. This would not be possible without automation software because it requires changing the bids on the 768 more than 20 times per week.

The results? Less money for higher conversions – essentially we get all of the loans for a fraction of the original cost. Competitors will wonder how we can out-bid them and still make money. It’s because we are only bidding on the highest converting terms during the highest converting times per day – and we don’t waste money on the rest.

Search Engine Optimization
First we created about 20 new pages of content on their web site based around the keyword research we did. We weighted heavily the top performing and highest traffic keywords that we found in the pay per click campaigns. The content and code was optimized, and of course we optimized the architecture and internal linking within the site.

We then instrumented the site with WebTrends 7.5 Professional (web analytics software) so we can track the conversions on the natural search vs. paid search and see what cities and provinces the traffic is coming from. In future this will allow us to work with the site design to find out where visitors are having trouble so we can improve the content and the conversion.

Finally, we set up our search marketing dashboard, so we can see the search rankings for all of the phrases in all of the search engines, monitor page rank, spider activity, and more – so we can fine tune our search engine optimization. We give nationalpaydayexpress online access to all of our tools so they can review our work, see the results, and call and ask lots of questions. (which they do!)

It’s still a little early to tell just how good the results are on the SEO campaign, because the new content has only been online for about 6 weeks. However they have gone from zero top ranks to 91 ranks in the first two pages, 47 on the first page and 12 cherished number one spots across the 17 search engines we are reporting on weekly. Rankings are going up fast, and when the directory links kick in, we should be sitting pretty.

I expect that the search engine optimization will drive more traffic than the pay per click very shortly.

We are restarting the pay per click campaign now that some of the loans are maturing.
It sure is nice to have happy customers!