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Technology: Analyze This


To announce a summer sale of its fire-polished beads, Shipwreck Beads e-mailed 76,000 customers and put ads on the Web sites of BeadStyle magazine and Bead & Button magazine, as well as on search engines. The first day of the sale, Shipwreck, an 87-employee, $18 million company in Lacey, Wash., brought in $63,000. To keep the sales momentum going, it turned to Google Analytics, a free software tool. "I can look at who is coming in from an e-mail campaign or a Web site or who is coming in from keywords and different sponsors," says Pat Simmons, Shipwreck's info tech manager and creative director. He reworked the copy on some ads and scattered the phrase "fire-polished beads" through the site to improve its ranking on search results pages. By the end of the July sale, Shipwreck's online ads were generating four times as many hits as they had in June, before the sale started. Sales for the first week—including the first day, which Simmons expected to make up the lion's share of purchases—totaled $164,845.

If you're not sure who is visiting your site and what they're doing when they get there, it's time to check out Web analytics services. There are dozens of packages available, and the Web analytics market is expected to grow to $652.5 million from $318 million by the end of 2010, according to IDC, the Framingham (Mass.) consulting firm. But only a few of the analytics packages out there are designed for small businesses, including software made by ClickTracks, Genius.com, Google, VisiStat, and WebTrends.

All the services let you track visitor movement through your site, so you can spot problems that need to be addressed. Most allow you to track how much traffic the keywords coded into your site are bringing from search engines and to compare the results of multiple pay-per-click ad campaigns. ClickTracks, Google, and WebTrends help you figure out whether visitors are buying products or completing registration forms, by calculating a metric known as conversion. And you can see which of your online marketing programs generates the biggest return on investment. Another plus: ClickTracks even aids in uncovering click fraud.

FIND AND FIX

It's important to realize, however, that analytics aren't a cure-all. If you haven't first defined the goals of your marketing effort, whether it's selling more beads or improving the quality of sales leads, you're likely to sink into data quicksand. Even a standard package can churn out hundreds of reports, says Josh Manion, CEO of Stratigent, a Web analytics consulting firm in Warrenville, Ill. "Where to focus time and energy to get a return on investment is overwhelming for small businesses," says Manion. And remember, finding a problem is only the first step. You still have to fix it. "You're not really using it if you're looking at the reports but not acting on the data," says Eric Peterson, vice-president of Web analytics vendor Visual Sciences in McLean, Va. That can be tricky, because while the tools can tell you what is happening, they can't tell you why.

Getting started is a cinch. The vendor will send you a code to paste onto your Web pages. Your choice of tools will depend on how much data you want, the size of your marketing program, and the cost. The services run from free to $189 a month.

Shipwreck's Simmons chose Google because it was free and covered the basics. Google also offers e-mail support, and there are also newsgroups where you can chat with other Google analytics users. But the paid services will provide more handholding. Wood Stone, a 50-person, $12 million Bellingham (Wash.) company that sells stone-hearth pizza ovens to restaurants, started using ClickTracks Optimizer software last January to make the company more visible online. Merrill Bevan, Wood Stone's international sales manager, and Tami Michaels, who handles sales and marketing, chose the service because it has customer support reps available. "We wanted to make sure there were real people on the phone," says Bevan. The software, including a one-year service package, cost Wood Stone $1,500.

Bevan says it was worth it. ClickTracks revealed that a high percentage of site visitors were quickly jumping off. After studying the data, Bevan and Michaels found that most of the people arriving on the site had searched on the word "food." But most jumped off in less than three seconds because they were looking for recipes or restaurants, not ovens. The source of the problem: The labels Wood Stone gave the site's files and photos for internal use often included the word "food." "We don't want the most people on our site, but rather the most qualified users," says Michaels. The company is in the midst of renaming the site's pages, but already the average visitor time has doubled, to five minutes.

Web analytics software also helps suss out click fraud. With pay-per-click programs, companies pay only when a user clicks on an ad. But nearly 14.6% of clicks are fraudulent, according to a June study by Outsell, a research firm in Burlingame, Calif. By tracking what people actually do on your site, the tools can help you spot fraud. VisiStat's service follows traffic in real time, making it easy to spot sudden spikes that could be a sign of scams. ClickTracks offers reports indicating which campaigns are receiving worthless or suspicious visits and provides supporting data so you can request a refund for those clicks.

You'll also need a paid service to get information about individual visitors to your site. Troy Klith, an owner of five-employee Urban Smalls, sends e-mails to 1,000 potential retail buyers of the $700,000 company's line of baby clothes. The company puts links to its site in those e-mails and uses SalesGenius to track when individual buyers click on the link. Klith can see when a particular rep arrives on Urban Smalls' site and what pages she spent time on. In the future, he plans to use the software to see if a baby outfit with the slogan "Chicks dig me" is more popular on the West Coast than the East Coast, or whether Southerners prefer the one printed with "Nobody puts baby in the corner." The information will also guide his decision about which buyers to target. Says Klith: "It will help us determine which way to take the business."

By Rachael King


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