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Lies, damn lies, and web statistics

Lies, damn lies, and web statistics

The under pressure soccer manager always reverts to quoting meaningless statistics after a below par performance, or an unexpected defeat.  He will regale all who will listen about number of crosses, domination of possession, shots on goal, shots on target and time spent in opposition half.  As we know the only thing that matters to fans and players is who scored the most goals.

Unfortunately in the world of web it’s worse still.  People who manage websites will do anything other than talk about statistics that actually matter.  In the absence of any clarity about what is important and what isn’t important, web managers just shoot for the highest number because that may sound the most impressive.  Alas for all concerned the biggest numbers are arguably the most meaningless.

It is absolutely crucial that when we embark on web projects that we agree commercial goals for the project.  When we need to report on web statistics, we must therefore talk in meaningful language, related to the commercial goals.

Firstly let’s debunk some common misconceptions:

Hits – every time someone loads something from your website it registers one hit.  Let’s say your home page has twenty images on it.  Every time someone visits your homepage that registers twenty–one hits (one for the page and one for each of the images).  This is almost entirely meaningless and unless you are speaking at a Unix conference for anoraks talking about server load please never refer to it again.

Page Impressions – this is more meaningful than hits but it is very important that you understand its context.  In the scenario above with the homepage with twenty images, if you visit that page, it registers one page impression.  Therefore page impressions is a slightly more accurate barometer of performance.  However it is not acceptable that your site has large page impression numbers because things are hard to find.  If you can reduce your number of page impressions because your visitors most common task is twelve clicks away, then you should move that common task onto the homepage and let the user do it with one click.

Average Length of Time on Site – this is illustrative but it is not particularly meaningful.  The web is self service and your customer should be able to quickly dart in and out of your site without distraction.  If it took your average customer seven minutes on your site to find information, is that good?  McDonald’s, which is the ultimate expression of self service want people in and out of their restaurants as quickly as possible, not as slowly as possible.  Therefore make sure that your average length of time on site is based on what you want people to do when they reach your site.  If you run a social networking site then people staying on your site a long time is good, if you run an online banking website, then people staying on your site a short time is good.  Don’t be fooled by big numbers.

Recognise that measuring website performance is not about technical statistics, nor is it about a generic overview of your customers.  It is about knowing your customers, knowing why they are on your website and serving their needs.  Your metrics should be the ones that count:

  • How much did we sell online?
  • What is our average growth per month on sales?
  • How much time did we save our admin department by making transactions electronic?
  • What percentage of our target market have come to our site?
  • What is our return on investment for search engine promotion?
  • What pages on our site are visitors getting confused on and therefore that we need to improve?
  • How many online visitors have got in touch via our site who have gone on to buy from us?

These are the statistics that count, because these are the ones which will impact the meaningful KPIs for your business.  These are the statistics that will impact your turnover, profit, customer satisfaction, repeat purchases and an enhanced reputation.

On the web your CEO will want to know who scored the most goals.  Don’t delude him with stories of the web’s equivalent of crosses won and shots on goal.  Explain to him how your website is really performing, against real world metrics, and work hard to measure it against yardsticks which really matter.

By Gareth Dunlop

Gareth formed Fathom in 2011 and has been in the business of design performance for over two decades.

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