Column: Don't Fly Blind (The Importance of Web Analytics)

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I talked recently before a group of direct marketers in New York. To get a sense of the audience's skill level in search, I asked how many of the group were running search campaigns. About three-quarters of the audience raised their hands, which was good news for me, because it meant I could skip over search engine marketing basics and skip to the subject matter I really wanted to cover, which was the new behavioral and demographic tools being offered by search engines.

About ten minutes into my talk, I asked the audience how many of them were running any kind of Web analytics package on their sites. Only two hands went up this time.

I finished and didn't dwell on the fact that I think it's reckless that so many direct marketers are running search campaigns without having some kind of Web analytics package running on their sites. But I really think that doing so makes about as much sense as flying at night with duct tape covering the instrument panel of your Piper Cub.

I suppose it's understandable why some marketers scrimp on Web analytics. After all, Google, Yahoo, and MSN do provide plenty of data on clicks and conversions in their respective ad management consoles. But there's a lot of important data that the engines can't capture, and the burden is on the marketer to collect this data and understand it. Unless you have a baseline understanding of how your customers are using your site, where they come from, and where they go, you have nothing to test against in terms of optimizing all the important post-click campaign variables, including offer testing, landing page testing and page presentation. Furthermore, and perhaps most seriously, without a clear customer profile that tells you what your best converting, most profitable customers look like, you won't be able to take full advantage of the new generation of segmentation technologies offered by Google, MSN and (soon) Yahoo.

Of course, many small direct marketers are on tight budgets, and while it's true that full-featured Web analytics packages aren't free, there are a variety of free or low-cost solutions that can provide valuable, campaign-critical insight. Here are some choices for you to consider:

Free Analytics Tools

Last year, Google acquired Urchin, a popular analytics package, and has since folded it into its suite of free tools and re-branded it as "Google Analytics." While it isn't perfect, Google Analytics is a highly intuitive program that's easy to use and easy to understand. GA does have its shortcomings, notably the inability to look at traffic in real time, the lack of granular day-parting, demographic, or geo-targeting tracking, but it's a useful tool that can deliver insight, and, of course, its price is right. If you're interested in running Google Analytics, you must send Google an e-mail requesting inclusion. A few months ago, you had to wait many weeks to be accepted, but Google is processing requests more quickly now. See http://www.google.com/analytics/sign_up.html for more information.

Other free packages include Sitemeter and StatCounter, which provide free, ad-supported analytics packages that work in real time and provide insight into the keywords used to access your site, the most popular pages on your site, entry/exit pages, time spent on pages, user location, and user path. The free versions of these services typically require the site to display a small graphic icon somewhere on each page but this icon can be suppressed by opting for the paid version of these services, which only costs a few dollars a month.

What If I Need More?

There are many Web analytics vendors out there offering more detailed reporting than is provided by free or ultra-low cost Web analytics packages. Such vendors include WebSideStory (formerly HitBox), Unica NetTracker, ClickTracks, Omniture, and many others. These packages typically are sold in a number of different versions whose prices rise as the number features increase. It's impossible to say which one is right for your business (there's no point paying for industrial strength features you're not going to use), but many of these vendors offer a "try before you buy" approach with either a 15-day or 30-day evaluation program. Take one or more of them for a spin and see which one best meets your business needs.

What if I Really Need More?

While smaller marketers can benefit significantly from running Web analytics, those whose search campaigns have grown to a level of complexity that is beginning to tax in-house resources should consider outsourcing this process to an SEM agency. An agency will assume all responsibilities associated with the process of Search Marketing, perform extensive analytics at every stage of the search campaign process, from keyword discovery through post-click behavior analysis, and provide a fully customized approach based on the needs of each of its clients. While the subject of how to choose a SEM agency is beyond the scope of this article, suffice it to say that the best agencies can easily refer you to clients who can testify as to their campaign management expertise, and you should inquire about each SEM's track record and reputation in the industry before engaging them.

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