Fun with Web Metrics

What's going on?

Conventional Wisdom Frequently Isn’t

“Sticky is good!”

“Bounces are bad!”

“People won’t register!”

“Google is enough!”

I’ve heard each of these pronouncements as if they were carved on stone tablets referring to how we should approach our web sites, their policies, their assessment, and their design.   Over time, I’ve found that many of them don’t really fit reality:  in my own web usage, my goals and the bar I set for a “successful visit” to a site are NOT mapped by the time I spend on a site, whether I have to register for it, or whether the task at hand can be completed in one page view.  So where did these “rules” come from, and why do we still stick to them?

I think that most of the dissonance comes from the underlying differences between the commercial and non-commercial web.

All roads lead to the checkout!

With commercial web sites, you WANT people to spend time window shopping (and filling your shopping cart), you WANT multiple page hits because you want to expose your users to as much of your product line as possible, even if what you’re showing them isn’t exactly what they sought when they came to your site (your supermarket does the same thing – I’m a sucker for end-cap specials…).  You WANT registration in order to boost customer loyalty (and to collect as much user metadata as possible for marketing!).   Much of the CW silently assumes that the operational model of the web site is similar to the model of walking into a brick-and-mortar store:  keep you there, expose you to additional potential sales, encourage you to re-visit, etc.     All roads lead to the checkout line:

Non-commercial site model

Non-commercial sites are "cloudier".

In the non-commercial setting this is fundamentally hazier.   While you’d LIKE people to spend lots of time hitting all of the pages on your site, and you might really like to have them register (to collect as much user metadata for fundraising!) those conditions only represent a fraction of your total traffic that your USERS

see as worth their time.   For example, if you have weather forecast site, you might let people browse all over the planet to compare the weather all over the globe with historical information, media, etc.   But – I’m willing to bet – that MOST of your users come there to get a very QUICK check on whether they need to remember to take an umbrella when they leave the house and they VERY much like the quick access to that information.

This behavior of making shortcuts to places inside sites (even if only one layer “down”) also goes against one of our other “unspoken rules” – namely that the site HOME PAGE is the big front door that everyone goes through – so much so that we spend a LOT of time designing it separately from all those (less important!) “inner pages” that all generally get the same look-and-feel.  But – when you’re looking for something on the WWW through your favorite search engine, how often is the page you decide might have the information you seek on your digital quest an INTERNAL page versus the site’s “home” page?     Our “portal” UI design comes from wrapping a big front porch on a site that better resembles a sponge or Swiss cheese metaphorically.

But fundamentally, a successful site visit doesn’t require hitting any particular page or process.  It might not involve your home page.   A search engine result might lead a visitor to EXACTLY the right page buried deep in the site, they visit it, obtain the information they were seeking, and leave.

I’ve seen some brave site designers try to re-work their sites “inside out” with the idea that many visits start on the INSIDE of the site and are attempting to alter the UI such that you have a better sense of “how to get around” from the inside that doesn’t rely on a “top-down” hierarchy of pages.   It’s an interesting idea!

So, looking at metrics such as “bounce rate” and “time on site” – what percentage of the visits used to calculate both of those stats are actually “successes in disguise” even if their actual values defy “conventional wisdom”?     What specific parts of our sites attract one-hit or short-visit successes?   Can that content be rearranged in some way that better showcases our success (and drives usage, loyalty, etc.)?    If there’s particular content buried in the site that can be valuable to visitors, you can then promote that information (e.g., search engine ranking) and generate more traffic.   Depending on the circumstances, it might also motivate you to reconsider site navigation (or at least give you ideas for the next redesign of the site).

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September 7, 2010 - Posted by | philosophy | , ,

2 Comments »

  1. I can think of two other situations where you can get a “false positive” for a metric (say page views).

    1) I know of case where the domain name had the same initials as a company/service in another country. So they had LOTS of single-page views from a part of the globe that didn’t make sense. If you didn’t look to see where your traffic is coming from, you might not recognize that a chunk of your “wonderful success” is simply a misunderstanding.

    2) Part of the social dynamic on many comment-on-current-events sites consists of people posting links to sites basically under the heading of “you won’t BELIEVE this site” which definitely generates TRAFFIC, but is probably not the traffic that the content author intended (definitely true for many – shall we say – impassioned political sites). However, one might argue that this would fall under the rule of “all publicity is good”.

    Many thanks for the props…!

    Comment by Bob Donahue | September 13, 2010 | Reply

  2. […] put up a blog focusing on issues of Web Metrics and he’s got some interesting things to say: “Conventional Wisdom Frequently Isn’t” […]

    Pingback by Jon Alper's probably insufficiently humble opinion » Fun With Web Metrics | September 13, 2010 | Reply


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