Do Web metrics really work?

Is your Web site getting “visits,” “visitors” or “unique visitors”?

Web analytics tools have been around for about 10 years, but marketers are still grappling with basic definitions and metrics used by numerous products in the market today. Because vendors use different terms and metrics and reports provided by measurement tools are open to misinterpretation, according to industry experts.

“We have a very powerful tool, but the marketing industry badly needs people who can effectively analyze the data provided by Web analytics,” says Jason Burby, co-chair of the standards committee for the Web Analytics Association (WAA).

The WAA is a global not-for-profit organization of Web analytics professionals who are dedicated to promoting education, research and standards in the industry.

Web analytic tools are programs that evaluates a log file from a Web server and based on values contained in the file, derives indicators about who, when and how a site is visited.  This data can be used to develop advertising or marketing campaigns such as sending out marketing e-mails to the visitor.

The WAA recently published definitions for 26 foundational Web analytic metrics covering the areas of visits, content and conversion, according to Burby who is also chief analytics and optimization officer for ZAAZ, a full-service interactive marketing company headquartered in Seattle, Wash.

There has been a surge in the number of marketers who want to employ Web analytics but the gap between users and their understanding of the data provided by the tools is also growing, according to Burby.

One reason is that a large number of marketers are not trained in interpreting data provided by Web analytics programs.

Another reason is that vendors do not use common language for the metrics.

For instance, the term visits, which according to WAA, refers to “a series of request from the same uniquely identified client with a set timeout,” might be called a session or visit/session by other vendors.

“Depending on the vendor the term could mean the same thing or a slightly different thing,” said Burby.

It is not uncommon, he said, to walk into a client session to hear marketers “interchanging terms such as page views, hits, visits and unique visits.”

Such a scenario, if left unchecked, could have dire consequences for a marketing campaign, according to David Dougherty, director of search marketing and analytics for interactive marketing company Trapeze Media in Toronto.

“There would be a risk of duplication or misrepresentation of numbers presented by the tool. This in turn, could lead to the launch of a campaign that is wide off the mark,” Dougherty said.

For example, he said, some marketers can mistakenly quote unique visitor numbers when referring to first time visitors.

A unique visitor is a client generating request on the web server or viewing pages within a defined time period. Unique visitors count only once within a timescale (i.e. day, week or month). First time visitors are clients how have not made any previous visits to the site.

“If a company was trying out a new Web campaign, this mistake could give the impression that it is working and attracting a lot of new visitors,” Dougherty said.

The differences in terms used by vendors also present a challenge for companies that deploy Web analytic tools from disparate platforms

Dougherty, however said, that standardizing the Web analytics industry would be an uphill battle because of the large number of players in the field.

He said a more realistic way of tackling the problem is through educating marketers and other users.

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