Better living through session analysis

Aug 01, 1999 9:30 PM  By

Each week, one-fifth of the 25,000 visitors to Ross-Simons’s Website click straight from the home page to the jewelry offerings. Another one-third immediately make their way to the tableware and bridal pages. “Knowing this, we make sure that those pages have easy-to-find links and that they’re rewarding in terms of images, special information, and values,” says Peter Howard, vice president of marketing at the Cranston, RI-based cataloger/retailer of jewelry, tableware, and gifts.

How does Ross-Simons know where its Website visitors are going? The $205.4 million marketer, which expects online sales of up to $10 million this year, uses a session analysis software application (in this case, WebSIGHT from Online Development Corp.) to provide data on the behavior of visitors to its Website.

Session analysis (also called site analysis) can tell you how many visitors come to your site from an Internet portal such as America Online or via a search engine such as Excite. It also can tell you how long visitors stay on your site and which pages they most frequently request – just the sort of data that will enable you to turn window shoppers into buyers.

The tools at work

By clicking on a Website page or link, a user is in effect asking the computer server to provide information, explains Bill Piwonka, product manager with Portland, OR-based software developer WebTrends. The Website’s server keeps track of the information – the pages and links that were requested – in what’s known as a log file. Session analysis software retrieves the information from the log file and translates it into an easy-to-read report or spreadsheet.

The costs and functionality of session analysis applications vary widely. Simpler packages that provide top-level reporting, such as thenumber of visitors after you ran a banner ad as opposed to before, are available for less than $1,000.

But sites that receive a fair amount of traffic or are more complicated (for example, if the site is electronically linked to other Websites) could benefit from session analysis tools with more sophisticated reporting capabilities, such as the ability to find out how many visitors came from each of the sites on which you had placed ads, and how many of those visitors actually made a purchase. The prices of more sophisticated packages start in the tens of thousands of dollars and can easily move into the six-figure range.

Some companies combine several session analysis applications to meet the entire range of their information needs. Portland, OR-based children’s apparel cataloger Hanna Andersson uses Professional Suites from WebTrends to obtain data such as traffic volume and the average number of page views per session. The cataloger also began working with Online Development Corp. to create a report that links traffic and sales information to determine which visitors to the site actually make a purchase, says Evan Denhart, Hanna Andersson’s international marketing manager.

No matter what sort of system a company decides on, it won’t do any good unless management responds to the information. “The worst thing is to have reports come out to managers and have them not act on it,” says Jim Roots, director of marketing with the Vernon Hills, IL-based Internet division of $4.3 billion maintenance and repair parts distributor W.W. Grainger, which uses the net.Analysis 4.0 tool from Net.Genesis. By monitoring which of its banner ads are most effective in bringing visitors to its site and getting rid of or modifying the ineffective ads, Grainger has achieved a clickthrough rate (that is, the percentage of viewers who click from the banner ad to the company’s site) that Roots claims is far above the industry average of 1%-2%.

Session analysis also encouraged Athletica Endurance, a cataloger of sports nutrition products, to drastically change its Website promotion tactics. Doug Spink, the former owner of Athletica (which is now a division of Wilsonville, OR-based Joe’s Direct), recalls that session analysis indicated that 80% of visitors who made a purchase came to the site via a search engine. In response, management pulled virtually all of its banner advertising, says Spink, who’s now a partner with investment firm Strategicus Partners: “Traffic dropped, but sales didn’t.”

Many companies review top-level session analysis reports on a daily or weekly basis. New York-based Thomas Register, which maintains an online purchasing guide to manufacturing products and services, uses weekly reviews from SiteLink, by Inforonics of Littleton, MA, to stay on top of spikes or dips in Web traffic. The systems managers can then prepare to add server capacity if needed, says associate publisher Pat Daloisio. Monthly session analysis reveals longer-term trends, says Daloisio, such as a dip in visitors from a particular portal.

As businesses take a harder look at the returns from their online investments, their need for even more sophisticated session analysis tools will grow. In the meantime, neglecting to review session analysis reports is akin to dropping a catalog mailing and then neglecting to analyze the response.

Every Website has its own objectives, and you’ll want to develop a set of performance measurements that best help you meet these goals. But some measurements do apply pretty much across the board:

Traffic

- How many visitors come to the site over a given period of time?

- How do traffic levels vary over the course of a day or a week?

- Are there any pages that seem to lose a lot of customers?

Reaching visitors

- Where are most visitors coming from?

- If you have links with other sites, how many people are using them to get to your site?

- If visitors are coming from search engines, what keywords are they typing in to reach your site?

On the site

- Which pages are most popular? Least popular?

- Are there any pages on which customers spend a great deal of time?

- How many visitors look at just one page and then leave?

Converting buyers

- What percentage of sessions on the site result in purchases?

- Which products are the most frequently requested?

- What is the average order size?