Those of us old enough to remember when the interstate highway system was being built can relate to the scope, rapidity, and life-changing sweep of Web evolution over the past half-decade. The most mind-blowing statistic to me is that the original designers of the federal highways underestimated the average traffic load by an order of magnitude and completely misunderstood the usage patterns—that is, the behavior of interstate motorists. The same is true of the Web. Whatever your site’s role, you are almost certainly not fulfilling it well if you don’t have a clear grasp of its traffic.

If you have no means of performing site traffic analysis, you’re relying on supposition and guesswork to tell you what your Web site is really doing. Site analysis gives you copious details regarding the patterns of use followed by visitors to the site, telling you where they came from, which objects on your pages are grabbing their eye and inspiring them to click, which pages bore them and send them elsewhere, and many other useful items.

ClickTracks does these jobs and more—and it’s the more that makes it worth your attention. It’s lean and mean, powerful and uncomplicated, and easy to put to work, but it’s more than a gadgety turnstile. They’re quite pleased over at ClickTracks to have recently won a ClickZ 2003 Marketing Excellence Award, and they won it by putting more good stuff into a smaller and friendlier package.

Three steps
Site analysis is broken down into several clear steps:

  • To begin, ClickTracks needs the Web server log file. This can be gathered remotely or locally. It’s able to read IIS 3.0, 4.0, and 5.0, Apache, and NetScape / iPlanet. An FTP utility is built in for downloading log files.
  • A dataset is assembled. A ClickTracks dataset may be described as all the information needed to analyze a site. When log files are imported into a dataset, they are reformatted. Before analyzing this data, you can set up data ranges and visitor groups via the toolbar (Figure A).
  • You can analyze the data in summary or detail form. Summary reports give you page activity—the percentage of visitors clicking on page features, average viewing time per page, and so on—while detailed reports provide comparisons between the behaviors of different user groups, which you are free to define.

Figure A
ClickTracks toolbar

Seeing your site’s patterns
The cool thing is that you can display the page live, in ClickTracks’ built-in browser, and see usage data overlaid at each screen object. This is an incredibly clear and simple way to see what screen items are grabbing user attention.

Page Analysis reports show activity of entire pages, rather than object usage. This data can be viewed by day, week, or month, and the available data range depends on the amount of data you have in the dataset. This is where you see average page viewing time, the percentage of site viewers who visit a specific page, how long it takes users to get to a particular page once they’ve entered the site, whether users generally go to another site page or exit the site altogether from a particular page, and so on.

Site Map View gives you a before-and-after picture of traffic on either side of a given site page, or the pages most often traveled from, followed by the pages most often traveled to. You can click on these pages to make your way through the site, seeing as you go the relative frequency of user choices in navigation. This offers a clear way to understand the typical motion through the site and to see where the strong and weak pages are placed, which is great for determining the effectiveness of the site’s organization.

Another cool feature is the Search Terms report, which summarizes search keywords used, who used them, and from where. This tells you how the search engines are doing, referring your site to potential visitors out there in the ether, and which keywords are most effective.

Site Overview provides a complete summary that includes the total number of visitors, best keywords, most significant referring sites, most significant entry and exit pages, and average time spent on site.

You can track ad performance by comparing referrals to see what percentage of visitors are arriving via a banner ad. You can compare search engine performance. You can parse out first-time visitors from returning visitors.

Tagged groups and comparison
The real strength of ClickTracks as an analysis solution, however, goes beyond the crunching of these convenient numbers. From the toolbar, you can set up tagging of a particular class of site visitors for later use in analysis as a group (Figure B). This transforms ClickTracks from a sophisticated tally machine into a serious analytical resource. With the New Tag Wizard, you can tag users according to many criteria: by referral, by entry/exit point, by date, by search engine used, by IP address, and so on.

Figure B
Group comparison

This makes possible a huge range of evaluations of your site’s effectiveness. Who is sending you the most traffic? Is there any correlation of these sources to time spent? How effective are banner ads? Are there any exit behaviors demonstrated by a group? Are your special offers well-placed on your site? Is the arrangement of objects on particular pages in your site really optimal?

It’s difficult to overstate the value of information like this, not only to those who view site performance from a marketing perspective, but to the designer as well. Tracked on a regular basis (daily would not be overdoing it), a site’s designers can fine-tune the pages of a site until they perform as well as they possibly can—and there seems to be considerable educational potential in such feedback, making them better designers in general.

A few flaws
All is not perfect with ClickTracks. I had trouble with the demo tour, which did not bode well: It wants Internet Explorer, and I had Navigator set as my default browser due to an annoying and persistent DLL error in IE. I was not pleased that a product like this would resist my default browser; I’m a vigorous philosophical opponent of browser snobbery, and of Microsoft browser fascism in particular. This is ultimately a minor quibble, but enough to make me wonder where ClickTracks’ heart truly lies. (It’s important to remember that site analysis itself takes place in a built-in browser.)

There is also some confusion in the documentation, which initially is organized along the lines of the steps outlined above. After giving the First Step (in Chapter 3), we read no more of steps—we just see a parade of features. This is confusing and doesn’t match what we see on the screen. The information is all in the documentation, but it’s somewhat confusingly labeled and organized.

But it’s hard to find anything else to worry over. ClickTracks is a well-crafted package with powerful features and few potholes. And it’s a no-lose proposition, given that you can download it for a tryout. It may, and probably should, become an in-house standard for your site design and maintenance.