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Measuring Success

Last updated Oct 17, 2003.

How well is your site doing? Does the public like it? Are they getting their tasks done with ease? How's the uptime? Where do people go? To answer these questions means creating and tracking measurements. Watching the hit list isn't going to help. A hit doesn't equal one unique visitor. If there are five images on a page, that's five hits right there—not including the hit to load the .html page.

Measuring a Web site is not just for marketing. Not only are you looking for a return on investment and marketing program successes, but also you're looking behind the scenes to see how well the site is performing in terms of the network and what the traffic flow is doing. If a popular product page takes three clicks to reach, it could be a sign to the team to reduce the number of clicks to getting to the page.

Studying the Traffic Report

The traffic report provides a snapshot of the strengths and weaknesses of the Web site. Search for patterns, spikes, and dips. Create a baseline report to set the standard. Watch for large gaps such as sudden changes in page views by day, by hour, by week, by month, by season, and by special days. When such gaps occur, research the cause and learn from it. Over time, patterns emerge and the knowledge helps the team prepare for busy timeframes. On September 11, 2001, Internet traffic went haywire for a variety of sites. No one could predict this occurrence, but it explains what cause the reporting to vary greatly from the baseline.

Many Web hosts provide a service for tracking traffic. Those utilizing this tool are small Web sites and small businesses. These metrics are fine for the small crowd, but wouldn't be powerful enough for larger Web sites. In this case, they use desktop software or server-based software.

Follow the Clickstream

Analyzing clicks provides data on top entry and top exit pages. Let's say the top exit page is larger than the second top exit page. In this case, we'd take a look at the top exit page's contents and analyze why people leave this page. It's plausible that the top entry and top exit page are one and the same. This is often the case with weblogs because people come to the site to read the latest log and then move on. A company site experiencing this scenario would most likely have a different reason especially if that page is the homepage.

Many variables come to play when studying clickthroughs and time spent on pages. Break down the details to study what people are clicking on. Are they clicking on images? Specific words? The reports alone tell the start of the story. Research and analysis based on the report explain the rest of the story.

Bad Pages: 404s

Study logs for status codes—especially the error codes such as 403s, 404s, and 500s—to see where the red lights are occurring. 403 means "forbidden," which indicates the page requires authentication. If the page doesn't require authentication, it's a signal that there could be a bug in the code. If it does require authentication, a person may have entered the wrong ID/password combination or doesn't have one.

404 is "file not found," which indicates a person try to go to a page on the site that doesn't exist. This could be the case of a typo in the URL, either by the user or the referring page (where the user came from). This information makes it easier to find broken links so they can be fixed.

500 is another common error and it means "internal server error." This means that the server received an invalid response from the server it accessed while attempting to fulfill a request. For example, a page has a feedback form, and the user pressed "Submit" only to get a 500 error. This is a problem on the server's end and could be as simple as fixing the permissions on the file the server is trying to access to process the form. Studying error codes saves time in finding and resolving problems.

Creating, monitoring, and analyzing reports provide solid metrics for understanding the successful areas and the problem areas of a Web site. Most organizations start with the Web server logs for tracking metrics. Some organizations may have tools in place for analyzing metrics, whereas others may create spreadsheets. Currently, there isn't a standard tool or product for analyzing Web site success. Effective metrics means taking the data yielded from the metrics and doing something with it instead of documenting for document's sake. Metrics speak volumes on a site's health and it needs doctoring to stay in good shape.

Process Recycling

We've covered the basic process from gathering requirements to going live. Before exiting each phase, ensure that all the necessary steps are completed for the phase. Creating a phase exit criteria checklist can provide a sanity check. If you miss something the first time, add it for use next time. The beauty of documentation and processes is the ability to adapt, add, and modify it while working through the project life cycle.

If nothing else, communicate! Lack of communication is cause of roughly 75 percent of development problems. Steer away from assumptions unless they've been documented. As much we'd like to, we can't read each other's minds like certain cultures can do in the world of Star Trek.