So, uh…what’s my hit counter say?

Web traffic analysis.Someone recently asked me if I’d install a hit counter on their web page, the old school kind, that shows a visible pageview count. Despite the anachronistic nature of the request, it demonstrated that even those with the least amount of web savvy understand that having some idea of your traffic numbers is important.

After I pointed him towards more robust traffic reporting options that don’t make your website look like you never migrated off Geocities, I spent some time thinking about how much traffic analysis has changed in the last ten years, and how it reflects on the evolving nature of web communication.

Back in 2000, a hit counter really was a reasonable reporting tool for your average home page. Google Analytics had yet to really revolutionize simple deep traffic analysis for the low rent website, and the prevailing philosophy was that getting a million hits automatically translated into huge piles of cash. This led to marketing efforts online best described as “splatter your link across a million pages regardless of quality or audience”, and hundreds of services offering to “put YOUR website in 655,000 directories for FREE!”.

In 2011, we have a much better understanding of the importance of having the right kind of traffic, and the need for more robust reporting methods. However, if you’re new to web traffic analysis, it can be difficult to know what all those numbers mean, and which ones you should be paying attention to when adjusting your marketing strategy. If you’re launching a new project online, here are some core questions you can ask yourself to help establish what kind of traffic is right for your brand, and what information in those analytics reports to focus on.

  1. Analytics Territory DetailIs your product virtual or physical? If you’re developing a virtual product such as a web service or application, news or information site, or online community, then you’re capable of capitalizing on the global reach of the internet, and the Visits/Pageviews totals will likely be your top traffic metric. However,  if you’re selling a retail product or physical service (even design and development), your regional reach may be limited, and the total number of visits is far less important than where those visits came from. The top level view of your web traffic will be less important to your business objective than the geographical detail views, which will illustrate how well your regional targeting is working.
  2. Does your brand cater to a niche, or does it have mass appeal? While office supplies may have a potential customer pool of several billion on the planet, fermented Jabanero beer likely has far less. Research both your competitors and general market demographics, and try to get a good feel for the true size of your potential audience. The regional limitations of question 1 will also factor into this. The reason it’s important to assign an actual number value to your audience is so you have a rough idea of how much of the audience you’re reaching. While 15,000 unique visits may sound like a lot,  if your audience size is three million, you’re only reaching half of one percent of your potential customers. Inversely, 1000 unique visits is five percent of your 20,000 Jabanero beer fans. The formula (x/y)100 gives you your percent of audience saturation, where x is the number of unique visits, and y is the total audience size.
  3. Does your project rely on user interaction? If a prominent function or feature of your site is user interaction, whether it be through reading content, participating in a forum, playing a game, etc., site stickiness is more important than if you’re simply offering a retail product for sale. One of the metrics used to measure that is “Average time on Page”. Go to your favorite user driven website, and use a stopwatch to measure how long you spend on a single page view, such as a forum thread or article. Do all the normal things you would on that page, such as posting comments or replies, or submitting information on a form. Repeat that process across ten different pages, and average your results. This will give you a baseline number to compare your site’s results with.

Now that you’ve identified your key data points, you will know where to focus when those reports start coming in, and hopefully have some baselines to compare them to. When you’re able to accurately interpret your traffic analysis, adjusting your marketing strategy to match the needs of your audience becomes much simpler, which is far more important than what number’s on your hit counter.

I don't miss Geocities at all.

That post-redesign glow…

The finished front page for ImTheirWebGuy.comThe one good thing about redesigning your own web site is that it keeps it fresh in your mind the challenges your clients face when they contract you to create a web presence for them. Do you have graphics? If not, what graphics do you need, and how should they be created? Do you have marketing copy? Are you a good enough copywriter to write your own, or should you seek outside help? What pages should I include? What new technologies are available? Does this really do a good job of telling my story to people who may be interested in my services?

It’s often said that the child in town with the worst haircut is the barber’s son, and so it is that often, web guys like myself leave our sites unmaintained while working on client projects, and can go years without updating our own web presence. It really pays to make time to go through the challenge fairly frequently, in order to keep yourself in the mind set of your clients.

Here are some reflections now that I’m through with this particular version of the site:

  • Typography, typography, typography. During review of the initial stages of the redesign, one thing I got dinged on was my text handling on the page. Keep your line-heights tall enough to make clear delineations; if you’re using dynamic font sizing, 150% works really well (that’s what I have all through this site). Keep your body text in a common, easily readable sans-serif font, but use a little serif here and there in your headers to add pizazz. Also, slight variations in color tone can create subconscious focus on important segments of text, so set a base font color, but create lighter, dark, darker, and even darkest classes in your CSS in order to quickly highlight the good stuff.
  • Prairie dog. Sometimes, when we’re down in the trenches for long periods of time, we miss changes in design trend, new technologies available for rich media, and shifting prevailing thoughts in best practices. Before you commit yourself to a design path, stick your head up and look around at what other designers are doing. Spend a good couple of afternoons doing nothing but reviewing OPP (other people’s portfolios), and draw inspiration from what you like.
  • Suck it up, and ask for professional review. Not everyone is going to like your design. That’s just a fact of life. However, if you can take professional criticism, you’ll be a better designer for it. As I was testing out the design concept I had in mind, I posted the first stage to /r/Design on Reddit. Those folks are brutal, but if you’re thick skinned enough to take the heat, you WILL come out with good advice, just about every time. At least half of the revisions and improvements I made to the design came from that review. If you’re not capable of taking the good criticism with the bad criticism (and knowing the difference!), you aren’t ever going to improve.

Now, I’m going to have a celebratory glass of wine or two while celebrating not having to do this for another year or so. Excelsior!

The Web Guy speaks…

Yeah, presumptuous of me, I know. However, I don’t claim to be the only web guy, and I hope to be a platform for those of you who experience the same epiphanies and complications while providing comprehensive web management services to your clients.

It’s not an easy gig we’re in.

What will I feature here? Well, currently I’m planning on technical articles, tips, funny stories, Q&A, and hopefully, some guest blogging from other “web guys”, gender indiscriminate. What actually will end up here? I guess we’ll have to wait and see.