How to Comparison Shop for Analytics Software

The nerd factor and cost of using sophisticated software to boost sales on your Web site can be intimidating, especially to a small startup. But here

You don’t have to be a geek, or lay out any money at all, to use Web analytics for a fatter bottom line.

The somewhat imposing term refers to the tracking of exactly who uses your site and precisely how they do it, what products are selling (and aren’t), activity trends, types of visitors, where they come from, number of visitors per page, the page they were on when they left your site, the percentage of customers who created a shopping cart and checked out, and many other factors.

In short, Web analytics provide vital information that can guide e-merchants in improving their sites, their customers’ experiences and revenue.

“The best way for you to understand what is going on at your Web site is to get an analytics program,” says Avinash Kaushik, a Mountain View, Calif., blogger and expert on Web analytics.

Where do you start? The available choices are dizzying, but the good news is that even the smallest startup can afford many of them.

Jeff Mackey is founder and CEO of SIX15 Solutions, a Web consulting company in Oxford, Mich. “The bottom line is that the typical small business starting on the Web shouldn’t have to spend any money on Web analytics software because there are so many free options out there,” he says.

Kaushik advises that before buying an analytics package, even the biggest companies should start with a free solution. Google Analytics is a fully featured, extremely sophisticated tool, gets high marks from many analytics experts for its functionality, and is completely free. “You just sign up, create an account, add some code to the footer files on each page of your site and four hours later, you get data,” Kaushik says.

ClickTracks Appetizer is another freebie. “It’s very visual and you don’t need to be a UNIX geek to understand it,” says Andy King, CEO of Website, and author of Speed Up Your Site: Web Site Optimization (New Riders Press, 2003, $39.99).

Another simple – and free – tool to track stats is the host log file analysis software included with your hosting package. “Often that’s enough to find out what the broad trends are on your site,” King says.

Many of the free programs offer reporting on “conversion funnels” – the path a user takes through your Web site from login to the confirmation page after purchase. “You can see where users are dropping out of your funnel,” says Peter Kent, CEO of Peter Kent Consulting, in Denver, Colo., and co-author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Internet (Prentice Hall, 2002, $33). “Once you know where you’re losing your customers, you can optimize the page, perhaps by adding a lifetime guarantee or a free trial to increase conversion rate at that point.”

Kent adds that some of the newer high-end analytics packages have overlays where you can see your actual Web site and the percentage of people who click on each link. “This is a real good visual feature to have, much easier than looking at a table.”

After three to six months of using one of the free tools, you’ll be in a better position to know what you need when you buy an analytics package with more features, Kaushik says. The entry price point for a economy-class analytics packages is less than $1,000, but important add-ons can quickly push them into the $3,000 to $5,000 range, and $10,000 or more for the most detailed reporting, available from such high-end vendors as Omniture, Coremetrics and Visual Sciences.

A less costly option for small business is to pay a monthly fee for a hosted solution, such as WebSideStory’s HitBox Professional, which starts at about $30. This pricing model can be accounted for as an operating expense versus a capital expense. Long term, however, it still may be a better deal to buy a program with a higher upfront cost but no recurring fee.

All Web site visitor information is useful at some level, Mackey explains, “but the focus and purpose of your business’s Web site should play into the decision on how much you’re willing to spend. If your site generates income, then you’ll want to invest more.”

All programs, from free to pricey, track the same data. What’s done with that data accounts for the added cost. “For example,” Kaushik says, “some sophisticated programs can track flash animations – not just who saw it or how many, but how long they spent watching. High-end products provide a lot of complex reporting, an insane amount.”

So be sure you have someone who can analyze all that data before you invest thousands of dollars. “Basic stats are enough for most small businesses,” Kent says. “If you don’t have someone assigned full time to do nothing but analyze the data, then don’t bother.

“It doesn’t make a lot of sense to track the data if you’re not going to do anything with it.”

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