The care and feeding of your Web Site

By David Strom (ran in Forbes ASAP, April 1996)

Keeping a World Wide Web page going strong is a lot like running a good restaurant: you need to serve attractive entrees, timing is critical, hiring the right staff can be difficult and getting repeat customers takes time. Unlike running a restaurant, however, getting feedback on the quality and service of your Web page can be a tricky matter. "You need to live with your Web site for a while before you can see where the problems are," says Kevin Wendle, president of c|net TV, which produces technology-oriented television programs and a Web site out of its offices in San Francisco.

An old yardstick for success used to involve counting the number of hits, or times that a visitor requests a specific page or file from your Web server. But hits don't tell you much. They don't reveal who visits your site or why. They also don't indicate how much time a visitor spends examining your page. "The number of hits can't be a standalone measure of success," says Edwin Hastings, chief technology officer at Online Computer Market in Southborough, Mass.

One solution: When building your Web page, keep track of "information on both what pages a person is looking at and also what data they are requesting," says Hastings.

One of the best ways to see if your site really works is to pretend you're a customer, just poking around. How easy (or hard) is it to find what interests you? Is it visually pleasing? Would you order a product there? Would you come back? Why? "Make sure that the site is always expandable and that all of the content is easy to find and update," says Jon Stevens, Webmaster for Clear Ink, a Web site developer in Walnut Creek, Calif.

The best way of measuring the success of your Web page is through direct user feedback. It is essential to have your company's name, mailing address, and an e-mail address prominently displayed in your page, so visitors can send in comments and suggestions. "I am always surprised that a lot of sites don't have any way of sending in comments," said Robert Hamilton, manager of electronic commerce marketing for Federal Express Corp. in Memphis, Tenn., which uses its Web page to help customers track their packages.

Recently, FedEx began to actively troll for customer input and started posting a series of short, random questionnaires on-line--"the equivalent of blowing in a business response card into our Web site," Hamilton says. "Given that we get about 30,000 customers a day visiting our site, this will provide some immediate feedback. "

Although random questionnaires may give you some sense of where your page clicks and where it doesn't, some kind of general visitor accounting system is also essential, especially if you hope to solicit advertisers on your page. "For an ad-driven commercial web site such as ours, advertisers need to know how many people saw their ad and how many people clicked on it," says c|net's Wendle. Some help is on the way. A New York-based company called WebTrack is working with the Audit Bureau of Circulation to create a central clearinghouse of all sites that charge for putting ads on their Web server. WebTrack is expected to list advertising rates, as well as provide a demographic portrait of site visitors.

Other companies have gotten into the tracking business: Internet Profiles‚ I/Count (www.ipro.com) of Palo Alto, Calif. is working with Nielsen, SiteTrack from Group Cortex in Philadelphia (www.cortex.com) and NetCount, LLC (www.netcount.com) of Los Angeles are other examples of software that works in conjunction with your Web servers to count and keep track of visitors.

Aside from counting hits, most Web servers don't come with many tools to analyze usage. Instead, these servers produce what is called a "log file, " which contains things like the name of the computer user who connects to your site, pages they visited, even the time of day. But digging through this raw data with a text editor while looking for meaningful trends can be tedious.

Some software application which graphically analyze these log files may help you make sense of this mountain of information. One such package is Web Trends, from e.g. Software of Portland, Ore. Others are freely available over the Internet. The program wwwstats, for instance, analyzes your log files and provides a visitor profile. Another tracking device called browsercounter can determine which Web browser was used by each of the visitors to your site. Both require some programming skill to get working. A wide variety of other log analyzer tools are also available through the Yahoo web site.

A good way to begin getting a handle on the makeup of your Web site visitors is to start with these public domain analysis tools and customize them . Another alternative: "I download the logs from our Internet service provider and wrote some simple stuff in HyperCard so I can see how many page hits we got and when and from where -- it wasn't anything very complicated," says Tom Loser, database administrator for Hershey Foods. Loser's HyperCard programs give his management a clear picture of who is visiting Hershey's Web site and where they go.

These customized details can be tremendously beneficial: "We found, using Interse and other after-the-fact log analysis tools, that our average customer clicks on three pages to get around our site," says FedEx' s Hamilton. Hastings' engineers also put in extra tracking features, such as what data someone requests from a database.

All the log analysis won't mean anything, however, if you don't use the information to keep your Web server on target. Remember to periodically go back and remind yourself of the original purpose of your site. Web pages can be digital billboards, advertising pure and simple. Or they can be reference sources that provide potential customers with a database of corporate information. Web sites can be storefronts for ordering product. Your visitors should be able to search and locate information easily, and it should be obvious where to look for specific kinds of data. A storefront site, for example, should be set up so that customers can quickly find a product and place an order. Confuse 'em and you lose 'em.

Last December, after seven months on-line, c|net went through an extensive Web page redesign that added better navigation aids. "Before our redesign, visitors would go to the news and features pages but not much more," Wendle says. "Since then, traffic in our other sections has doubled, and overall traffic has increased 30%. We think people are spending more time on the site and looking at more pages, and part of the reason is that we have made a lot more of our content accessible."

If your site seems stuck in a rut or destined for obscurity it may be time to consider adding content that can't be duplicated in print or other media. "Producing simple textual content isn't that tough -- but that's not what our users want," says Steve Ruegnitz, vice-president at Lehman Bros. "They ask if they can voice-annotate a particular research report and automatically update our Web site."

c|net has added an interactive shopping service to create an incentive for repeat visitors. Users can enter the computer features they're interested in, and the form will query c|net's database of computer prices and produce a customized features chart and product description. "Our interactive scoreboard is going to drive the computer magazines crazy," Wendle says.

To pull this off, you may need to look for artists, designers, and illustrators rather than programmers. "I can teach an artist to write HTML in a day -- I'll never teach a programmer to design a decent page," says Loser. "Our biggest challenge is keeping it creative."