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October 7 th, 2014

Web Traffic Analysis - Telling the story through your traffic logs

Telling your websites' story through traffic logs

One of the regular things I do for my non-CanadianISP clients is web traffic analysis. Many people think this is a simple matter of looking at your web traffic and making the statement "Yep, more people are looking at your site: Congratulations." - It definitely is more than that!

I'll preface this by saying that I am a stats geek: Web traffic logs tell a story and it is up to a decent analyst to put all of it together to tell that story. The image attached here is the traffic stats from both the web server and the ISP search tracking application for CanadianISP.ca - I'll use this as an example of the story it tells and why relying on just one set of numbers is not only a bad thing, but doesn't tell you anywhere near the whole story.

I will also add that the image above is basically a summary of the total amount of information used in generating a detailed analysis report of web traffic. This is basically the 'pretty graph' to sum things up for the customer, whereas the full story lies in tying together many things such as popularity not only of individual pages, but the content within them, the sources of referral traffic and whether these are coming from search engines, other websites, bookmarks or emailed links.

Downtrend in searches - sadThe genesis for this article started when I failed to follow my own advice: I was generating data for another story and pulled up only the three year search log history of CanadianISP. As you can see from the above, just looking at the number of searches on the site shows a downward trend, with a modest reversal beginning in June of this year (2014). That, alone, was rather alarming. A momentary emotion of panic later, logic started kicking in:
"Hang on a second: Email interaction with users is higher than ever. Web server load is higher than ever. Customer reviews are at their normal levels. Surely, my website cannot be going down in use or popularity ?" - And then the traffic analysists' credo kicked in: It is never, ever about only one set of numbers.

So: On the surface, there are two sets of numbers on a downward trend: Searches on the site (which is the primary function of CanadianISP: Searching for and comparing ISPs for consumers to select from and switch to) and clickthroughs to ISPs. BUT:
You can see for yourself that two of the most coveted numbers of all website operators have been on the rise for the past two years (in fact, they have consistently been on the rise for the past ten years, but I didn't want a three meter graphic on the screen): Number of unique visitors to the site and number of total visits to the site. You can see that the visits to the site is higher than the unique visits to the site: This isn't just a good thing, it's a great thing.

The number one, key thing that any website operator wants, more than unique visitors is repeat visitors. This isn't true of just websites: This is equally true in bricks and mortar retail stores, whether the business is selling earings or Rolls Royces: A one-off visitor is just browsing, checking things out. A repeat visitor is (more likely to be) one interested in taking action.

But wait a minute ! How can this possibly be good, if the total number of visits and visitors is up, but searches are down ? Both the "detail views" (views to individual ISPs pages, or product detail pages, if this were a retail type of site) are up - Combined with another element of the web traffic log that isn't shown in the graph, above: 49% of the traffic to CanadianISP is from direct links from people either typing it directly in (lower likelihood, given the length and complexity of the URLs) or direct links from privately stored emails or bookmarks.

Again, this is A really Good Thing for two, primary reasons:

  1. It proves that the visitors are repeat visitors - Not just from the current month in this traffic report (which is show in the difference between unique visitors and total visits), but in people coming back from bookmarking and emailing the links from past visits (which isn't necessarily shown in the traffic logs, because bookmarks can be from weeks or months past, which isn't shown in this report).
  2. It shows that the visitors are telling other people about the site - which is, yet again, a Good Thing: Getting people to visit your site because of your advertisements is nice, but having them visit because a friend or colleague recomended it: That is the best kind of visitor: It creates a pre-existing level of trust from one user to another about your web site. This, of course, is only accomplished when you provide a good, solid and reliable product or service that people find value in. It is also something that is constantly worked on in order to keep earning it.

In a perfect world, the "clickthroughs" would also be up, especially if these were links to purchase pages - In the case of CanadianISP, however, each ISP detail page also includes their phone number and email contact links, in addition to their website, Facebook and Twitter URLs - And customers are always encouraged to contact the ISPs directly before making a purchase decision.
This is confirmed by ISPs constistently reporting higher sales numbers after listing themselves on the website, which means those conversion processes are happening via telephone and email, in addition to those via their web signup and sales process.

January 2014 numbersThere is another really important statistic to be drawn from the numbers, through it is not shown in the graph, above. If you take the numbers from January, 2014: this tells one of the other, most important stories: Visitor engagement. If you have a million visitors and a million page views, believe it or not: Your website is doing poorly. VERY poorly. It means that all you are getting is "drive-by traffic"

According to many analytics sites, your average website across the world (this includes both big corporate and popular sites like Google and CNN right down to individual blogs), the average pageviews per visit is 1.48 - In other words, the vast majority of websites out there experience the drive-by visitor: They land, they read a word or two, then they leave. You want and need visitors to make at least one click within your site in order for them to make a decision on taking action within your site - be that making a purchase, bookmarking for later view or sending your site along to a friend.

If you do the math on the numbers above, CanadianISP averages anywhere between two to four page views per visit - Definitely a good thing. When your average dips below 2, however, that is a clear message that visitors to your site do not have reason or incentive to stick around - It means you need to do some serious work on your site to increase the value to your visitors. If you do not, they simply will not purchase from you. Worse: They will purchase from your competitor who WILL take the time to make their visit worth while.

There are many other stories, bits of information and sources of site and business development guidance that can be pulled from your traffic analysis. For many people, this is a form of "magic", as it either simply does not make sense, or they can not make the corelation between all the various sources of information and the effects (or lack thereof) to their website. That is okay, given everyone specializes in what they do (which, of course, is why they are running the business they are running) - That's where they call people like me in to help them see the story their website is trying to tell them about their business and the path they need to take to achieve the success they are aiming for.

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