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Have you ever tried to find a good “how to” article or a good strategy overview written for professional website managers?

I did. And I could find plenty of good stuff aimed at the “I love thinking about the Internet” set or the “I love cutting edge web technology” set. But very little at the “I am running a website group at a real company” set.

Although techie articles and pie-in-the-sky articles have their place, when you need real answers for real problems they just don’t give you what you need. You want actionable answers not down-in-the-dirt details or information about macro trends on the Internet.

So I set out to make a website that provides actionable answers to the questions that website managers ask on the topics that matter. Topics like:

  • Project Management finding big problems, coming up with solutions and mobilizing the teams to get the problem solved
  • Content Management slicing and dicing through requests for new web pages, getting the pieces together and getting it live without hiring a legion of web producers
  • Internet Marketing getting the folks to the site, getting them on the list, and then getting them through the funnel to sales or a shopping cart
  • Web Development developing the technology that makes it all possible

And while those are pretty big topics, they are the topics you deal with every day when you run a big-ish website. And if you hang with me, I am going to spill the good stuff I learned from doing this stuff myself.

The next question you are thinking is… who is this guy?

Does Your Website Work?

It’s not easy to look at the website you work on every day and tell if it is effective. You already know the content, navigation and all the features. And it’s not like just looking at the website is going to really tell you everything anyway.

What you really need are some tools and techniques that get you in touch with what your users are experiencing. You need answers to questions like:
  • Is my website up or down for my visitors?
  • Can visitors find what they are looking for and searching for?
  • Why are visitors coming to my website?
And now that we are talking about questions, how do you know how well your landing pages are working, how your offers are working or how full your online sales funnel is?

Simple, old-fashioned log file based website analytics isn’t going to answer all these questions. You need a comprehensive data collection and analysis process that gives you complete, actionable answers to the questions that are vital to making your website is working well.

There is good news though - getting these actionable answers has never been easier. Log file analysis, custom coded surveys, and huge expensive usability labs have given way to JavaScript based analysis tagging, easily deployed online surveys and usability labs using your video camera in a cubicle. With all these newer techniques available, it makes sense to revisiting how you get answers to your “does my website work?” questions. Almost every single question has a new, better way of getting it answered.

Is my website up and available for your users? How fast do my site pages load where my visitors are?

Internal site monitoring tools are useful for figuring out if your hardware and software are available for your visitors. But they have one significant limitation. They can’t tell if your website is available outside your network, out there on the great big Internet. Fortunately there are tons of hosted solutions that can be used to simulate visitor site access from around your country and around the world then alert you if problems crop up. Considering the price of these services are as low as $25 per month there isn’t a reason to not get a monitoring solution in place today.

Is my website easy to use?

Not long ago usability testing was the domain of big software companies. These companies had tons of money for a complete dedicated usability testing suite that often costs $100,000 or more. While usability test suites are expensive, the biggest problem with old style usability testing was that the software needed to be completely functional before testing could be done. The software had to be so complete that it was hard to get the usability testing feedback back into the development process and get the software out the door on time.

Somewhere along the way common sense took over and someone discovered that there was a ton of value doing informal testing early in the development cycle. Instead of big usability suite and tons of folks in the process, think small test groups and a home video camera with testing going on in a conference room or cubicle. Instead of complete functioning software, think HTML wire frame or screen markups. Small amounts of this type of informal usability testing will yield amazing insight into the usability of your site for a really low cost.

Can users find what they are searching for?

There are tons of visitors that come to your site and use your search function straight away. So if your search function isn’t working well, then you have big, big problems. Luckily there are two great ways of getting insight into if your visitors are finding what they are searching for: Search results analysis and an after-search survey feature.

Search results analysis helps you tune your website content so that searchers can find what they are looking for. Hopefully the search function on your site records what each and every visitor searches for – if not then it needs to. Once you get a hold of this data simply spend an hour a week looking through the searches visitors conduct and what your search feature returns. This will give you invaluable insight into the effectiveness of your search feature and the content tagging and key word richness of your page content. Use this insight to tune your content and your site search will get a lot better. The real bonus part of this activity is that you will help your SEO efforts with this search results analysis as well.

An after-search survey will give you insight into if your visitors are satisfied with the results of the searches they are conducting. The best implementation of this sort of survey is to add a small form to the bottom of your search results pages with the question “Did this search give you the information you needed?” with a yes/no and submit button. Getting good feedback using this simple piece of functionality gives you great actionable insight into your visitors thoughts on your site’s search effectiveness.

Why are users coming to the site? Are users satisfied with the website?

Sometimes the easiest way to get information you need from your visitors is to simply ask them. Sure, you could get a developer to code up a survey for you and figure out a good way to distribute it, but why bother? There are tons of great, hosted survey services offerings out there that require no developer time, no additional infrastructure and little to no setup cost. And you get great reports and can brand the surveys with your website look and feel. Using a survey service to get feedback directly from your users make sense on so many levels.

Are my landing pages successful? Are my offers successful?

Effectiveness of landing pages, offers and other forms has long been a challenging thing to measure - old style web log analytics solutions work but it’s not a pretty solution. Sure, your developers could make it work but your website would end up with fugly URLs, it’s difficult to scale if you traffic a ton of campaigns and it is far from web 2.0/ajax friendly.

But using JavaScript tagging solves most of these issues. Instead of analyzing web logs created by your webservers, JavaScript tagging uses an in-page script that is run when the page is loaded on the clients browser. When this browser script is run the clients’ browser communicates to a separate server to record the access. Using JavaScript tagging enables your website to keep its nice URLs and your developers can easily create a way of recording other information, like which campaign drew the person to the landing page, when the script is run. JavaScript tagging is a much cleaner, easier, accurate way of getting form conversion data about landing pages and offers.

What is the ROI for my online campaigns? How many online visitors, prospects and customers are visiting my website? Are the leads I am forwarding to sales good leads?

Sometimes you need big tools that are expensive to make and maintain to get good answers about your website. And this is one of those cases. To get critical end-to-end metrics like online campaign ROI, the effectiveness of the leads forward to sales and the like, you need tons of data. And that data isn’t available on your website. And even if it was in your website database, your transactional website DB is not setup to do in-depth data roll ups and reporting.

Let’s face it. The only place that campaign data, online visit information, sales data, and customer data come together is in a data warehouse. Hopefully the folks that run your CRM and ERP systems are already on the road to implementing this sort of thing and you can leverage those efforts. If not, then creating a marketing data warehouse is what you need to look into. There are a couple of vendors out there who sell “pre-built” marketing data warehouse products but don’t look for a complete solution without some heavy customization.

But after going through the implementation of a marketing data warehouse before, it’s worth it. Until you can give the business the answers they need to judge the end-to-end effectiveness of online marketing, they are just shooting in the dark. Even the most basic of end-to-end information has tremendous value. Expensive but well worth the investment.

There you have it - getting good actionable answers to your website questions has never been easier. And once you get them in place there is so much value that you will wonder how you got along before hand. Why not give these ideas a try and let me know how it goes?