A long, long time ago, computers didn’t exist. I wasn’t actually there, but I heard about such a distant time from a wise old man over a beer. Back then, he said, business owners often made decisions based on casual observation over time as they managed their shops. Sometimes they did some math and reporting based on limited data. Then came computers, databases, the Internet, gigabytes of trackable structured information — and powerful web analytics software. Most marketers now dismiss the old practices as an inferior and less-analytical approach in every respect.
To a substantial degree, they’re right. However, analytics software often presents only a narrow view. The data are quickly aggregated and abstracted into a particular report that someone specifying the software thought was useful. Indeed, most of them are. Analytics is great, and it is generally the right way to make informed decisions about where money should go. It’s just that many think they are done after integrating a bunch of Google Analytics (or similar software) features and tools.
Google Analytics and competing tools have certainly evolved to track many things beyond referrers and keywords. However, depending entirely on analytics software makes casual observation, even if limited in some ways, much more difficult. It compartmentalized decision-making, and might have entirely disconnected you from the “old” methodology of observation over time.
That’s probably not ideal. Why? Such observations may yield the inspiration for what one will observe as a potential trend. And trends can then be confirmed actionable and monetizable by analytics software.
Everyone should certainly use analytics software, get as much data as they can, and pump as many reports out as possible. However, it should never be done to the exclusion of casual observation. Simpler tools often work great, and can fuel the brain for new hypotheses. Below is a view of the orders screen on a typical website we’ve developed. It presents a number of items:
- the order source (Google, Bing, Yahoo!, Gmail, Hotmail, etc.)
- which SERP page or apx. result number (if it is a SERP)
- any internal search keywords used
- whether a coupon was used
- the total order size in a nutshell
All links are clickable, so one can see what the user saw. We call this “microanalytics.” These columns appear for all conversions, whether they are orders, lead generation forms, etc.
You might be surprised with what your mind conjures up in the background (or as a daemon, I joke). For example, one might notice that a keyword ranking on page 2 seems to universally convert to a sale for a particularly profitable product. One might also notice that many users coming in from an email campaign are forgetting to apply a coupon, looking for sales with internal search, or that a few people (and more than you expected) are actually using Bing. Yes, some might argue, much of this is somewhere buried in some report, but it’s not nearly as accessible.
Almost a decade ago, Steve Krug said, “Don’t make me think!” in regards to usability. Well, you’re a user, too.
Such a screen may prompt many hundreds of hypotheses over time. Some of them will be hand-waving arguments that are entirely disproved, but some of them won’t be. And you might have missed them entirely, if a report does not convey the essence of it well.
Sure, analytics capture much of the same data in some fashion — and summaries are better for many canned measures of performance — but they don’t capture everything. That’s the point. They’re metrics.
And they capture what they capture. The rest of the “noise” is lost.
For hundreds of years, business owners have asked, “Hey, where did you hear about us?” They kept a mental file and came up with ideas while in the outhouse. This is not a waste of your time, and your mind will do it in the background for free anyway. If you run a small business, especially — this can be a sensible approach. A lot may be gleaned out of passively observing the few hundred orders small businesses might get per day.
We’ve certainly come a long way from the ridiculous “Where did you …?” form question that cannibalizes goal conversion. However, it’s a good idea to watch the shop over time, rather than entirely compartmentalizing decision-making in canned reports and views. You might not know exactly what you’re looking for to start otherwise. Besides, your grandfather will be proud of you for doing some rough calculations without completely relying on those new-fangled digital computers.
Looking for example code to extract referrer information? Check here.