Clickstream Analysis: People Are Not Cows

As a consultant, I often utter statements that, if overheard by an outsider, would lead him to question my competence and my sanity. There I was, someone who was supposed to be a marketing ROI (define) expert, deep in a discussion, crooning in my confident, Einsteinian manner: “People are not cows!”

On the surface, that’s stating the obvious. Yet to those studying path analysis or clickstream analysis these days, the statement has some not-so obvious implications.

Indeed, people aren’t cows. Possessing this truth will help you to optimize your site paths.

What Is a Cow Path?

The term “cow path” is a new term in the IT lexicon. According to Jim Highsmith, “‘paving cow paths’ means automating a business process as is, without thinking too much about whether or not that process is effective or efficient.”

The practice of paving cow paths stretches into the past. Take city planning. There’s a stunning contrast between Washington D.C. and Boston. Washington was thoughtfully planned in 1791 by Pierre L’Enfant. According to the Explore DC site:

His work would be like “turning a savage wilderness into a garden of Eden,” [George Washington] wrote…. L’Enfant’s plan for Washington is universally considered America’s most notable achievement in municipal planning.

Boston, according to the chair of the Boston Conference Committee:

It’s also a walkable city, although rarely in a straight line. The roads, and sidewalks, were laid out following old cow paths, Native American trails and long-gone shorelines. Getting “lost” is part of the enjoyment of discovering the City.

Although Boston just grew along worn cow paths, Washington was designed to be more efficient and more magnificent than any European city.

How have you planned your site?

A Clickstream Is a People Path

On Web sites, the so-called cow paths are your most commonly traversed paths on the site. The similarities to cow paths end there. First and foremost, people aren’t cows. Treat them like livestock at your peril.

Discussions about using top clickstreams as a means of optimization burn on. Some talk about the technology; others try to duplicate their most popular paths on other sites and campaigns. Many questions still need to be answered.

Things would be much easier if people were cows. Wandering a field, cows have only one purpose: to chew along the path of least resistance.

People are more complex than cows. They have deeper, more profound needs and motivations. They come to information from multiple angles, experiences, and perspectives. Unless you spend the time planning and mapping what paths people take based on personas and psychographics, you’re just measuring one-dimensional cow paths. This is a persona gap; even when a company uses multiple personas, the site’s content, design, and persuasiveness don’t reflect what each persona needs. You end up with the technical equivalent of reading tea leaves or swishing around a Magic 8 Ball.

A clickstream session is a series of perceptions experienced by your visitors, as evidenced by clicks. Visitors navigate and continue clicking, or taking action, so long as they perceive they’re on a relevant “scent trail.”

You must determine people’s perception along the session path. Without this determination, the path itself has no meaningful significance.

How to Understand Clickstreams

  • Determine your different user profiles. For each, list her needs, motivations, and likely scent trails.
  • Match up likely clickstreams with your different user profiles by asking the following questions for each page:
    • Which profile is on this page?
    • What scent trail does the persona follow?
    • If the scent trail isn’t obvious, what are the next-best choices this persona may have?

Understanding visitor clickstreams produces beneficial insights into how different types of people traverse your site. You’ll uncover unintentional scenarios you may have created and the reasons people fall out of the scenarios. You’ll have a firmer grasp to optimize and plan your intentional scenarios.

So does your site plan for people or for cows?

Meet Bryan at Search Engine Strategies in Chicago, December 5-8, 2005.

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