Leaving Tracks

We all want people to stay on our web site for long periods of time, but people do move on to other sites. So where do they go? What can we learn about people based on where they go? Most of all, what can we do to get them to come back?

Tracking users as they enter a web site has become commonplace. Most log analysis programs, such as those from WebTrends, use the referrer data to tell which page people were viewing when they linked to a site. Since most search engines have the search phrase in the referrer data, log analysis programs can report that for us, too.

One usually difficult part of tracking users is tracking where they go when they click a link in a list of resources or affiliate links. Another challenge in tracking users is when they click on links in the email newsletters you send to subscribers.

In most cases, a “redirect” page can be used to track people clicking on links that leave your site. A redirect page is one that is served by your server and includes an HTML tag that tells the browser software to immediately request a different page.

If you have a page of resources that has ten links to other sites, then each of those links would actually be to one of your ten redirect pages. When a user clicks on a particular link, your server sends them the appropriate redirect page that tells their browser to request the page on the distant site.

The simplest way to apply this technique is to use log analysis software to tabulate how many times each of your redirect pages is served. This tells how many times users clicked on those links to other sites.

A slightly more sophisticated approach is to link to a dynamic page that runs a program on the web server that updates a set of counters. This eliminates the need for a log analysis program and a lot of individual pages, but doesn’t provide any additional data.

In addition to helping count how many times links to other sites are used, redirect pages provide another benefit a clear indication of when a session ends. Log analysis programs have a hard time determining when a person leaves a site, so the length of time spent on the last page visited is only an estimate. By having a clear indication of when a user leaves the last page of content, these analysis programs can give a more accurate analysis.

It’s likely that for some sites this would change the average time significantly. This would happen if people spend very little time searching for a content page, then spend a long time reading the article. If they just leave the site after reading the article, the log analysis wouldn’t know when the user left, but tracking exactly when they leave would provide a more accurate measurement.

The really interesting questions are about who clicked on which link. For example, do customers who have just made a purchase click on different links than people who are just visiting? This type of tracking requires a database to store click-through data in a profile database.

Another way to use a click-through profile database system is with email newsletters. If you include links to articles or promotions on other sites, you probably wonder how many people clicked on those links. By including a link in the newsletter to a redirect page on your server, it’s easy to track where readers go.

From the very beginning, the key to success on the web has been summarized by the phrase “content is king.” Recently, however, it has appeared that we would soon be saying “commerce is king,” but the current Media Metrix list of top 50 sites has mostly content sites not commerce sites.

The challenge is not in deciding whether informative content attracts traffic, but in deciding how to invest in content. Whether you have a directory site whose purpose is to link to vendors in an industry, or a corporate portal that links to the web sites of subsidiaries, creating informative content and links can be expensive. The best way to know whether the investment is paying off is to track the click-throughs as people click to leave for other sites.

The web offers incredible opportunities to monitor behavior, either anonymously or tied to profile data. Having them leave tracks as they leave a site is another opportunity to learn how to help people who visit your site.

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