Why Traffic Matters
From the moment you launch your site, you can expect people to ask: What's your website traffic?
It's critical that you start tracking your visitors at launch so that you can gauge your site's growth. And it's important that your tracking tools give you specific information about what sections are most popular and how your visitors are using your site.
This is even more important if you plan to sell advertising on your site.
Web traffic tools have evolved from a fairly primitive state. Many can now supply detailed feedback on which pages of your site were visited, how many visits and visitors you had, how visitors got to your site, what browsers they're using and even whether they buy anything.
While some of the more sophisticated traffic applications can be pricey, many serviceable tracking programs are free. In addition, many web hosting companies are now offering services that analyze your traffic.
Swimming in Data
The goal of collecting data is to help direct decisions about how to update or improve your site.
Here's a list of the kinds of questions that tracking statistics can help answer.
- What pages are getting the most traffic? This is probably the most important question, and sometimes the answers are surprising. Keep track of highly trafficked pages over time to get some idea of the kinds of content your readers find most appealing. Also, imagine you're a new site visitor and you go directly to one of the popular pages. Will you be confused, or will you understand all the site has to offer?
- Where do people leave your site? These are usually called exit pages, and while you can't stop people from leaving, you may notice problems or patterns that you can address. This is an inexact science so you also may want to ask your readers why they're leaving. Of course, every reader eventually leaves, so don't view these numbers too negatively.
- Are you providing fresh content on the days, and at the times, that most people are visiting your site? If your traffic peak is in the afternoon, you ought to have something fresh at that time. Many site content management tools allow you to create items that go live at a time you specify so you can easily adjust your publication schedule without significantly changing your production schedule.
- Is your site being visited by all browsers and operating systems? Unless you're writing for a specific technical audience (The Linux Lover's Hockey Blog, for instance), you should expect to see a broad cross-section of browsers in your web stats. If you don't, your site may not be displaying properly in the missing browsers. Be sure to test the site on different kinds of computers, different browsers, and different browser versions. If everyone in your office has the same computer, try accessing the site from computers at the library, at a Kinko's, in your kid's school or at a neighbor's house.
- What sites are sending you the most traffic? And how can you thank them and encourage them to continue?
- What search words are people using to find your site? Search terms can be a great indicator of what's on people's minds. On the other hand, you can also get a pretty dismal vision of the human race. Many news organization websites have debated whether to share article traffic rankings with reporters and editors for fear it would skew their news judgment. Search term data doesn't give you a complete picture. You can't tell what words people are using that don't send them to your site. The data, however, can help you focus on topics that do seem to draw visitors from search engines. You can also figure out what search words should be getting you visitors but aren't.
- Are there gaps in your traffic? This can point to server outages or problems with your site's infrastructure.
- Most importantly, is your site's traffic growing? You want to see regular growth in your reader numbers. If your stats are stagnant, that's a sign that something is wrong. The biggest culprit is usually writing infrequently. You need to be providing enough content to keep the site fresh and reward repeat visitors with something new.