There’s more to Web analytics than holding a clicker and counting the number of people who come to your site and watching where they go.

Web analytics is about learning everything you can about your visitors, their intentions and needs. With a deeper understanding of how they use your site, you can tweak it to guide them not only to information they are seeking, but a "call to action" — whether that’s buying a pair of shoes or contacting a real estate agent about a listing.

There’s more to Web analytics than holding a clicker and counting the number of people who come to your site and watching where they go.

Web analytics is about learning everything you can about your visitors, their intentions and needs. With a deeper understanding of how they use your site, you can tweak it to guide them not only to information they are seeking, but to your "call to action" — whether that’s buying a pair of shoes or contacting a real estate agent about a listing.

Tips for getting the most out of Web analytics from some of the most knowledgeable pros in the business were offered up at the "Down and Dirty Analytics" panel at Inman News Real Estate Connect conference this month in New York City.

Web analytics tools gather data information such as how people find your site, where they go when they get there, and how long they stay. But the numbers by themselves aren’t that useful. It’s how you slice and dice them — and how you respond to what they’re telling you — that’s crucial.

Analytics provides a "microscope" through which to view users’ changing behavioral patterns, said Anita Gandhi, director of client intelligence for Hitwise.

Like a scientist testing a hypothesis, Web site designers can use analytics to learn whether changes they make to a site are having an impact — for good or bad. It’s a never-ending cycle of observe, change and observe.

Many Web sites are capable of changing themselves on the fly based on what’s known about a visitor’s intentions and past preferences. Sophisticated Web sites build user profiles that enable them to prioritize results or serve up information without even being asked for it.

"People are lazy," said Ed Freyfogle, co-founder of Nestoria, the London-based property-search tool active in 45 European markets. "We think about how we can influence search results without the user having to actively do something."

If a visitor searching for flats in London clicks on the most expensive one, for example, the next time they search the site can deliver the most expensive results at the top, Freyfogle said.

Cyberhomes — the property listings, valuation and information site operated by Fidelity National Real Estate Solutions — relaunched in May with an adaptive home page that offers up charts and data to returning visitors, taking into account their interests on previous visits (see story).

Marty Frame, Cyberhomes’ senior vice president and general manager, said only a small percentage of the millions of visitors to real estate portals are actually in the market to buy a house anytime soon.

So while the name of the game in attracting visitors to real estate sites has traditionally been listings, that’s changing. As more non-listing information becomes available, consumers will seek it out — if the operators of real estate portals understand that demand is there, provide the information, and make it easy to find.

While analytics is often thought of as tracking what’s happening on your own site, it’s important to know what’s happening on other sites and even outside of your industry, Gandhi said, to stay on top of trends.

"If people are expecting a mortgage calculator, for example, then that’s where you place your bet," she said.

Hitwise provides statistics on your competitors’ Web site traffic using "fly on the wall" data from its partnerships with Internet service providers, or ISPs.

For example, Hitwise has documented an increased number of searches for foreclosed homes since July, Gandhi said — confirming more anecdotal media reports that speculators are entering the market in search of bargains.

Once you identify trends such as consumers looking for bargains, you can make changes to the way visitors navigate your site to help them find that information, Frame said.

After Cyberhomes changed its search bar to reorient visitors toward what the company thought they might be searching for, it wasn’t long before more people were looking at Cyberhomes’ home valuations than at listings, Frame said.

Be bold

Gahlord Dewald, director of Web strategy for Union Street Media, says it can be hard to see the results of subtle changes to your Web site.

"Make big ones, because then you’re going to see the difference, and know whether it worked faster," Dewald says.

Union Street Media creates Internet Data Exchange-integrated Web sites for agents and brokers, and also provides them with insight into their traffic patterns and site usage. Dewald studies analytics for all of the company’s roughly 200 clients, sharing the insight he’s gained on the company’s blog. IDX is an online data-sharing standard for real estate brokers.

Search-engine optimization — the process of fine-tuning a site so it shows up higher in search-engine results — is important, but once visitors arrive at a site, "those people are worth a lot more" because they are clicks away from becoming a lead that can be converted, Dewald said.

Dewald recommends using click studies in placing "calls to action," and warns against neglecting the bottom of the page.

"We talk a lot about ‘above the fold,’ and neglect ‘below the fold,’ " he said — newspaper terminology for the top half of a page, which can sell papers because it appears in the window of vending racks.

"People who make it to the bottom of the site are probably looking for reasons to stay on there," so give them something to click on when they get to the bottom of the page, Dewald says.

In addition to simply observing where users go on a site and how they use it (the collection of quantitative information), Union Street Media recommends the use of pop-up questionnaires to gather qualitative information.

Dewald said the company uses 4Q, a survey application developed by iPerceptions Inc. with analytics blogger Avinash Kaushik. The application is free for users who can limit themselves to four questions, and is installed with a single line of code.

Dewald said that while he was skeptical whether visitors would fill the questionnaires out, he was amazed to find they did, providing insight that can be used to make changes to improve Web sites.

In analyzing how long visitors are staying on a page, consider what the page is delivering. On a blog, long page-view times and low page counts are probably not a big deal, Dewald said — visitors are probably reading a long article. But on a "static" site that lacks deep content, "we like to get them on to something else."

While many people worry about their site-wide bounce rate, Dewald said it’s better to focus your attention on individual landing pages. Instead of panicking about your site-wide bounce rate, try going to your second most common landing page, and work on improving your bounce rate there, he said.

It’s also important to understand the terminology of analytics — such as the difference between "hits" and the more important statistic, "unique visitors" — and realize that bigger isn’t always better.

"We often get asked how many page views we do," Freyfogle said. "Our goal is to have people find what they want as quickly as possible, so having a large number of page views could be a bad thing."

Know not only what sites are sending you the most traffic, but which sites are sending you the best traffic, with the highest conversion rates, Hitwise’s Gandhi said.

"When you are negotiating (with partner sites for traffic), keep in mind, all traffic is not created equal — especially with regards to the source," Gandhi said.

Tools of the trade

Perhaps the best-known tool for gathering Web site metrics is Google Analytics. But competitors like Visistat and Woopra cater to real estate professionals, and claim to provide more sophisticated capabilities in a more user-friendly format (see story). Hitwise and rival comScore offer intelligence on your competitors’ Web site traffic, and help clients optimize search campaigns.

"We provide context to your own site’s analytics," Gandhi said, including where competitors are getting their traffic from. There are also some free — if limited — sources of "competitive intelligence," she said, and "You need to be benchmarking yourself against the industry."

Even some of the free analytics tools available today are "phenomenal," Nestoria’s Freyfogle said. Google Analytics, for one, "blows away the tools we used internally" five years ago when Freyfogle was analyzing Web metrics for Yahoo, he said.

Visistat and Woopra even allow users to watch what visitors are doing on their Web sites in real time.

"It’s possible to connect behaviors to who people are by their activities," Cyberhomes’ Frame said. "You can say, ‘Here is someone who’s been here before — are they doing the same thing, or monkeying around?’ "

One frequently observed behavior on real estate sites is "the 12-month buyer," Frame said. As their focus narrows, they’ll do three things: First they’ll come in and look at the high end, "dreaming, hoping and wishing," before realizing they can’t afford those homes. Next, they’ll look at the opposite end of the market, before finally coming in as "the serious user" and looking at the middle of the market. Another sign of a serious buyer: They use the mortgage calculator every time, Frame said.

The casual glance at many analytics tools can tell you where visitors come from, where they go, how long they stay, and how loyal they are — but not much about who they are or what their intentions are in coming to your site, Frame said. The trick is to use the tools at your disposal to make "meaningful inferences" about your traffic.

"Cookie while you can," Hitwise’s Gandhi said, because it may not always be as easy to do as it is today. Cookies allow you to aggregate data you collect on a particular visitor, building a more complete picture of their interests.

Frame recommended that companies requiring site registration run names through a public records site. It’s possible to learn more about the property they are in, how long they’ve been in their home, if they are facing a reset on an adjustable-rate mortgage, and what their means might be based on the neighborhood demographics.

Dewald said real estate Web site operators may have their own contextual data, such as which visitors closed and did not close a transaction, that can be compared in a spreadsheet or through other means.

Make it so

The inferences you make about your traffic can be turned into goals, and goals into action.

"Have a goal, and use analytics as a driver to that goal," Freyfogle said.

There’s nothing like having some solid numbers to back up a daring change to a Web site — or shoot down a questionable idea, panelists said.

"A lot of times when your boss goes to a conference like this, he comes back and everything is social media now. ‘We have to put all our money in social media,’ " Gandhi said. "The truth is, when you look at the traffic coming into real estate sites, search is still driving traffic … data will always be your ally in keeping people grounded in reality."

Freyfogle agreed that Web analytics can be a great tool in countering "HIPPO," the "highest-paid person’s opinion."

"At many organizations, that’s how things work," he said. "The boss says, ‘I read all Web sites should be blue.’ With analytics you can say, ‘With our site, it’s green.’ "

Frame offered an example of the kind of unexpected lessons that can be gleaned from a deeper understanding of users’ behavior. While real estate Web site traffic may decline on the weekend, engagement goes up, he said.

That’s because visitors have entered the WWW zone — wine, women and weekends — "When the kids are in bed and there’s no pressure to get up the next day, so you pour a glass of wine and cruise your favorite real estate site."

If this engaged visitor is serious, "They will want to talk to a live person" even if it is 10 p.m., Frame said. The upshot is brokers need to make sure their agents can be reached through their Web site at odd hours.

Asked how newcomers to the field of analytics could learn how to interpret data, Dewald said there are many approaches, and "that’s what Web analysts get paid to do." But there are many resources for those who want to immerse themselves in the topic. Dewald put in a plug for the work of Avinash Kaushik, author of "Web Analytics: An Hour A Day," and the Web analytics blog, Occam’s Razor.

A good way to get your feet wet is to start out by choosing one Web page and doing a detailed analysis, Dewald said.

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