Whatever way you phrase it, a website’s only useful if it works

Web analytics, or ‘e-metrics’ is a fast-growing field, based on the basic premise that functionality is vital. But why do so many companies allow unusable, broken websites to be their online face?

Despite my semantic quibbles, it seemed like an enjoyable couple of days for the people involved. And why not? They are working in a major growth area of online marketing. According to a report from E-consultancy, which also came out this month, Web analytics is the “hot new must-have accessory” for marketers. It predicts growth of 25 per cent in the UK in 2005. This still only takes the fledgling industry’s value to a grand total of &£46m, but it seems to have a bright future.

Nevertheless, it was very disappointing to be told by one conference delegate that by far the toughest part of his job was convincing the senior management of his own company to invest in website measurement. I thought we’d moved on since those days. Anyway, this delegate – a marketer working for a Scandinavian bank – showed his bosses a picture of a packed football stadium and told them: “This is how many people visit your online branch every week.” The visual aid worked a treat and he got his increased budget.

I had a good chat with the event’s organiser, Jim Sterne, whom I interviewed here in April (MW April 7). Slick but refreshingly candid, he waxed lyrical about the joys of being a consultant. And he soon set me right on something that has been bugging me for a while. I told Jim that I often come across major howlers on websites – things that create a dead-end for the user and make a mockery of the company’s purported attempts to communicate.

In my vast naivety, I am in the habit of calling up said companies and informing them of the problem. I do so first and foremost as a frustrated user. But since this often gets me nowhere, I then try donning my journalist’s hat, which is marginally more effective. Even so, I am invariably met by indifference, denial or hostility. “It’s easy to see where you’re going wrong,” said Sterne. “You’re not billing yourself as a Web analytics expert and charging them a ton of money. If you did that, you can be sure they’d take your calls and take you seriously.”

So I hereby officially launch myself as a Web analytics guru. If you think you can afford me, get in touch. Two recent examples of website craziness: a high-profile Indian bank making a push to break into the UK has an online form that refused to accept my phone number. I spent a good ten minutes trying every which way to input the number, to no avail. Does that bank have any idea of this? Does it think I will give it a second chance and risk wasting another ten minutes? The one thing that becomes ever clearer to me with the Web is that you have to get it right first time. We users are so chronically distracted by infinite options that we are ruthless with anyone who wastes our time.

Another alarming balls-up came from a US software company. It e-mailed me, asking me to upgrade a product I had purchased to the latest version. There was a fee for this, but being a sucker for latest versions I was happy to oblige. However, clicking through to the website I was stopped in my tracks by a form that insisted I fill in a US state. It did so even though it had an option for a non-US country! This is a particularly widespread howler and just reinforces the belief that Americans are hopelessly insular.

One American site that has got it right is Amazon, whose “suggestions box” I recently noticed. It encourages users to report problems or propose ways of enhancing the site. Why isn’t this standard on all websites?

At least online advertising is now waking up to usability. There seems to be a growing trend, at least on US-based websites, for a new kind of roll-over ad. Instead of clicking on it to get more information, you just place your cursor over the text and up comes a lot of further information. Move the cursor away and it disappears. An excellent innovation. Like I said, we Web users are becoming ruthless in filtering out online “noise” and distraction.

vA quick postscript to my column last month on useless couriers: Virgin Wines chief executive Rowan Gormley has e-mailed me to assure me that 96 per cent of his customers receive their goods within three days of ordering and that 99.4 per cent “have it delivered in days (sic), which is the time we guarantee delivery.” Er, I think a key number may have got lost in the delivery of that last stat, Rowan. Anyway, he does agree with my point regarding carriers using mobile phones and other technologies “to get those last few deliveries spot on. Watch this space!”

I’m watching, Rowan!

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