Gerry McGovern // New Thinking

Volume is the wrong way to measure web success

August 23, 2009 -- Gerry McGovern

Are you measuring the right things? Could growth in your page views in fact be a negative trend?

"The latest online ABC figures for Ireland show that Daft.ie, the property sales and rental portal, remains the most visited website in the country, with 1,275,630 unique browsers per month," Mark Keenan writes in The Sunday Times in August 2009. These figures are up 24 percent on a similar audit done in September 2008. In the top 10 most popular Irish websites, three are for property sales (Daft, MyHome and Propertynews).

"Stamp duty--a property tax that has become a relic of Ireland's burst property bubble-fell 64 percent year-on-year," Forbes wrote in May 2009. What that means is that far fewer houses are being sold in Ireland today even though house prices have fallen by 30 percent or more.

If you were to believe basic website statistics (page views and unique visitors) you would think that Irish property is booming, when in fact the exact opposite is true. The very growth in website traffic reflects the essence of the problem. Lots and lots of people are browsing but nobody's buying.

Two years ago property websites had much less traffic but were much more profitable because people were spending less time looking at houses and were willing to pay very high prices. Now everyone is hunting for an absolute bargain.

What's this got to do with my public website or intranet, you might ask? A lot. Are you measuring the right things? Could growth in your page views in fact be a negative trend? Could more and more repeat visitors be a bad thing?

Before we can measure success we need to understand the customer's task. Lots of people were searching for "remove conditional formatting" on the Microsoft Excel website. So the team created a page explaining how to remove conditional formatting. The page got substantial negative ratings from customers. The team revised the content but the negative ratings remained high nonetheless.

The Excel team did more research to try and better understand why the page was getting negative ratings. What they found was that the most customers' actual task was to format properly in Excel. These customers had tried to format but had made a mistake. They wanted to remove the formatting and then reformat. The page that the team had created only explained how to remove formatting. The Excel team got rid of this page. Now when people searched for "remove conditional formatting" they were sent to a page that showed you how to format, remove formatting, etc. Customer satisfaction rose.

Measuring success based on volume encourages bad practice. The search engine optimization industry is often a prime culprit of such bad practice. A search expert I met once refused to remove out of date and clearly wrong and misleading pages from the site he was involved with because it would reduce search traffic volume.

For too long we have belonged to the Cult of Volume when it comes to measuring whether a website is successful or not. For an increasing number of websites, high volume traffic reflects the website's failure to help customers quickly complete the tasks they came to complete.