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Tracey S. Roth

Dot Com Commerce

Managing Editor, CUSTOMER [email protected] Solutions

[March 21, 2001]

Islands In The Clickstream

I'm not a big fan of the concept of clickstream analysis. The idea of tracking which pages a surfer visits on a Web site, how much time he or she spends there and what the eventual outcome is bothers me for privacy reasons. Not so much if the information is used internally, but these days, such information is being sold, and that does make me squirrelly, particularly when the information is attached to the surfer's real identity (i.e., the information is not merely representing a random sampling of consumer habits) and the consumer is unaware of the collection and tracking. Even worse, there are instances of companies that take a consumer's data and associate them with certain psychographic profiles, thus "grouping" that customer with other kinds of consumers in the database. (Are you a liberal who likes organic products, never requests live help on a Web site and gets most of your purchases shipped to a work address? Or are you a conservative family-values type who shops only child-friendly Web sites, buys lots of brown socks online and prefers to have your purchases sent to your home via UPS two-day air?)

I suppose I can understand, and even commend, companies that keep track of such information (and keep it strictly to themselves) in order to truly better their customers' Web shopping experiences. Sometimes knowing a particularly poorly designed Web site is recording my clicks makes it all the more (admittedly, rather childishly) satisfying when I finally give up in disgust and head straight to a competitor's site, an event of which, in my imagination and probably in reality, the offending dot com in question is fully aware. So there, I thinkstick that in your database.

I don't often surf the Internet like an 8-year-old in a snit. But as we all know without being told, there are some hideous Web sites out there, and as (legal and ethical) clickstream analysis technologies become more prevalent, e-tailers will have a choice: redesign their sites into something that does not resemble a Cubist interpretation of a Korean VCR manual translated out of and back into Klingon a dozen times, or lose business to online companies that understand the power of saying what they mean and meaning what they say.

Most sales-oriented Web sites do attempt to establish customer identity on some level, either by ascertaining the surfer's IP address, placing cookies and matching the address to previous visits, or by having the surfer log onto the site via a user name and password. The misuse of some of these technologies is admittedly becoming rampant. Imagine if you had to register at the "customer control" desk upon entering your local shopping mall, receive a radio transmitter, wear a name tag with your demographic and psychographic details, be followed by a shadowy figure with a clipboard, and report each purchase you made (or even considered making) to the shopping analysts behind the one-way mirror. Far-fetched, you think? Noit's a pretty good comparison to some of the less-than-honest practices happening on popular Web sites. Expedia.com will not let you browse its site if your cookies are not activated. (Meaning, "if we can't track you, we won't let you use our site." I occasionally enjoy letting my aforementioned inner 8-year-old out to remind Expedia that Travelocity.com does allow you to surf without accepting cookies.)

One of two things might happen in the near future. Either the industry will manage to self-regulate itself into some more honorable "permission-based" collection (meaning surfers must opt-in to all collection practices, or at least have the ability to easily opt-out), or legislation forces it into more savory practices . Either way, I believe clickstream analysis will still be valuable, even if it's just a matter of discovering how surfers are using your Web site, what trips them up and what makes them abandon your site without completing a sale. To find this information valuable, you don't need to know that the shopper in question is a middle-aged, male Sagittarius who orders slightly bizarre ties off the Web, is politically a bit left-of-center, enjoys bowling and volunteers his time at soup kitchens. You just need to know that he had to visit your site map in order to figure out how to navigate, spent a lot of time looking at photos of your products, asked for live help when he got to the shipping options page, and finally logged off without buying anything -- heading straight to your competitor's site.

What can you infer? This shopper found your Web site design confusing, your product selection interesting, your shipping options too complex, and in the end probably bought from the competition. What are you going to do? Lament the fact that law, ethics and common sense disable you from knowing that he was a single, middle-aged bowler who prefers Newsweek over Time and has a passion for pickled green beans, or improve your site design and shipping options?

Which products did he look at the longest? Which ones did he pass over? How did he find your sitevia a banner ad, a search engine or simply by typing your Web site into his browser? Where is he, and others, most likely to abandon your site? If you can identify that 70 percent of surfers abandon your site when they get to one specific page, then you can be fairly sure you've identified your trouble spot.

The point I want to underscore is that clickstream analysis can be used for good, or it can be used for ill. Your customers will almost always know when you misuse their information, and they won't thank you for it. What they will reward you for is learning by example and improving your operation based on their input, however unconscious it was.

Eventually, they might even voluntarily tell you about themselves.

The author, who finds the notion of pickled green beans deeply revolting, may be contacted at tschelmetic@tmcnet.com.

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