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
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 email@example.com.