Web Metrics Pitfalls and Incentives

Website managers operate in a data rich environment. If it happens on your web page, & you decide you care about it, you can track it. And if you can track it, you can set goals around it & hold people responsible for meeting those goals…. The marketing team is responsible for transfers. Repeat visits are the responsibility of the engineering team. John is responsible for new account sign ups. With appropriate instrumentation & tracking (sometimes more difficult than it sounds!!), an organization can evaluate whether individuals & groups are meeting their goals. Evaluation is step one towards compensation, and when compensation is on the line, you can be damn sure people are going to be focused on making. their. numbers.  If you are a boss, YOU better be damn sure you are giving your people the right numbers to focus on.  In large organizations esp., many people end up  managing to a single number.  And throughout large organizations, even when many metrics are consulted, the drive for simplicity & collective understanding (and hopefully the organizational focus that results) will often lead people to a single number. One metric to rule them all, if you will.

One obvious way to go wrong when using this model is by picking the wrong metric(s). Again, focusing on a single number magnifies this danger.  For example… driving transfers to your site is your goal. Single-minded pursuit of THAT number can easily result in driving unqualified, unproductive traffic to your site. All while you comfortably make your goal. Oops. In this case it would be best to balance w/ length of session and/or repeat visits. Admittedly, this introduces complexity.

The more insidious way of going wrong is gaming the system. Metrics are about measurement. And measurement requires a known process. And known processes are gameable. You could change your URL structure to get previously uncounted pages counted; you could split articles into multiple pages to spike page views; you could redirect established traffic funnels.

And let’s not forget about who’s at the wheel… a bunch of type-A achieveaholics.  And that’s life, but if you give a type-A achieveaholic resources or an established traffic funnel and a number to make… suddenly massive amounts of traffic are being redirected to achieve goals. And on the collateral damage side of the equation.. the users.  They end up getting jerked around so people can make their goals & get paid (worthy goals, no doubt!).

And here’s an additional downer, if an independent party is responsible for measurement & you get caught gaming their system, it could sully your relationship w/ them & look bad publicly. Internally, the consequences are potentially worse. You’re going along thinking you are doing fine, all the while you could be undermining yourself.

So what do you do?  Most people say to go simple.  But single-minded focus on achieving a number can blind you to the complexities of what is happening on your website.  Instead, I recommend countering the drive for simplicity with some supplementary complexity.  Single numbers (or small numbers of numbers) are powerful tools for clarity & focus.  This is especially valuable in a large organization where people can easily lose sight of their goals.  But there have to be additional numbers that people watch.  Ideally these would be metrics that can provide contrary evidence to success in the face of growth in the key metric.  To repeat the example from above, if driving trials is your goal, stay focused on that number, but also keep an eye on repeat visits, & length of session.  Ultimately, you want to direct your numbers towards your users.  Of course, in a cookie based tracking system, you can’t really identify the user all that well.  But that’s why the job is fun, or at least, they need someone to do it.

Originally Posted at: http://www.menggoh.com/63/web-analytics/web-metrics-pitfalls-and-incentives/

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