April 1, 2009, 12:00 AM

The key to free

(Page 2 of 3)

The free version of Wufoo allows retailers to post three forms to its site, generate three reports to analyze the information and accept up to 100 customer submissions per month. Evo started out using the free version, but now pays $24.95 a month for the service so it can post unlimited forms and tie five users to the account. That paid version also offers payment integration and more data storage.

Traffic and time machines

Retailers hesitant to tinker with adding new-to-market tools to their systems or web sites don’t have to miss out on freebies. They can tap the wealth of free information available on the web and use it to find out more about their company-and its competitors.

Justin Palmer, web site administrator for Christian apparel store C28, operated by C2:8 Inc., took a trip on the Wayback Machine available at web site Archive.org for insight when he was working on launching a new online store for the retailer.

The new store, called Canvas, allows artists to submit t-shirt designs, which are voted on by registered users. The winning shirt is then sold on the Canvas web site. The business model, Palmer says, is a Christian version of the popular online t-shirt store Threadless. The Wayback Machine tool, which lets users access old versions of web sites, allowed Palmer to take a glimpse of older versions of Threadless.

“I could look at Threadless and see how big their voting community was five years ago, or what kind of designs people were submitting early on and basically see if we were on track,” he says.

Jack Kiefer, CEO of online baby products retailer BabyAge.com Inc., also uses the Wayback Machine to size up the competition. For example, he might look at the changes an e-retailer made to its site in the year following a management shakeup. Or, if an e-retailer posts record web revenue, he might use the tool to spot web updates that contributed to the rise.

“It helps us evaluate competitors, and how their sites looked in the past, and see what new lines and initiatives they launched and when,” Kiefer says.

Kiefer also regularly visits Alexa.com, a site that offers access to data on traffic, inbound links and reach of web sites. “It’s a really good tool to quickly get a sense of how big a site is,” he says.

A similar site, Quantcast.com, offers traffic data on web sites, videos and widgets, Wilder says. It also provides free demographic data about visitors, such as gender and age group. Users have to register to retrieve information.

Google gratis

While Alexa and the Wayback Machine address specific needs, Google Inc. has in recent years provided online retailers with a wide array of tools-for free.

The search engine giant offers tools to help retailers manage and track paid search terms within their Google AdWords campaigns. It also offers Google Analytics, which helps retailers see how consumers find their web sites and what they do when they get there. Many e-retailers are finding the tools valuable.

Since implementing two free AdWords management tools, home furnishings retailer Touch of Class has increased sales from some Google paid search campaigns significantly in one month, says Gary Bell, vice president of information services for the retailer.

Earlier this year, Touch of Class added the Conversion Tracking and Website Optimizer tools. The tracking tool collects data on which paid search terms convert, when they convert and how frequently, and the optimizer uses that information to determine which ads to serve, when to serve them and what to pay based on parameters a retailer sets. Bell says the conversion optimizer can be activated for a keyword campaign once data is collected on 30 orders in 30 days.

“The tracker sends data from a customer’s checkout thank you page giving the order total value to our Google AdWords account,” Bell says. “I can then view conversions and conversion value in the campaign management and reporting tabs.”

Conversion optimizer then automatically bids based on how much the retailer says it wants to pay per conversion. “We set the maximum amount, and Google bidding algorithms test various bids at various times of day and geographic locations to maximize the conversions,” Bell says.

Touch of Class had been doing its own analysis of campaigns by manually marrying Google AdWords data on click cost to the conversion sales data from its Omniture SiteCatalyst analytics package. But with 15 AdWords campaigns-programs set up for each product category-700 Ad Groups-subcategories under the product categories-and more than 110,000 keywords to manage, the process was becoming time-consuming.

“It was difficult with the large number of ad groups and keyword phrases that we have to manage,” Bell says. “Plus, the challenge of manually deciding keyword bids for so many keywords was daunting. I had to find a better way to manage paid search.”

Half of the retailer’s campaigns were using the optimizer tool as of the end of February. Early data shows the tool is paying off, Bell says.

“Comparing the results of our paid search between the first week of February and the last shows sales up a significant 30%,” Bell says. “Each week in February tracked better than the prior week, so there’s a lot of potential to improve sales even further.”

While most of Google’s free tools are designed to support its AdWords paid search program, Palmer of C28 says they can be used apart from AdWords as well. For example, Palmer says Google tools show not only who clicks on a paid search term, but if they convert. So his staff uses them to conduct A/B testing.

“We tested two versions of our header, one that just said ‘C28’ and one that said ‘C28 Christian Stores,’” Palmer explains. “We had a 2% increase in conversions when we defined what we were. Over a year, that’s $80,000-for free.”

Lawson of Best Kiteboarding combs data from the Google Analytics tool to learn more about the customers coming to his site. “It tells you where people are coming from, their bandwidth, the screen resolution they are using,” he says. “So, for instance, if we see that most customers have high bandwidth, we know it’s probably okay to start using more Flash.”

To pay or not to pay

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