February 15, 2011, 8:40 AM

Low-cost web tools can unearth a treasure trove of data

There’s a slew of free and inexpensive analytics tools, an IRWD speaker says.

Lead Photo

Shawn Purtell speaking at IRWD 2011.

Web marketers on a budget need not fear, Shawn Purtell, web analytics and optimization specialist at ROI Revolution Inc., told attendees Monday at the Internet Retailer Web Design and Usability Conference 2011. There are plenty of free and low-cost tools on the market.  Half the trick, he said, is knowing where to find them.

“Clever people have learned how to use data in clever ways,” Purtell said during his session, “Measure and Optimize Your Web Site Without Going Broke.” And it’s good to have access to many types of data, he said, because many retailers never really know what they will need until they need it.

Purtell, who was joined on the podium by Joe Schmidt, co-founder of e-retailer CanvasOnDemand.com, which was recently purchased by Café Press, shared 45 free or very inexpensive tools web retailers can use to better understand how customers are experiencing a site.

A great gratis analytics tool, according to Purtell, is also an old standby—Google Analytics. Purtell said Google has made many updates to this tool, including the ability to dig deeper into traffic sources, letting a retailer see, for instance, how much traffic comes from consumers navigating directly to a site compared with traffic from referring sites and search engines. Retailers can see their top traffic sources as well as the top search terms driving shoppers to a site. “One of the biggest problems with analytics is tracking tools,” Purtell said. “Many tools don’t tell you who is coming back from different sources and it’s not clear what was responsible for a visit.”

Two other free web analytics tools, Clicky and Yahoo Web Analytics, offer one feature Google Analytics lacks—real-time reporting. However, the free version of Clicky caps the amount of analytics data retailers can access so Purtell recommends using it for one portion of a site that needs help. Also, he says Yahoo can be a bit cumbersome to set up because a retailer has to go through a Yahoo representative to begin using the program. However, he says a big advantage to Yahoo is that it offers raw data that retailers can repurpose any way they like.

Another free tool from Google is call tracking. Retailers can place phone numbers within their AdWords pay-per-click ads and have the calls routed through Google to a retailer’s call center, with Google tracking the calls for free to see which ads perform best, Purtell said.

Two others of the many free tools the duo noted are Yahoo’s YSlow, a Firefox add-on integrated with the web browser’s Firebug web development tool, that analyzes web pages and suggests ways to improve their performance, and Smush.it, a tool within YSlow that uses optimization techniques specific to image formats to remove unnecessary bytes from image files.

Schmidt says his colleague was able to improve the load time of a page by using YSlow and Smush.it. The program found opportunities to decrease several image sizes by 25% without hurting image quality.  “You’d be surprised how much load time you can shave off when you compress both JavaScript and CSS,” he said. CSS stands for Cascading Style Sheets.

Recognizing how busy I.T. staffers often are, Schmidt says retail staffers not part of the company’s analytics team may want to download tools such as Clicky so they can get the data they want without waiting for specialists to find the information in sophisticated analytics packages like Omniture, Coremetrics and WebTrends.

“These are great supplemental tools you can run on the sly,” he said. “Sometimes it’s hard to get the data you need as fast as you want it when you want it. You can use these on the downlow so that you can get what you need.”

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