Providing an efficient and user-friendly experience to online shoppers translates into higher visitor-to-customer conversion rates, increased revenue, and improved customer loyalty. Just ask any of the Web merchants who were plagued during the previous holiday shopping season by intermittent outages, poor performance, incomplete transactions and content errors. As a result, their sales revenues were less than they'd hoped and they suffered irreparable damage to their customer bases and reputations.
Unfortunately, quantifying user experiences on a Web site is somewhat subjective, especially for e-commerce shops that have limited staffing resources and dwindling budgets.
With this in mind, many organisations are turning to outside services and software programs to assess their sites' ease of use and unearth potential problems so as to enhance visitors' experiences. Via its Site Analysis and Task Analysis services, IT software vendor WebCriteria offers a two-pronged approach to gauging customer experiences.
Both services use WebCriteria's proprietary agent technology, dubbed Max, which automatically traverses corporate Web sites simulating human browsing behaviour. While moving from page to page, Max collects various time and effort measures of the visit, focusing on areas such as load time and accessibility. These findings are then translated into one or more comprehensive reports, complete with observations of potential bottlenecks, points of frustration for customers, and possible remedies.
The use of agent technology is not new to the Internet: Search engines have been using aspects of it for some time. However, WebCriteria has added enough "intelligence" to Max to bring it many levels above a typical Web bot that scours pages and builds search indices, earning it a score of Very Good.
This intelligent approach, designed to replicate a Web user's online experience, also allows WebCriteria to offer a slightly different take on human-response monitoring than its competitors: Vividence for example uses a large pool of demographically selected volunteers to assess sites, whereas WebTrends and Net.Genesis focus on collecting and analysing raw log data and creating individualised user profiles. For a relatively new service, WebCriteria boasts a fairly impressive client roster, with the likes of Delta Air Lines, GTE/Verizon Communications, Honda Motor and Chase Manhattan already in the fold.
Site Analysis: The big picture
WebCriteria's Site Analysis service measures the effectiveness of your Web site by focusing on three criteria: the length of time it takes for a page to load into a browser (load time); how long it takes an average user to navigate to pages (accessibility); and the graphics, text and technology behind each page (content). Sites can be analysed from two different user perspectives: that of a home user operating with a 28.8Kbps modem and that of an office user with a T1 line. Analysing your site from these two perspectives helps ensure that it doesn't alienate low-end users.
To put results in context, report data can be compared to results measured from any number of competitor Web sites of your choosing. You can also tap into WebCriteria's benchmark database of hundreds of leading e-commerce, corporate, and entertainment Web sites for comparison purposes. For example, you could compare your online specialty-book venture against both small, direct competitors and heavyweights such as Amazon.com, Borders Group's Bordersonline and barnesandnoble.com.
Overall, we were impressed with the depth and breadth of the Site Analysis reports. Each one includes an executive overview that summarises high-level findings and comparisons as well as detailed data on every page viewed by WebCriteria's intelligent agent. The overview made it very easy to see where our test sites stood in comparison to others and where some of the trouble spots were located. We also liked the fact that raw report data can be downloaded in Excel format for further custom data analysis.
Pricing for Site Analysis reports starts at $US4500 and is based on the number of sites analysed and the frequency of reporting. All reports and updates are delivered within five working days via a secure extranet. As part of your subscription, WebCriteria can generate reports on a monthly or quarterly basis to establish trends in user experiences and track the effect of changes to the site.
Task Analysis: Click by click
Whereas Site Analysis gives a broad overview of your site's effectiveness, WebCriteria's Task Analysis service allows you to gauge a user's time and effort in performing a specific task on your Web site, such as finding a piece of information or purchasing a good or service. WebCriteria's intelligent agent mimics the steps a visitor takes to perform a task on your site and your competitors' sites. From start to finish, each step of a task is broken down into the time required to display each page view (build time) and an estimate as to how long it takes for a user to read text, understand page graphics, choose navigation and enter information (effort time).
Using our online bookstore example, task analysis could be performed on how long it would take to purchase a book on The New York Times bestseller list or sign up for an online affinity program. Those results could then be compared to the time required to perform similar tasks on competitive Web sites. Less-than-stellar results are broken down in the final report on a step-by-step basis with specific pages marked as areas of potential confusion and improvement.
Our tests revealed WebCriteria's Task Analysis service to be an effective tool at mapping out the flow of a Web site and a powerful complement to Site Analysis. Task Analysis subscriptions start at $US11,000. Subscriptions are also available to routinely monitor the same tasks on a monthly or quarterly basis.
With an estimated 20 per cent of e-commerce Web sites turning to external monitoring and management services, WebCriteria clearly has a tremendous upside. In an online era in which fickle customers are only a click away from a competitor, WebCriteria's human-response monitoring services are more than capable of making a positive difference in your site's health and efficiency.
The Bottom Line - WebCriteria, ****
Busin-ess Case: This Web site analysis service highlights problems in the makeup of a Web site and offers suggestions for improvement. Such changes can increase your e-commerce site's commercial success.
Techn-ology Case: WebCriteria's ASP (application service provider) offering provides secure access to task and site analysis reports without requiring client software.
Pros:-l In-depth reports with comparison optionsl Intelligent agent-based task analysisl Does not require client-based softwareCons-:l A bit priceyPrice-: Site Analysis reports start at $US4500; Task Analysis subscriptions start at $US11,000. Any product enquiries should be directed to the WebCriteria Web site.