Analyze this

Five or six years ago, when the Web was still new, analytics meant nothing more than the ability to count the number of hits on a Web page and to make sure a Web site was still up and running and hadn't crashed — a frequent occurrence at the time. But as Web sites become more complex and interactive and begin to incorporate dollar transactions, analytics has taken on a wholenew purpose.

Using a site's Web logs — the index of users' comings and goings — analytics is being used not only to track how many people go to a particular site, but how they got there, where they came from and how long they stayed. The results of those analyses are used to find bottlenecks to the access of information; which users look for particular kinds of information; and how best to design links and pages to promote government services.

In short, analytics has become essential to running any government Web site.

"It's pretty hard to operate a site without [it]," said Norm Jacknis, chief information officer for Westchester County, N.Y., which has had a Web site (www.westchestergov.com) since 1998, but has only been applying analytics for about a year. "We tried to pull the Web logs together befor then and analyze them ourselves, but that's become impossible. We had 10 million hits in the past six months alone."

Westchester's Web site is particularly important to the county's government because it is the only way to reach citizens directly. Westchester has no local TV station, and the "local" paper is the New York Times.

The county uses analytics to determine which pages are most frequently visited at what times, so it can decide what information to feature most prominently, as well as provide each government agency's Webmaster with information about visitors to departmental sites.

Getting Better All the Time

"In the past, the focus was just on getting a Web site up and running," said Ronne Mendelson, the general manager for the Dallas County, Texas, portal, Dallas County Online (www.dallascounty.org). "But the trend now is [toward] having better-organized, simpler Web sites that provide a more user-friendly experience for people. And you can't do that without some way of measuring what's happening on a site, and you can't do that without analytics."

Analytics has helped Dallas County officials with such things as local redistricting plans. County officials gauged resident interest in redistricting by looking at traffic on specific Web pages, thus helping them focus their informational efforts.

In the future, she added, analytics could be used to drill even further into the Web data to show which ZIP codes visitors are coming from and, perhaps more importantly, where they aren't coming from. Such differences could be caused by variations in the number of computers in a given area. This data could help the county decide which local libraries to supply with additional Internet-access stations, for example.

Virginia used analytics to increase the online visibility of its officialsite, the Virginia Information Providers Network (www.state.va.us). Analytics showed that many site visitors got there through search engines such as Google, said Rodney Willett, the site's general manager, "so we made adjustments to accommodate that by making sure we had the appropriate metatags to allow the search engines to find us easily."

Also, if analytics showed that most traffic was coming from a particular search engine, Virginia officials would make sure the site was registered ith that engine and would notify it directly of any changes.

Keep the Customers Satisfied

At least some observers see the real promise of analytics as a basis for helping define the customer relationship management (CRM) processes needed to make e-government work.

Web analytics "maps directly to CRM," said Brett Ehrlich, director of product marketing for e-commerce solutions vendor Broadbase Software Inc., now part of Kana Inc. Analytics measures and analyzes the interactions of the government agencies with their customers, measures improvements in service and helps target information and communications, Ehrlich said.

That kind of analytics is in evidence with California's new portal (my.ca.gov) which aims to offer Californians one access point to state government information.

"We don't track what individuals are doing; rather, we use analytics to see what the trends are and adjust the portal's features based on that," said Arun Baheti, the state's director of e-government. "If a user buys a camping permit, for example, then demographically we'll know that user will also be interested in fishing licenses or a reduction in park fees. We want to use analytics to help us push that kind of information out topeople."

As the information gained from analytics is added to the government's database, it will provide more opportunities to "sell" services to the public, Baheti said. He believes this will be especially important for a coming launch of wireless-based information services, which will be sent directly to pagers, handhelds and wireless phones.

"If we only had a static Web site to base this wireless service on, we would have to completely redo every part of the site frequently," Baheti said. "But analytics allows us to have dynamic content on the site. We'll be able to launch the wireless service over just a six-week period, which we could not pull off with a static site."

However, managers of some of the most ambitious government Web projects say analytics is not enough by itself to give the kind of guidance necessary to design and run complex sites.

Pennsylvania launched the PA PowerPort portal (www.state.pa.us) to offer a one-stop site to state services, similar to California's site. It also uses analytics to look for trends and see where people are going on the site and for how long.

Scott Elliott, chairman of the PA PowerPort executive committee — which sets policies and strategies for the portal — said analytics showed when people were visiting sites.

"That tells us, for example, that people can still register their company with the state even when our government offices are closed," Elliott said. "And that gives us insight and shows us the value of e-government itself, since we can show that people are using the site to do business with the government when we are not otherwise open."

But the state also uses such "direct" methods as focus groups and online surveys to get feedback that Web analytics does not provide. Those kinds of things are valuable, Elliott said, because they give an "honest, gut response" by people about their experience using the portal.

The portal committee looks at the analytics data every month, but at the most recent meetings, members have focused on feedback from focus groups, Elliott said. "The analytics allows us to go to the Web to see if what those people told us [in the focus groups] was valid. Our feeling is that you have to do all of these things at the same time to get a true picture ofhow people are using the site."

We've Only Just Begun

Still, government agencies are just beginning to figure out how to put Web analytics to work. Although the technology, a spinoff from decade-old data-mining techniques, is relatively mature, its use in government is not, and the combination of analytics with CRM is a new thing.

On the one hand, pointed out Jon Gearhart, PeopleSoft Inc.'s industry director for the public sector, governments are fairly rigid organizations in which rules and regulations are institutionalized. But, with CRM andanalytics, they "now have the ability to experiment with ways to make processes more efficient," he said.

What excites people is that, despite the maturity of the technology, the analytics industry itself is still in its infancy, said Linnea Alvord, product manager for visitor relationship systems at NetIQ, which produces the WebTrends suite of analytics tools.

"People are just now beginning to understand that the Web really isa channel [for sales and services]," she said, "and they are looking at ways of integrating analytics with other things such as CRM. Web analytics is no longer looked on as an afterthought, to be added after everything else is in place, but as an essential element of the whole."

And, if they don't already, that's a view that government Web site managers will also have to adopt. Increasingly, the success of elected officials and their departments will depend on the success of e-government and the Web sites that go along with it. But, as Dallas County's Mendelson said, how do you know if you've got a successful Web site if you don't have some way of measuring it?

Robinson is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore. He can be reachedat hullite@mindspring.com.

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