Is your site effective? The right metrics can tell

Build customer-focused e-government, and they will come.

That’s the premise behind the updated Web portals springing up in most state capitals. But as government services go online, are customers really coming? In Michigan, the answer is a resounding yes.

What’s the best way to measure hits, page views, visits and other usage statistics? Some IT executives, for self-serving reasons, insist that “unique visitors” or “length of stay” are the only meaningful metrics.

In Michigan government, we go by the following definitions from the IBM SurfAid tool:

Byte: The measure of information transferred by a Web site’s servers and an indicator of the network bandwidth consumed. A byte is usually a single character.

Hit: A browser request for any one item. It can be a page, a graphical image, a redirect request, a frame or other resource. When a visitor requests a specific page, it will likely cause many server hits, and monitoring the number is critical in capacity planning. In general, the more hits per page, the longer the load time. But hits are not the best indicator of traffic volume, because any site can dramatically increase hits by adding more graphics to pages.

Page view: A single uniform resource locator as seen through a browser. For example, is one page, and is another. The number of page views indicates how much content your visitors are in fact seeing. Page views arguably are the best measure of traffic volume.

Visit: A unique session at your site. Most measurement tools recreate a series of visitor interactions by looking for common relationships among hits in the server Web log or by tracking movements with a session cookie.

First-time visitors: Determined by counting cookies that have never before been processed. First-time visitors can be counted only by logging a persistent identifier—usually a cookie.
Choose your site metrics depending on the question you’re trying to answer. Start with basic counts, and stay with them for at least a year.

I prefer page views for gauging traffic volume. Many people jump into complex content analysis before they can accurately answer simple trend questions about enterprisewide page views. If you want to make the numbers impressive, you can cite hits or even bytes transferred, but such reports will impress only uninformed managers.

Be aware that official policies may restrict the metrics you choose. Federal and many state portals, including Michigan’s, have a privacy policy forbidding persistent cookies that stay on a visitor’s hard drive.

But if you don’t place persistent cookies, you won’t be able to distinguish first-time or returning e-gov customers unless they sign on to personalize the portal for themselves.

It’s desirable that people should spend time on each page they visit and find their way to your portal from a variety of paths—the “no wrong door” approach. Before you start measuring such trends, map out the basic reporting. Then you can start watching traffic patterns to eliminate poor content and smooth out the experience.

Assuming you have a good tool set, the numbers won’t lie, and you may be surprised by how much—and what—people are viewing. Commercial sites are way out in front of government portals in this area. Most nongovernment sites live or die by their viewing statistics.

One problem Michigan had before launching a consolidated portal was that various agencies used different metrics and different tools.

Many counted only hits. Some counted page views and some, visitors. Many only counted page views by month or weekdays or weekends. Some excluded nights. Consolidating such numbers was virtually impossible from an enterprise perspective, so we estimated as best we could.

It was especially difficult when agency webmasters started with different assumptions. For example, some simply divided the number of hits by six to estimate page views—their tool didn’t measure page views. Others divided by eight. But at least we were all talking about metrics, which was an improvement over several years ago.

Before we launched the portal last July, we collected data from more than 20 agencies and hundreds of government sites to establish baseline traffic. We determined that Michigan state government overall was averaging about 100,000 page views. Our requirement was to double the average by May 2002.

We’ve already exceeded that. In early April, approached more than 489,000 page views per day—and 755,000 on tax day, April 15. About two-thirds of our agency sites still need to migrate to the portal over the coming months. Estimates for June 2002 call for average page views to exceed 500,000 per day and peak days to approach 800,000.

Skeptical readers might think that our visitors work for the state government. But the numbers prove otherwise. Based on measurements showing source subdomains, by far the most visitors came from Comcast Inc. cable customers were in second place, followed by UUNet subscribers.

Webmasters compete against each other at state and federal levels, and we watch to see where our portal stands in the latest national rankings. But real rewards come from giving citizens the content and government services they’re looking for.

If a portal is useful, people would rather go online than wait in line.

Dan Lohrmann is the senior technology executive for e-Michigan, the agency established by Gov. John Engler to reinvent the way Michigan provides online services. Lohrmann is a former network analyst for the National Security Agency.

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