Pumping Up Your Online Reservations

Online car rental bookings are expected to total $7.7 billion in 2005, according to Jupiter Research. This represents hundreds of millions of visits to car rental operator Web sites by consumers seeking car rental information.

Some of the visitors end up reserving vehicles online, but most do not. To succeed, any rental company operating an e-commerce Web site needs a strong grasp of why customers buy.

The Web is unquestionably the most accountable form of mass media because of the nature of its interaction with files and computers. The quantity of data created is truly remarkable — and overwhelming. Without understanding how to use Web metrics properly, Web business owners can never achieve the full potential of their Web business investment.

We've all been taught that you cannot manage what you cannot measure. That bit of advice is especially true for e-commerce. But most online business Web sites are constructed ad hoc with absolutely no understanding of Web visitor behavior or usability issues. There's no deliberate plan to differentiate between visitors or to cultivate their trust by helping them achieve their goals.

Most importantly, many Web site operators have no real grasp of how to use the plethora of user/site data available to manage the success of their Web business. By understanding how to use this information, Web business owners can create much more meaningful online experiences for their visitors. This will ultimately lead to more reservations.

At its basic level, a Web site visit can mirror the experience of walking into a rental office. A customer, after finding your address in the phone book or through an advertisement, pushes through your front door and walks to the counter. He begins to ask questions about availability, vehicles, cost, polices, etc.

If you sat behind a two-way mirror watching and listening to every conversation, you could ascertain a vast number of statistics. For example, you could track what time of the day visitors walk in, their gender and age, what kinds of questions they ask, how they plan to use the vehicle and how they articulate their concerns about such issues as vehicles and policy, rates and pickup dates.

You'd be able to see how many turned away without reserving, and how many needed extra information to allay concerns about insurance or usage issues. At the end of the day you'd be able to create a very interesting set of numbers that showed how many people actually walked through the door, how many reserved, and why they reserved.

Imagine sitting behind the two-way mirror and seeing over 98% of the people walking through the door come in, look around, speak with a counter agent briefly and then turn and leave. What if they got in the door, looked around and left without even getting to the counter? Would you be concerned? Would you want to know what the counter clerk was saying? Would you want to take a closer look? Of course you would. That's exactly what's happening at your Web site this very moment.

The nature of a Web site experience is that text and graphic files are requested by one computer from another by clicking on a search engine link or typing in a domain name (somecarrental.com). For these files to arrive at the exact computer making the request, the request must include some identifying information such as Internet Protocol number, type of browser, operating system, etc. All of this information is logged by the Web server.

Every single interaction with your Web site and the Web visitor is stored in raw log files. Scrutinizing these files properly can shed an amazing amount of light on how people experience and react to your information.

Envision looking over someone's shoulder as he or she navigates and reads the content of your site. Imagine doing this for every visitor. Web metrics programs can decipher what's happening on your site by analyzing raw log files and other data to get a better understanding of the interactivity occurring. Below is a sample log file: - - [29/Apr/2005:04:11:59 -0700] "GET /hot_deals.html?city=140 HTTP/1.0" 200 19565 "-" "Mozilla/4.0 compatible; MSIE 6.0; Windows NT)" "-"

This is the basic unit of a Web interaction. Grouped together, this information can give Web business operators an unparalleled view into how potential and existing Web customers perceive their business.

The most common metrics to track are described below.

The term hits is often misunderstood and misused to measure the popularity of a site. The number of hits is the number of requested files a site gets. For instance, a Web site consisting of one html page and four graphics would constitute five hits every time it's downloaded. A Web page with 20 graphics would constitute 21 hits (20 graphics and one html page). Hits are not a good indication of how busy your site is.

Page Views
If a visitor clicks to your site and then visits five different pages, that visitor has produced five page views. If your site has a substantial number of pages with compelling content, the page views will be very high. A high page view number generally indicates that your content is engaging.

From an advertising point of view, a page view is the unit of value by which banner ads or text link ads are sold. A page view represents an opportunity to make a sales pitch. This is also an important metric in determining which pages are perceived positively in the process of securing a reservation.

CONTINUED:  Pumping Up Your Online Reservations
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