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:
126.96.36.199 - - [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.
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.
[PAGEBREAK] Unique Visitors
The most common metric people talk about is unique visitor. A unique visitor can be described as a unique Internet Protocol number that requests at least one file through a Web browser over a specific period of time.
It's often assumed that a unique visitor is the same as a unique person visiting your site. But what you're really tracing is a computer IP address, which could have several users. Nonetheless, the unique visitor number is the closest metric that correlates to individual people.
A visitor session refers to the period of time that starts when a visitor first requests a file from your site and ends when he or she stops requesting files and leaves. If this computer logs on and views your site for 10 minutes, leaves, and then returns in two hours that computer is said to have had two sessions but represents one unique visitor for that day. If that consumer visited your site 10 times that month, he or she would still only be counted as one unique visitor.
Page Views per Session
Page views per session reflects the average number of pages viewed per session and is an indication of how compelling your content is. If most visitors don't get a sense that your site can present the kind of information they need, they will lose interest and leave your site by the first or second click.
Visitor Loyalty (Visitors Who Visit More Than Once)
It's tremendously important to understand that most visitors will visit your site many times before they decide to reserve. Knowing what percentage of visitors have visited more than once helps to judge the effectiveness of your content. They've either bookmarked the site or remembered the URL and have decided to come back. They find your site valuable enough to give it another look.
Top Entry Pages
A Web site is not linear. This means people don't always start at the homepage and work chronologically. Moreover, a Web site can be viewed like a reference book. One should be able to open it up at any point and understand what's being presented and how to go deeper into the organized information. In my company's experience only 40% of visitors come through the homepage, while 60% come in through other pages on the site. If this is also the case for your site, then your company's presentation on those top entry pages should indicate a clear navigation and make it crystal clear what distinguishes you from your competition.
Top Exit Pages
Conversely, you need to know where people leave the site — where you lose visitors' interest. In many cases your homepage will be the most popular entry and exit pages. However, there are lots of reasons to look at where the traffic is falling off and why.
Length of Visit
The length of time spent on your site is the best indication of how consumers perceive your content. Only engaging content will keep visitors on your site.
This information is critical in understanding where your visitors come from. For instance, if a disproportionate percentage of your traffic comes from Google, then your revenue depends on performing well in one search engine. You may want to consider widening your base of search engine representation so you’re less reliant on one engine. Being over-dependent on Google is a very common problem in the Web business.
Path Through Site
No other statistic is more telling than the metric that can report the most common paths through your site. You can learn the most popular click paths that visitors use to travel through your site and compare them with the intended path you'd like them to take. Say, for instance, a high percentage of your site’s traffic enters through the homepage and then visits your vehicle pages and falls off dramatically. It's safe to assume that the information you're presenting is either not relevant or persuasive enough, or that your vehicle offering is too limited.
Web Metrics Software
Most professional Web hosting companies offer some sort of statistics or metrics program. The quality and usefulness of these services, however, can differ greatly.
There are generally two kinds of programs. Log-based analyzers take raw log data and create basic usage reports. Tag-based metrics programs allow you to create special files, called "cookies," which can track individual users' interaction with your site in more robust and useful ways along with the log file data.
Log analyzers provide basic information extracted from logs, such as unique visitors, visitor accesses by hour, visitor accesses by day, top documents, documents by directory, file types (extensions like jpg or html), authorized users (if you have any password-protected areas), top referring sites, top users by IP address, top Web browsers used, top operating systems used, top referring URLs and top error messages.
Some of the more common programs out there are Webalizer, Analog and Wusage. A lot of bargain Web hosting companies will include this in their hosting package because most of these programs are free or very inexpensive. The information they provide can indeed help gain insight into user behaviors. But these programs pale in comparison to the functionality of tag-based metrics programs.
[PAGEBREAK] Tag-Based Analyzers or Web Analytic Programs
These more powerful software programs provide fantastic insights into the more complex behaviors of your visitors. The programs place a tracking cookie or tag on the visitor's computer. This enables the software to track the user as they move through your site. The software can identify whether it's their first visit or fourth, what country they originate from, how long they stay on the site, what links they click as well as the exact URL that they clicked from to get to your site.
These programs usually take the form of software that your hosting company would need to have installed within its network and offer as part of your hosting package. Another possibility is a hosted solution where the information is stored completely on the service provider's servers and you pay by the number of page impressions. This service can range anywhere from $100 to $600 a month and should be one of your major considerations when choosing a hosting company.
These types of programs present striking and useful report charts that can help you visualize what's happening on your site. They allow you to set up conversion goals. In its simplest form, this means you can track the flow of visitors from one part of your site to another. A sample funnel, as it's called, tracks how many visitors land on your homepage and make their way through to confirmed reservations.
This approach can be applied to all sorts of scenarios like tracking specific keyword results in the search engines to see how many converted into a sale. In this fashion, you can learn which keywords are actually converting for you. No more guessing.
These programs also allow you to track the financial aspect of your site by incorporating the dollar value of the reservation and analyzing where the reservations are coming from — that is, which search engines or partner or affiliate sites. You can also learn how much money each visitor is worth to you overall. Some of the more prominent brand names are URCHIN, Web Trends, Deep Metrix, Click Tracks and HBX Analytics
What You Should Know and What You Should Track
The ultimate conversion is the reservation, of course. But a customer filling in a form asking a specific rental question is also a conversion. Now a sales person has an opportunity to connect personally with the prospect.
Getting users to create rate-quote savings (a reservation that they save for another time to process) is also a conversion of sorts, since it's the last step before acquiring the sale. Of course, a phone call originating from a Web visit is also a conversion and should be tracked. (Have a unique phone number for the Web.)
Conversion is the measure of a Web site's ability to persuade visitors to take action. Conversion is both a reflection of the company's effectiveness and of its customer's satisfaction.
A conversion is simply the end result of a qualifying process. You need to understand how to present yours.
Try asking car rental operators what Web visitors are trying to accomplish on their site. Most operators will respond that visitors are there to make a reservation. Well, if that's the case, then why do most sites convert only between 0.5% and 1.5% of all visitors into reservations?
What are the rest of the visitors doing on the site? The answer is that there are other goals your visitors are trying to accomplish. These include becoming comfortable with your company brand and reputation, researching your policies and how well they suit specific needs, searching for explicit vehicle specification requirements or desired payment terms. These are the micro goals that make up the decision-making process of booking a car rental online.
In other words, visitors have a mental checklist they go over before they feel confident about reserving from your company. If your company scores high when compared to the checklist, you have a great chance at getting the reservation.
It's fine to track the end result, but you need to fully understand the micro action that a visitor takes in order to become converted. Otherwise, you'll never understand how to generate more reservations.
It's presumptuous to present nothing more than your reservation system. Good sites have deliberate paths they want visitors to take through the site. They understand that each experience will be different and that once someone is ready to "buy in," there should be a minimal number of clicks to get to the purchase. It's imperative to track the path that visitors take to get to a reservation in order to assess internal factors that weaken conversion.
Examples of What You Can Learn
Suppose your analysis shows that Yahoo provides visitors with an average of five page views per session and MSN only two. From this information you can then deduce that the visitors coming from Yahoo are much more valuable than those from MSN, and you can distribute your search engine optimization and pay-per-click budgets accordingly.
Differentiation is the process of setting up content that will qualify users as having specific interests, indicated just by the fact that they've visited the page. For instance, if you want to know what vehicles interest your Web visitors, create separate pages for each and track their traffic.
You can also create content pages whose sole purpose is to segment your visitors and find out how they intend to use the vehicle. For instance, if you create a page that presents local convention facilities and how your company makes it easy to rent a car while at the convention, you'll get an idea of how people intend to use your vehicles. You may be able to create a link partnership with the convention-related businesses.
You need to set up deliberate paths through the site, recognizing that each page needs a clear business objective. For example, your "About Us" page must give the impression that your company is well established, unique and puts a high premium on services.
If you accomplish this, then you can ask consumers to visit your testimonials pages, where you can make an even stronger case for doing business with you. On the testimonial pages, you can invite visitors to view the wide scope of vehicles available for rent and your other services. Each page has to have a clear reason for being there and a clear call to action once the page is digested.
How well visitors are guided through your site will indicate how high your drop-off rate is. You need to be able to act upon data that clarifies where visitors drop off. The why is harder to assess. It's easy enough to experiment with new copy or positioning of links or graphics, however. It's a process of trial and error, and it’s the lifeblood of succeeding on the net.
Proper metrics analysis allows for deliberate responses to obvious weaknesses in the way visitors react to your site content. Whether you learn to do this yourself or hire a professional to do it for you, such analysis can determine whether your Web site becomes a true profit center or becomes an expensive advertising failure.
Paul Allison is Internet sales and marketing manager at Car Rental Express (www.carrentalexpress.net), a British Columbia-based company that specializes in providing Web services for independent car rental operators. Car Rental Express also operates a consumer car rental site (www.carrentalexpress.com) that books reservations with independent car rental companies.