When you think about heatmaps and virtual cities, you probably associate them more with spy games and online 'worlds', as opposed to business intelligence and Web analytics. But these days, some innovative developers are putting heatmaps and virtual cities to use to help companies analyze their Web site traffic and increase sales through e-commerce.
A growing number of hosted application providers are translating complex concepts into easy-to-understand visual representations -- ideal for those number-phobes whose eyes glaze over when confronted with pages of statistics, graphs and charts.
But do these visual applications for Web analytics offer the stats you need to succeed? Or do the charts and graphs leave out critical information that could cause you to miss the point altogether?
"Programs like VisitorVille and Crazy Egg offer eye candy that helps catch people's attention," said Bill Gassman, a principal analyst at Gartner. "There is a real demand for Web analytics at the small- to mid-sized business level where solutions offered by WebTrends and Omniture might be too complex -- and too expensive."
Meet the Mayor
VisitorVille presents Web stats as a graphical environment, in order to help Web site owners visualize and understand what their visitors are doing -- in real-time.
Similar in ways to an online environment like Second Life, VisitorVille's 3-D environment comes complete with buildings, vehicles, and, of course, people. Each building represents a Web page, each bus a search engine, and each animated pedestrian a unique visitor. And each pedestrian gets a visitor "passport" disclosing 24 vital statistics about that visitor.
"Web analytics, given the randomness and the large scale of data points, is a complex process that lends itself well to visual interpretation," said Robert Savage, the creator and "Mayor" of VisitorVille. "With VisitorVille, even a non-technical person can grasp what is happening on the most complex of sites in just a few minutes."
Visual elements are "cute," Gassman said, "but at the end of the day the substance makes the Web analytics applications valuable." Defending his virtual city concept, Mayor Savage points out that VisitorVille offers both the standard numbers and bar charts, plus the additional visual dimension. "So it's meant to appeal to both left-brain and right-brain people."
VisitorVille does offer users the ability to dive deeper into the data. Web site owners can view their live visitors through dozens of custom filters, such as "visitors by state," and there are complete visit histories for every repeat visitor. It also features sales conversion and traffic flow analysis.
VisitorVille even offers the ability to provide live, chat-based customer support on your Web site or initiate chat with any visitor in the virtual city. Since VisitorVille offers traditional analytics on top of its visual representations, Savage considers it an alternative rather than a supplement to other applications.
Of course, he admitted, VisitorVille is not for everybody. He noted that some people are averse to what they perceive to be the creative side of data interpretation. He said that some men, for example, feel more secure with "hard numbers" and "no-nonsense bar charts," and don't want to be perceived as "playing a game" at work.
"All VisitorVille does is convey mathematical data in a visual, intuitive way. I think the reason that everyone doesn't use visual analytics is that most people, if they perceive the need to understand their data at all, will probably stop at one of the major rest stops rather than taking the scenic route to VisitorVille," Savage quipped.
Gartner's Gassman said VisitorVille might have an appeal to marketing managers who aren't very technically inclined. The younger generation, he added, is more visual. They grew up with video games and flashy entertainment. "Some folks may be looking for something easier to understand," he said. That's where VisitorVille fits in, particularly for SMBs (small and mid-sized businesses) or other Web site operators interested in an easy-to-use solution for tracking traffic.
Does Heat Mapping Help?
Animated characters are just one means to an end, when it comes to visual analytics. Some companies, such as Crazy Egg and Clickdensity, take a completely different approach with visual "heatmaps" designed to give users a clear picture of where visitors are clicking.
"Crazy Egg is most certainly a supplement to traditional Web analytics applications, primarily because it doesn't do what analytics packages do, but instead provides different information that is more focused on each click on a page," said Hiten Shah, CEO of Crazy Egg. He considers Crazy Egg a "testing solution" to help people learn what's going on, make improvements, and retest at a page-by-page level.
The benefit of this free, supplementary program is clear. Most traditional Web analytics applications tell you which is the most popular page. But heat mapping will tell you in no uncertain terms, for instance, that 90 percent of the clicks are in the bottom-right corner of an advertising image, or, for example, that users with smaller screen sizes don't click as often as users with large screens.
Gassman is somewhat skeptical about heat mapping as a vital feature in the Web analytics world, but he said he is willing to explore it. "If heat maps were needed, you'd think all the big players would have it," Gassman said. "But these innovations show that there is a tremendous opportunity at the low and mid-end of the market. Google Analytics has done a great job at the low end, but there is still room."