Online traffic reports can be a statistician’s dream come true and a publisher’s nightmare. That’s because tracking uniques, repeats, clicks, and conversions is meaningless if publishers aren’t investing in the right tools and the right people to help convert those numbers into dollars, said participants speaking at an American Business Media-sponsored breakfast panel discussion Wednesday morning.

Even though most publishers say online and digital media are their biggest priorities in the coming year, a recent survey by Outsell Inc. showed that publishers with an average of 400 employees currently dedicate just 1.5 percent of their staff to search engine optimization and search engine marketing for the company, said Chuck Richards, vice president and lead analyst for Outsell. “If you’re tracking and charting, but not changing, you might as well forget it because you have better things to do with your time,” Richards said.

Shari Cleary, a digital marketing consultant with Web analytics company WebSideStory, agreed, saying she often supplies publishers with the necessary data to make optimization changes on their Web sites, but often sees few results. “A lot of times, I’ll give them this data and they say they’re going to make changes, but when I come back to them a week later, they say ムShari, we just don’t have the time or the staffing to do it,'” she said. “It’s not that they’re lacking the data. It’s that they’re lacking the resources to use the data.”

Cleary said publishers need to take several steps to ensure they’re making the most of Web-tracking information. First, they should establish what their key performance indicators are and then they should implement a plan to disseminate the data to the right person at the right time. “Think about your departments and who needs what and when,” she said, adding that a news department may need real time stats so that they can go onto a Web site and reorganize stories according to what appears to be most popular at any given moment, but a marketing department may need only weekly or monthly data.

Publishers also need to know how to read the data, Cleary and Richards said. “Measuring a click is in and of itself meaningless,” Richards said, “unless someone is willing to pay for what happens after the click.”

Likewise, Cleary said that some information can be misleading. She said analysis of a users movement on a Web site following a redesign could show that someone spending eight minutes on the site isn’t actually engaged, but lost due to the confusing redesign. On the other hand, if publishers find that a particular link on their sites is appealing to visitors, they may want to make the link more prominent in an effort to attract others to it.

John McNicholas, marketing director for McGraw-Hill’s Aviation Week, said publishers should use metrics to “look over the shoulders” of Web users. “For the first time, we can actually track what users are doing,” he said. “We used our Web analytics to redesign our Web site.”

Cleary and McNicholas suggested using SEO figures to look for partnership opportunities to other sites. McNicholas said if users are continually leaving his site to look at content on another site, he would look for ways to bring that content onto his own site.

Related: ABM Celebrates 100th Anniversary. For pictures of the anniversary click here.

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