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DO NUMBERS HELP?

Written By: Bob McElwain

Demographics about the Web abound. You may find such data
helpful. In general, when I look at the research available, I
get a feeling it’s incomplete. The Web is so vast, I don’t think
it’s possible to find a small representative sample from which
significant results can be obtained that reflect the whole. In
the end, what is reported with numbers may not matter to you,
even though the source is impeccable.

Numbers Don’t Always Work

For example, it has been reported that 330 million people are
“on the Web.” I have not read closely enough to know if this
means daily, occasionally, or somewhere in between. To me it
doesn’t matter.

Even if this number were doubled, it would still mean nothing
to me. I am interested in reaching an extremely small fraction
of web users. The implication I’ve been seeing in spam messages
of late is that I can reach all 330 million people. This is a
lie. But there would be no gain in trying to do so in any case.

Honest Numbers Can Be Wrong

I recently read a report that of nearly 100,000 spam messages
received by one firm, about a third were promoting po-rn sites.
(I used a hyphen in hopes of ducking blocking software.) What
does this mean?

Numbers are funny. I never doubt such reports from
respectable firms or people. But I am always skeptical about the
numbers themselves. Sure, those were the results obtained. I
will accept this without hesitation. But they often do not seem
in accord with my experience.

I get lots and lots of spam. Less than 3% is po-rn related.
Do I thus conclude the report was wrong? That they were lying
for some devious purpose?

Not at all. It only means their sample of email received
was not representative of what I receive. In like fashion, it
is doubtful my email is typical of yours.

100,000 spams messages is a very small percentage of what is
mailed each day. It is so small, results from this sample have
very little, if any significance. These results were obtained,
that’s true. But they may have no meaning relative to you.

Leave the particulars of demographics to those keen on the
topic. Your best plan is to ignore such numbers and focus on
interactivity with readers and visitors. In every way you can,
seek input, then derive your own demographics from it.

Your Log Files Can Mislead

Recently I was chatting with a fellow who was having trouble
getting a page to load under a specific condition in Netscape.
Since he uses Internet Explorer, which handled this case
correctly, he hadn’t noticed the problem until I pointed it out.

When I did, he commented, “Hey, I don’t need to worry. Only
5% of my visitors are using Netscape.” This fellow is wrong in
two ways.

Of visitors to my site, over 40% are using Netscape. So have
I got it wrong? Or is the fellow reporting 5% wrong? Neither of
us is. We are both reporting accurately.

Why Are There Such Great Differences?

The apparent dilemma stems from the fact that we all have our
own set of visitors. Each comes to us from a vast pool of many
millions of Web users. Those who show up on my site may never
even hear about yours, let alone visit.

Thus my visitors are not representative of yours, except as
to the fundamentals. For example, all site visitors ask first,
“What’s in it for me?” Such basics relate to every site. The
specifics do not.

Even if a massive, well respected study reported only 1% of
surfers use 640 x 480 monitors, it still might not apply to your
site. For as suggested above, the pool is so vast, hoping to
draw a truly random sample from it is impossible.

Further, things change rapidly on the Web. Not long ago,
Netscape was the browser leader. As Microsoft continued to
demand Internet Explorer be installed on all new systems
delivered, the dominance of Netscape began to fade. Even after
being acquired by AOL, market share continued to drop.

Can you assume it will continue to do so? That would leave
us with only one major browser. A Microsoft product. A company
already at odds with the Justice department in anti-trust
actions. It may prove to be in their best interest to assure
that Netscape regains a significant share of the market.

What seems so today is suspect, for it may not be so
tomorrow. Rather than making assumptions which may prove false
tomorrow, the better plan is to accommodate all possible options
today, and be prepared to make changes tomorrow.

The Mistake That Matters Most

But the second mistake made by the fellow mentioned above
is in ignoring Netscape users however small their numbers be.
Suppose only 5% of my visitors use Netscape. To toss away this
many potential customers is foolish at least. I take the time
to make it work for them.

Hasten Slowly

JavaScript has been available for some time. Is it wise to
use it if N% of systems can not deal with it? The better plan
is to offer an alternate way to access your site for those who
can not.

Plug ins are popular of late. Will users take the time to
download and install one so as to see your site in all its glory?
I doubt it. What’s best is to offer the option to do so, but be
sure your site functions effectively without it.

One of my systems uses a Pentium II with awesome supporting
resources. However, it doesn’t have a sound card. A site that
requires I have one, will hold my attention only so long as it
takes to hit the Back button or enter another URL.

Killer Assumptions

If we make assumptions about the power and tools our visitors
have readily available, to the extent we are wrong, we are
driving them off our sites.

When you consider how hard it is to draw a new visitor,
driving even one away seems a pretty silly thing to do.

About the Author

Bob McElwain
Want to build a winning site? Improve one you already
have? Fix one that’s busted? Get ANSWERS. Subscribe
to “STAT News” now! mailto:join-stat@lyris.dundee.net
Web marketing and consulting since 1993
Site:
Phone: 209-742-6349

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