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banner Monday, 21 January, 2002, 11:50 GMT
How the web watches you shop
tailor, BBC
Some websites are tailoring themselves to your needs
You may feel anonymous when on the web, but you are giving away information about yourself which, in the right hands, can be very useful, writes BBC News Online's Mark Ward.

Imagine for a moment that the real world was like the web, and all the information you unwittingly share when you venture online is available to the shop assistants in every store you visit.

If this were the case shopping would be very different, not to mention slightly sinister.

Website managers know:
What site you looked at last, and if you arrived via an advert;

2. If you used a search engine, and what terms you searched for;

3. The route you take through the site, whether you've been there before and what you did

For a start, the assistants would know where you lived, they would know if you asked anyone for directions to their store and what words you used to describe them during that conversation.

They would also know if you looked at any signs directing you to the store, or if any of its radio, TV or bill posters prompted you to turn up. They'd know which one you looked at, listened to or watched, too.

They would know which store you went into before you walked through the doors, and where you went after you left.

Trolley tour

Once you were in the shop, the scrutiny would intensify. You would be assigned an individual assistant who wouldn't talk to you, but would watch and map your every move around the shop.

This shopping shadow would note every item you looked at and how long it held your attention. They would watch what you put in your shopping basket and if you took it out again.

Google homepage
Many websites know how you reached them
They would spot the corners of the shops you didn't want to linger in and the ones that you couldn't get enough of.

If you were returning to the shop, the assistants would have a perfect memory of what you did last time, how much you spent and what you bought.

The most sophisticated stores might rebuild the shop as you marched around, constantly trying to find the arrangement of goods that proved most enticing.

But if it looked like you weren't going to buy anything, then the assistants might fling a bargain in your path just as you were about to stride out the door.

All in all, it would be pretty overwhelming.

Number crunching

But despite the fact that anyone visiting a website sheds information with every click, few are exploiting this data for their advantage.

"It's a classic data-rich, information-poor situation," says John Woods, chief executive of web monitoring and management company Site Intelligence. "Your website records the progress of people through your virtual store automatically but so far few companies are making use of that."

supermarket interior, BBC
Supermarkets and websites have a lot in common
Some supermarkets and department stores do crudely monitor what customers do, but none have the wealth of information any website can gather.

Mr Woods says many sites collect raw visitor numbers and note when people arrive via adverts and search engines, but few explore the data that is available in any great depth.

A survey carried out for Site Intelligence found that almost 60% of those questioned gathered only the basic information. But when they do gather information, it can turn out that a site is popular for all the wrong reasons.

One software company helped by Site Intelligence found that many of the visitors arriving via search engines were finding it thanks to the phrase "Thames dinner cruise" which appeared on the pages describing its annual customer party.

Bad news is good

John Thompson, spokesman for website monitoring firm WhiteCross Systems, says that often analysing why people don't do something can be as important as noting when they do.

It's long been known that many people abandon virtual shopping trolleys full of goods moments before they pay.

"Collecting data on a minute-by-minute basis can show what part people turn to before they disappear," says Mr Thompson. "You can find if a page is offensive or confusing when it comes up."

The information can also reveal when marketing campaigns go badly wrong. Mr Thompson says many US car makers have been advertising cheap car loans on lots of websites recently, and many reported higher sales as a result.

However, post-sales analysis found that many of those taking up the offers had been considering buying a car anyway and would have happily paid full price in the absence of the deal.

The high-profile web adverts did little to convert those who weren't thinking about buying a car; all it did was cannibalise existing sales.

Still, other websites do the job more intelligently and offer more to those customers that dither before they pay or spend a lot of time comparing prices. The small change can boost sales significantly.

Mr Thompson says although information about website visitors is readily available, as are the tools to analyse it, the science of knowing what works still has a long way to go.

Many websites are holding off personalising sites to different visitors for fear of alienating customers. As car makers can no doubt testify, getting it wrong can be an expensive mistake, and that's something few e-tailers can afford.

See also:

17 Aug 01 | Sci/Tech
The hard work of making the web pay
22 Jan 01 | dot life
The tricks that win clicks
14 Dec 01 | Sci/Tech
Digital history saved
14 Jun 00 | Sci/Tech
Web links that stick
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