Is Web Wanderlust Dead?

WebSideStory, the online analytics firm that operates the HitBox traffic monitoring service, found that nearly 66 percent of Web sites today are reached through either a typed address or bookmark the user has made. Just 36 percent is relying on search engines or off-site links. Compare that to a year ago, when search and portal results accounted for 47 percent of traffic, and 2001, when the majority of destinations were reached through another site. If they are an accurate reflection of Web-user habits, these results mean both good news and bad news. The upside is that people are finding sites that they feel are worth visiting, and by bookmarking or remembering the name, showing an affinity to return, rather than surfing on to the next site "because it's there." The bad news is that as customers become more picky about their destinations, having a site worth returning to is of paramount importance. "The thrill of meandering is over for a lot of people, and they don't have time to aimlessly wander from one link to another," says Geoff Johnston, vice president of product marketing for WebSideStory's StatMarket analysis division. StatMarket's findings are interesting if the trend indicates that years of stamping Web addresses on everything from TV commercials to business cards has paid off and the URL is now a true part of the corporate identity. But that's only truly valuable if the site is worth visiting more than once. "You can't trick people into going where you want them to go," Johnston says. "It's increasingly important to have a site you want to go to directly. You can't expect a search engine [to help.]" "What's missing is information about the user's intent," says Paul Sonderegger, senior analyst at Forrester Research. "The data shows what people did, but not why." He points out that the change in habits could be attributed to everything from more attention to remembering and bookmarking addresses as to people realizing that most major destinations can be reached by simply appending .com to the company name. Forrester conducts a monthly survey of thousands of Web users. This month, 72 percent of them continued to use search engines to find Web sites, making it by far the most popular method. Print, television, and Web each influenced less than one quarter of users to make new online discoveries, however. Johnston is quick to point out that neither search nor advertising are things of the past, but he emphasizes that visitor memories are getting much better, meaning that both good and bad Web experiences will be noted carefully by today's users. "It doesn't necessarily mean Web advertising is dead, it just means that you can waste a lot of money on Web advertising if you don't have a site worth coming back to," he says. "You can only artificially generate visitors for so long."
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