Do you really know how people interact with your website? When they land on a page, do they get the answer they were after? Do they help themselves to the tools or resources you’ve provided? Or do they leave as fast as they can reach the back button? We can make many assumptions about the usage data we see, but we’re never entirely sure what each person is looking for and whether that magical thing called communication happened.

Can communication be measured? I was curious to know, so recently I went digging into the data of dozens of websites to see whether a pattern emerged: Which ones look to be succeeding, what do they have in common, and especially what’s there to be learned from their design.

(Data? I see your eyes glazing over. And I humbly ask you to stick with me, please!)

If you’re the creative kind, “data” likely conjures up mind-numbing statistics. Yet, if you were a computer you’d view data as stuff that you and other machines can label and manipulate. Looking at your website with the perspective of an engineer can help you make sense of what data your users see as meaningful and relevant to what they need.

Viewing the website through a data prism

A person’s name, a company name, an address, keywords, the title of a book, or the time and place of an event – these are examples of data that search engines lift from your website. All that data is indexed, scored, and eventually retrieved. In a sense, your site gets boiled down to tangible data. (You’re not sure what to include? Delve into for ideas.)

If you have ever looked at your Google Analytics account there’s a truckload of other data collected, including the behavior of your website visitors: Which pages they frequented, how long they usually stayed on a page, whether it’s their first time or sixth visit, etc.

How all that data gets processed isn’t public knowledge, but Google has been clear about why it keeps perfecting its criteria: It wants the data – everything it knows about every website – to point to the most relevant, highest-quality answers to each search query.

Increasingly, the info that really matters is engagement, i.e. how people behave on the website, how long they stay on a page, and how often they return to the site. Since people are the ultimate judge of a website’s usefulness and relevance, their behavior, that user-engagement data, can influence how it ranks; learn more about the correlation in this article.

Three sites with way-above-average stats

As an SEO consultant, I report on the Google Analytics data for dozens of websites, including many small and medium businesses. I was curious to see which of these sites are the “stickiest,” and what those businesses have in common. What are they doing that moves the needle toward better engagement?

In my review of 50 websites, I narrowed the list to those where at least a third of the target users visited 2.5 pages or more; spent a minute or more on important pages; and three or more minutes on the site overall. I took care to eliminate outliers, e.g. data that appeared way outside the normal range.

These three sites rose to the top:

A Pilates studio

An ophthalmology practice

A business incubator

Common denominators

So what, exactly, do these disparate sites have in common?

Strikingly, a concerted, sustained effort to bring their target audiences to the site:

  • Visits via Adwords, radio ads and other promotions
  • Visits via social media to keep a running conversation and publicize events
  • Visits via email marketing to former and existing customers
  • Press releases (when they have actual news to report)

The fact is that organic search is slow, often too slow at first to bring the number of leads that a business needs in order to meet payroll. Marketing to your target audience through a variety of channels not only brings many of them to your website but builds brand recognition. Promotions are like the FastPass at Disney, a shortcut to reaching your goal.

Equally striking, they excel in using media:

  • Original photography, which engages better than any stock photo could.
  • Quality videos – worthwhile message and professionally produced
  • A combination of quality images and helpful text on each of the key pages, e.g. the homepage, about, services

After your prospects get to your site the next challenge is to capture and hold their attention. The three standout websites feature images that feel authentic, that tell a compelling story, and that complement the text on the page.

In short, the successful websites – on a data level – are attractive, optimized, and tied to offline activities. The tie between online and offline marketing is explored further in this  article in Search Engine Land.

Inspire users to interact

As you design a site you can set the stage for success:

  • Ensure that the data buckets mentioned earlier are in place – good SEO
  • Learn how the site will be promoted – designing for promotions should not be an afterthought
  • Use rich media and quality photography supported with interesting text

Does it matter how many pages visitors see and how long they linger? Resoundingly, YES. If they bounce away without exploring the site further, there’s little chance they learned enough to be compelled to bookmark it, sign up for a class, or share the site with a friend. Users who interact with your site in some way have something to remember it by.

The success of your creative idea is measured in page views, minutes, and rankings – and ultimately by the client’s bottom line.