Earlier this week, I tried to purchase a new graphics card for my home PC. After researching the latest cards on CNET, I tried eBay and a number of shopping comparison engines. I evaluated merchant rankings, user feedback, and hidden costs like S&H. After a good half hour of research, I picked a merchant, entered in my information, and clicked the “Submit Order” button.

A screen popped up that said “Your Shopping Cart is Empty – Continue Shopping?” I thought this may be a back-handed way of telling me my order was complete. To verify this theory, I checked my Order History. Nothing. Nada. Zip. In this day and age of web analytics, how was this possible?

With fatherly patience, I started the process all over. This time I clicked the Add Product to Cart button, and nothing happened. I couldn’t even add the product to the cart. I tried again and again – no luck.

After 10 minutes, I gave up – I had tried different browsers (IE, Firefox) and different products and different buttons (add to cart from category page, add to cart from product page). Nothing worked. I was only so persistent because the merchant was very well respected.

Out of habit, I checked the source code and discovered this merchant was using web analytics. Unfortunately it wasn’t Omniture SiteCatalyst, but they had web analytics nonetheless. I then turned on my proxy sniffer to check the HTTP call – strange, this merchant wasn’t tracking shopping cart activity – they were simply passing a page view. So much for retail best practices!

Just to check my sanity, I repeated this process the following day. Once again, I lost my order in the checkout process.

There are many lessons to be learned from this experience, but I wanted to focus on one in particular – Alerts. If you use Web Analytics, you should be setting Alerts for your critical metrics – at a minimum! For example, a simple Alert on shopping cart conversion could have alerted this retailer that there was a serious problem. If conversion dropped by more than 25% in any given hour, they would have been notified and could have taken corrective action. Instead, the problem went on undetected for at least 24 hours – possibly much more.

While many web analytics packages do not support Alert functionality, Omniture SiteCatalyst does and you should take advantage of it. I’ve provided just one simple example of Alerts; but once you start experimenting with them, you’ll find there are some incredibly powerful applications that can have a profound impact on your business.

Also, I recently added a Technorati Profile. If this link doesn’t work, I’ll remove it so please ignore.