I personally manage several sites and track the visitors to the two most important ones with the services offered by Hitbox Professional.
I am a long time customer of Hitbox on which I have written before, both to highlight good practices and quality service and others to report about its own limitations.
Hitbox is a live tracking solution that allows any Web site owner to monitor minute by minute the amount of visitors to her site, as well as being to collect, access and filter an enormous amount of complementary data ranging from the keyphrases used by your site visitors to reach your site through a search engine, to detailed technographics profiles of each user system.
Hitbox allows further to analyze individual pages, paths of users through your site, time spent, and even to track conversions of your products and services.
Being a completely Web-based solution, this is quite ideal, as it allows me to verify all of this valuable data from any location and without needing to install any software or needing to download any log file from my server.
On Tuesday April 15th 2004 I accessed my Hitbox account for one of my sites and to my complete surprise saw that from the day before I had lost more than 1,000 visitors. As of today, that is about 50% of all the traffic I have had on that site.
Well, you can easily imagine, that if you are an entrepreneur working and living with an online business, this is pretty bad news.
For me it was altogether disastrous.
Psychologically, the blow that a passionate publisher receives when half of his readers suddenly disappear may be very hard to comfort.
My immediate reaction, next to a complete disbelief at what I was looking, was immediately focused on Google.
As I read and follow several marketing newsletters and discussion lists I had read many times before that Google, either due to its periodic Google Dance, to penalization of sites that break in some way its terms of reference or due to its ongoing algorithm changes, has many times turned upside down the sort of many a Web site.
Being outside of the circle of those who tweak their sites to get a better ranking I have never feared being penalized or affected by any of these possibilities.
Therefore I decided to initiate a detailed research to check whether or not Google was indeed sending me as many visitors as before or if something specific had drastically changed.
Luckily, I have multiple and overlapping traffic monitoring tools that I utilize to check my sites health. One is the use of the raw logs that are available on anyone server and which collect by default all of the basic traffic data about a site. These logs are just standard files, that one needs to feed into a so-called log analysis software to make them useful and readable by a human being.
I also alerted my technical support staff to start analyzing all logs for the past few days while paying particular attention to the Google referrers. I also suggested to get in touch with Hitbox to see of there was anything going on there side.
On the other hand I started to check the reports coming from the Google AdSense program, which publishes contextual text ads in all of my sites pages.
Whichever way I would look the data were saying the same thing: "You are doing fine man, relax."
Nonetheless, I couldn't believe Hitbox was wrong.
Hitbox and its traffic reporting abilities have been so much at the center of some of my efforts, that I have naturally come to use it as my official reference for how the site, and each individual article I publish is doing.
I can see how much interest different topics spur and I am very alert on noticing referring sites as interesting new possible partners.
I really don't even question Hitbox ability to report the right data.
The Hitbox code sits physically on my pages and my assumption is that if there are more visitors those pages will report it no matter what. I have seen Hitbox having times when it is not able to give me a full view of my data, but I can live with it as it this happens only around midnight, when their server is probably crunching one day worth of my visitors and storing them in some special way in its permanent database.
Though I am not claiming to be a model of rationality or scientific reasoning, I treated Hitbox as the gasoline indicator on my bike. If all of sudden it says I am low, I don't ever doubt the indicator of not reporting the right thing. The immediate thoughts, at least here in Italy are two: a) a hole in the tank, or b) somebody sucked it out.
And so I thought.
Either Google or Yahoo were dropping the presence of my content for some important keyphrases where I have become a reference resource to many, or someone somehow was able to hack my site in a way that would make accessing it hard or impossible to do from certain locations.
To make things more stressful, my technical staff did not trust himself contacting Hitbox about this issue, as the control panel and the overall account appeared to be working just fine. In the past we had found accessing Hitbox Customer Support tremendously cumbersome, in particular due to the fact that a different ID from the one normally required to access the system was required by Hitbox to allow access to any customer support feature. A wall I have bounced against a few times in the past years and which has left an unforgettable feeling of discomfort toward Hitbox ability (or will) to talk to its real customers.
So a few days went by while, in total discomfort, I tried to picture possible and new alternatives that could have helped me to balance out the consequences of such powerful blow to my main site traffic.
My technical assistant reported that according to the server logs all things were just normal. Nothing strange was going on.
Nothing strange is going on?
I could not believe my eyes while reading Mihai's comments and his simple request to look at the neat Excel data file he had prepared for me. Everything was running smoothly as it had been every other day before.
I then went back to check the Google AdSense reports and everything looked OK there too.
I checked Alexa. Though I can't say that this is an instrument that you can rely on to gauge your specific amount of traffic on the site, it can complement other tools in providing you with some useful trend indicators and it does provide a unique at-a-glance overview of your traffic, even compared to other Web sites. But even Alexa was showing normal data, without drops or sudden changes in my visitors numbers.
Nonetheless the above, and after 6 days, Hitbox was still reporting just a trickle of traffic on my main site. Back to the levels of one or two years ago.
So, against my overriding and rather irrational modus operandi, I decided to try to get personally in touch with Hitbox itself.
Two things helped me take the step forward:
1) Mihai, my webmaster (the technical assistant I was referring to above) hadn't done anything about contacting Hitbox, relaxed in his knowledge that the server logs were saying: "Hey man, everything is OK here!". When he doesn't follow up on something, then I normally do it myself, if not at least to show to him my integrity and perseverance in following critical things through.
2) I had a direct communication channel open with a Hitbox customer support representative that would have not required to submit myself to the humiliation of having to go through the completely unintuitive via Crucis of accessing the Hitbox online Customer Support service. In the recent past, I had had an effective and fruitful rescue from this uniquely prompt and capable staff member at Hitbox, Kristin Mansueto. So I thought of getting back in touch with her.
With enough luck, she quickly replied saying she wasn't anymore with Customer Support and that she had passed my email to the appropriate people in charge of these issues so that someone would have followed up promptly with me.
As a matter of fact I later received an email from Eli Covell, Director of Hitbox/WebSideStory Customer Relations, who wrote me the following (my live thoughts and reactions while I read his email in complete amazement are placed in square brackets next to his original reply):
my name is Eli Covell and I'm the Director of Customer Relations over here at WebSideStory. I manage three teams that are all dedicated to servicing and supporting our customer base. I personally wanted to write you and let you know that our company motto is, "Customer Love". This is what we preach from a management perspective and this is how we approach every customer need or inquiry.
[Good start. I am happy they want to be helpful and like to take my matters to heart. I already feel better.]
I'd like to apologize for any inconvenience you've experienced with our recent technical difficulties.
[Oh, so you know already about this. Hummm. Well, wished you had done something to inform me earlier instead of waiting for me to have to come up all the way to you. I am the one paying, .... or not?]
It is very rare that we ever have this type of problem.
[Ah, so it has even happened before. I wasn't wrong then when I felt there was something fishy with your data. Gee, that's not surprising now. I wonder why you never let us know of this.]
You can bet that we are diligently working to resolve this issue.
[Oh God, so this is a real issue for you too. You are still working to fix this and who knows when you are going to end. I thought this was going to be good news but maybe it is really not. To me diligence is first of all being transparent with customers. If you start by hiding problems like these how can I ever trust your service in the future?]
Being that we have close to 12,000 HitBox Professional customers and this issue will not have a significant impact on the majority thereof, we have decided against corporate communication in this matter.
[What???? You have decided NOT to inform us of what is going on???? Why??? How do you assess that this is NOT having a significant impact on users. I, for one had a hell of a time with this. I have stressed myself beyond reason, I have wasted lots of time and resources researching an issue that was not mine, I lost completely the face with those advertising and sponsorship customers to which I provide a regular copy of my traffic data to support the value of their investments. That seems pretty a significant impact to me.
But could I be the only stupid, incompetent and unawake user of your system, so dumb not to understand that if the data look a bit strange it is obviously Hitbox doing something to them?
Well, sorry for having trusted you beyond logic. You are right. ]
However, we take every concerned inquiry that has come in to heart and have assured these customers that we do have our best engineers on the case.
[Wow, so you are really saying that nonetheless the above you truly care about me and someone has been working on my account secretly to fix it? That is wonderful indeed. Too bad I can't see the results, nor I can find out about my newly acquired hidden engineer angel unless I write personally to you. Actually, if I read closely between your lines I read: "The problem is large and its consequences so broad and unanticipated that in 10 days time we have not yet been able to fix it. We have hired extra engineers and we believe to be close to have this under control. Cross your fingers." ]
I would love to set up a call with you and one of our Senior Engineers to discuss the intricacies of the issue and where we are in terms of fixing the problem.
[ Great. Now at least you are making a tangible offer. OK I will take this right away.]
We do have a Technical Support Staff [at (858) 362-6276] and a 24 hour Emergency Technical Support staff [(619) 666-5275, for issues that arise during non-business hours] that should be your primary point of contact for any and all technical issues.
[Hey, I am in Rome Italy, and I don't see why I should be the one to make an international call, when you guys are the ones having problems, heavily penalizing my business. I find this attitude of some companies really disconcerting. There is a whole world beyond the US and we are not second category world citizens. If you have a serious customer support service, start offering a toll-free number that I can dial from here, and if that is too difficult, step up and dial a call to me if you want to show your "Customer Love". ]
Please feel free to call me anytime 24 hours per day, 7 days per week.
[Feel free to call me??? You are the one that should be calling. It is Hitbox having serious problems with the data it reports, while I keep paying to see wrong data that I can't use for nothing! ]
Well, you can imagine how long it took for me to open another email and spell out in clear letters again, my country code, phone number and time left before my Friday office-time was going to be over.
In 20 minutes I had Eli Covell on the line, who confirmed to me all of the above and added a few statements.
I openly and passionately manifested to him how negative this approach was in terms of credibility that Hitbox would have lost in the eyes of his customers, no matter how small (and this is all to be verified yet) the number of affected users were.
A modern company is built around its customers and its ability to listen, react and inform them on issues that may affect the quality and the business decisions they make. Hitbox failed miserably at this and took actually advantage of the trust many of us placed in it.
I personally suggested to Eli to take this issue to heart and write immediately a letter to all Hitbox customers explaining the issue and the reasons why it had been kept under tabs.
He replied by saying that while he valued my opinion, he strongly believed that the decision he had taken was "a very good business decision" and that "he stood 100% behind it". He also added that the problem was going to be solved by tomorrow, Monday April 26th, and that due to this there was "no need to stress unaffected users with this information".
I replied candidly that for us users it is not a negative issue to find out that our provider is having some problems while making upgrades or changes to its own system. I receive systematically such messages by many of my suppliers and I am but grateful to them for avoiding me hard to resolve situations and for helping me plan my critical activities around them.
So I am really baffled when a company tells me that it prefers to hide critical information, in order not stress his (larger) customers. Does that mean that Hitbox Professional customers are second class citizens inside the WebSideStory marketing department?
In response to this Eli Covell insisted in pointing out that only five customers, me included, had reported this issue to them. (please start reporting, thank you, by simply adding a comment at the bottom of this article - Hitbox is taking note). In such light they evaluated that the number of affected users was really very small and that there was no need to inform everyone.
Again, I pointed out to the many flaws in this type of reasoning, as most people would have probably acted just like me, scrambling for other guilty resources and considering Hitbox an immaculate reference not to be doubted. I also underlined the fact that most people would have not had the means to verify the Hitbox data against other indicators since only a small fraction of them is skilled enough to be even aware of such other options.
I reiterated that in my view this was an unacceptable stance that Hitbox was taking and that I could not justify it in any possible way inviting him to inform, with due discretion, all possible affected users of this issue.
Mr Covell, gently but firmly out ruled such option and offered in exchange something that ruined altogether any remaining trust or respect I had for this company policies toward its smaller customers.
Mr Covell, offered some form of unspecified compensation/refund to balance out the hassle that I had to go through. He clearly specified and reiterated in a follow-up email that if I felt penalized I could have gotten back to him on this and he would have been pleased to find an agreeable solution.
Compensation for this type of behaviour is a minimum of one year free account to Hitbox and full apologies in writing to all affected customers. At best, and for people who like me have really gone out of their way because of this disputable customer relations decision, a free lifetime account to Hitbox services should be provided with a plead not to expose further the issue. Nothing less could ever sooth the large, open wound now bleeding.
It appears quite evident to me that the KEY consequence of all this is that people like me will no longer be able to trust this data.
I will always be in doubt now as to whether the traffic data I am looking are real or if Mr Covell has decided again to serve me an unofficial version of them due to some other upgrade being made to his Enterprise Customers.
I don't know about you, but this story found me deeply disillusioned with this company and with the mentality that still powers many other commercial organizations like this one.
I would much appreciate you expressing your ideas and comments on this right now, here below.
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