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Have a website, make sure it’s optimized for smartphones, be active on social media – most small and medium-sized businesses are by now at least aware of these table stakes when it comes to playing the e-commerce game.

But with trends shifting and the algorithms that govern how the web works still a mystery to most, it’s easy for the average business to miss opportunities to increase online sales.

Staying on top of the web’s arcane workings requires some vigilance, but experts say a little effort can go a long way toward building e-commerce operations.

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Master the data

Consumers often browse and compare prices a few times and in a few places before going directly to a website and making a purchase.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Misinterpreting customer data is one of the biggest mistakes a business can make, according to Adam Green, vice-president of Toronto-based digital marketing agency Art & Science.

Many use data-tracking tools such as Google Analytics, which inserts code into websites that tracks a wealth of visitor information including location, web browser choice and other sites visited. But few companies delve into those advanced metrics.

“Everyone gets focused on filling the bucket with water, but if you don’t know which water actually drove the thing you were trying to do, then a lot of your efforts … are almost in vain,” Mr. Green says.

Many businesses overvalue their website’s direct traffic, when a person arrives there by typing its exact address into a browser, as a result.

When direct traffic results in sales, business owners are often tempted to pull back on other marketing efforts such as advertising or social media.

That can be a mistake because they’re not looking at how the direct traffic is actually being generated. Each sale may, in fact, be the result of a person’s third, fourth or even fifth visit to the website after initial contact through an online ad or social media post.

“People attribute success to the last click of traffic,” says Mr. Green, whose clients include the Toronto International Film Festival, Starbucks and Royal Bank of Canada. Then they cut back and “their conversions drop and they wonder why people aren’t typing their website directly into their browser anymore.”

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Mr. Green says businesses should learn the deeper workings of Google Analytics, especially the Attribution Reports and Top Conversion Path sections, which can reveal exactly how visitors end up at a website. Google offers free Analytics Academy tutorials online.

“The full customer journey involves multiple touch points,” he says. “Most people in the industry don’t take that into account.”

Wasting tweets

Piggybacking on popular cultural and social media phenomena like Game of Thrones can help retailers broaden their reach.

The Associated Press

Many businesses also don’t use social media properly and end up having little to show for their efforts, according to Dani Gagnon, chief executive officer of Toronto-based Dani G Inc. and professor of digital marketing at Seneca College.

Running Instagram ads that look like advertising, for example, is a sure-fire way of being ignored, she says.

Businesses should instead make their ads look more like interactive posts by attaching contextual relevance to them. They need to investigate what people are actually talking about and try to join the conversation.

If a new Game of Thrones episode is going to be airing the day their ad is running, for example, that post may benefit by relating to the popular television show since people are going to be discussing it.

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“If you’re selling coffee and you post about coffee, no one is going to see your content that day because the algorithm is [focused] on Game of Thrones,” says Ms. Gagnon, whose clients include CBC, CityTV and Osgoode Law School. “Make your content focus on whatever is going on socially.”

Businesses should also avoid attaching their ads to broad subjects and instead use brands as keywords, she adds. A company that sells dog products may get better results with “Purina,” for example, than “dogs.”

“On Facebook, I could write a status post saying, ‘I hate dogs,’ and Facebook will end up grabbing that and thinking I’m interested in dogs,” Ms. Gagnon says. “It actually doesn’t target people very well.”

The paradox of choice

One product that can be customized is easier for some customers to digest than a limitless numbers of options.

DAVID WILLIAMS/The New York Times News Service

The internet’s infiniteness makes it easy for users to become overwhelmed with choice, so businesses must do their best to narrow down options, according to Dilip Soman, marketing professor at the University of Toronto and the Corus Chair in Communications Strategy.

“People are confused by options,” he says. “When they’re confronted by too many options, they choose not to choose.”

Websites that sell things can benefit by nesting choices within each other. An online ice-cream vendor, for example, might choose to offer only vanilla up front, but then give customers the ability to tailor the product to their liking.

“Offer the same basic thing, but then you can put chocolate sauce or caramel on top,” he says. “Rather than offering those as three separate products, you’re just selling vanilla – but I can customize it for you.”

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