The practice of  Web analytics came of age in 2008. Industry maturation was reflected in the first set of standards issued by the Web Analytics Association, along with growing sophistication of Web analysts at major enterprises. The marketplace also consolidated a bit with several mergers and acquisitions.

Yet, we are just beginning to understand how to make sense of diverse online activity data streams. This challenge becomes even more complicated now that video and mobile-oriented applications are adding new data collection challenges.

A Second Opinion

CMS Watch research found that most vendors don't fully follow WAA standards, while diverse methodologies and nomenclature abound. Ironically, it was the advent of a free service - Google Analytics - targeted at small to midsized business customers that gave a jolt to many an enterprise Web analyst. Employing Google as a free "second opinion" revealed that different vendors will report different sets of Web site visitor data and metrics based on the same time frame. If there was ever any doubt that ordinality trumps cardinality in the practice of Web analytics, Google put them to rest.

My Warehouse ... or Yours?

Meanwhile, Web analysts must deal with the blessing and curse of ever-growing volumes of raw data. You're probably well aware that Web analytics data can accumulate to extraordinary levels; a reasonably busy Web site can generate a gigabyte of traffic data a day.

 This fire hose has accentuated the existing cultural divide between Web analysts on the one side and enterprise data warehouse and BI specialists on the other. Web analytics vendors have stepped into the gap with their own versions of e-marketing warehouses that, depending on the tool, are designed to deliver two broad capabilities:

  • Ad hoc query services for large volumes of historical data and
  • Aggregation services across various online data sets, including Web site traffic, email marketing, search-engine marketing and online advertising.

Not surprisingly, Web analysts following the warehouse route are confronting foundational scaling, migration and data quality challenges, as well as associated stewardship and governance issues. Your enterprise would do well to introduce some of its experienced data hands to face these not-so-new problems.

New Channels, New Challenges

Today's Web manager has become obsessed with multichannel marketing, and with good reason: there are new and better ways to reach customers online, but they are costly and need to be measured carefully. This is particularly the case with delivering video-based or mobile-oriented content. Video-based delivery is slowly but surely moving beyond the media space into general enterprise use. This has inspired a debate over what metrics are important. Do you care how often people click the pause button? Maybe not. But you might want to know if viewers are consistently pausing at exactly 3:12 into the video.

Perhaps more importantly, you have choices about how to capture consumption data. Do you want the operational ease of embedding tracking logic in the video player or the flexibility and fine-grained control offered by inserting tracking code into individual movie files (which are typically Flash)? Traditional Web analytics vendors tend to rely on the latter, but a new crop of mobile analytics suppliers are making what I think is a successful bet on integrating at the video player level.

The mobile metrics landscape is even more complicated. Since many if not most mobile devices do not accept cookies or JavaScript (the two handmaidens of traditional data collection), understanding mobile traffic requires alternate approaches.

A new crop of niche mobile analytics vendors promote a plethora of different approaches to dealing with this, including the old trick of accumulating variable data through hidden images, redirecting mobile traffic through their own servers or establishing mysterious pacts with local telcos to capture activity streams. If some of these tactics bring to mind pixie dust, you are not alone.

An Expanding Marketplace

However challenging, these developments have elevated the possibilities for effective measurement and drawn in new vendors, reinvigorating a marketplace heretofore nearing consolidation into a handful of major suppliers.

Which brings us back to Google. Google Analytics took some big steps forward at the end of 2008 by publishing a long-sought data application performance interface on top of its previously closed system. But Google has not revised its terms of service that many enterprises, large and small, consider onerous - most notably that Google owns all your traffic data. Google Analytics might not cost you any money, but in software, as in life, there is no free lunch.

Google will see increasing competition over 2009 from Yahoo!, who is rolling out a surprisingly high-end Web analytics service to its corporate customers at no charge. (According to Yahoo!, those customers will retain data ownership.) Keep in mind that competition at the "free" end mirrors intense maneuvering at the high end of the Web analytics marketplace as well. As online channels grow in importance, enterprises are likely to invest more in effective measurement.

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