Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The future of web analytics

As the web analytics industry matures its future is still uncertain. In this post I'll have a look at some of the questions that we'll need to answer soon.

There's been a lot of takeover activity in the industry of late, and two of the main analytics commentators, John Lovett and Eric Peterson, have written about the mergers and what they mean of late. Now only WebTrends is left as an independent tool, zigging whilst the others zag, and IBM is splitting at the seams with its three recent acquisitions, to make 23 in the last four years. Whilst they may not have released plans to close any of these products down, one has to wonder if this will be beneficial for the industry, with the potential for stiffling innovation, which is what the industry craves at the moment.

Then there's the bifurcation in tools debate. Some maintain that to do truly sophisticated analytics you need a more powerful (and expensive) tool, with the likes of Google Analytics being left to the marketers. Whilst Google doesn't offer an visitor-level intelligence tool as some of the paid solutions do, no-one can deny the progress the tool has made in recent years. But will it ever truly catch up and end the bifurcation of tools (and is it in their commercial interests to do so)? And what about Google's future itself - how reliant on its parent is Google Analytics? With Facebook and others starting to take on the big G, and its recent attempts to enter the social arena backfiring, the company's future isn't guaranteed, and its analytics package isn't at the top of its list of priorities. However, the tool has no clear competitors in the free arena, with Yahoo! Analytics maintaining it's non-mainstream enterprise-only position for the foreseeable future. What if a new (suitably big) entrant decided to get in on the free game? Perhaps Microsoft might reconsider their exit from this field? If they or another did, it could force Google to further up its game.

Finally, there's the soft side of analytics - the skills required to do the job. Currently a knowledge of statistics isn't that important; being business savvy or having coding knowledge more helpful. But what if other factors change? Will the rise of mobile require a more technical person to understand the intracies of it? Will the rise of intuitivly-designed and easy-to-implement analytical packages mean that company knowledge and the intepretation of these numbers becomes more important to bring context and relevancy? As sites evolve and improve through competition and analytical insight, will visitor-level tools become obligatory for commercial sites? If they do, the skills set of the web analyst will have to expand too.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The future of the web and the implications for its measurement

Guessing the future of the web is a game that everyone likes to play, but because it's still early days and the web is still volatile, the forecaster normally ends up looking silly. But I'm going to carry on and make some predictions anyway and have a think about what this means for those in the web analytics community.

Although it typically accounts for less that 10% of visits to websites, it's obvious that with the rise of smartphones and tablets the mobile share of web browsing will soon dominate. Handset manufacturers will focus on the devices' power and bringing in new functionality, with more consumer focus being put on the operating system and software. What new apps will be developed? Currently geolocation is the flavour of the month, with Facebook joining in the fun. In my experience the geography data fed back through web analytics tools is not that accurate. With the future of the internet becoming more reliant on geography, this might be something we need to improve. Whilst there are again privacy implications for the improving this accuracy, imagine the potential for finding out where your customers are when browsing your site. Or being able to integrate check-in data with your web analytics data?

With issues around privacy, complaints about its applications and other negative publicity Facebook's seems to be peaking. We regularly hear about the risks of putting all your marketing eggs in the Facebook basket, but does the web analytics industry not risk doing the same thing? However, companies are now not only building relationships with customers within these arenas on fan pages, but monitoring what's said about them within these arenas outside of their fan pages. Sentiment analysis is one area with real potential but is reliant on still-developing artificial intelligence. To me, this is closely linked with the struggle to get to Web 3.0 - the semantic web, where we try to bring more meaning to the content on the internet, and build relationships between data and datasets. Thinking about how we struggle to manage our data now, and how the providers struggle to present it makes it clear how much progress will be required to accurately manage, link and present this new era of data. I think that one of the largest challenges facing our industry is how this is managed, owned and presented in the future, perhaps second only to how we address our current privacy issues.

The majority of the world is still coming to terms with the implications of the "always available" internet, and its potential for increased communication whether it be for good or ill. As the authorities attempt to track illicit online behaviour, there's a growing confusion between monitoring civilians' behaviour and data, and web analytics. Whilst I believe we need to step up to this and nip it in the bud, I would hope that eventually the public takes a more relaxed attitude to tracking, in the way that they do to store loyalty cards, for example. We also need to consider the implications of a generation growing up with the internet as its main resource for entertainment and education. It doesn't seem beyond the realms of possiblility for future companies to be set up to help 18 year olds change their identity and escape their permanently documented youthful transgressions, as hypothesised by Eric Schmidt recently. Might there be an opportunity for building tools to help individuals track their online presence? Whilst the ease with which students can now research information will help them discover more, on the downside it's now easier to plagiarise other's work for assignments and communicate in exams. The recently introduced Tynt Tracer may be further developed to help track illicit copying in this framework, with analytics agencies being set up to monitor other people's sites rather than their own in order to optimise their site.

Indeed, it's this side of analytics that I think we need to be considering now. Whilst the model of working for a company to help optimise their website is the current standard, perhaps we should start thinking outside the box. The internet is now central to more and more people's lives, and whilst this will continue to drive this existing model for those in the web analytics industry, there are opportunities to be had for working on other sites. These could be governmental, educational, looking at analysing external sites for a company, as suggested above, or indeed working for individuals, perhaps to measure the data held on them by other companies? All in all, this shows that the web analytics industry should be kept quite busy keeping up with developments on the internet.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this - am I way off mark? Have I missed something which you think we need to consider?
Real Time Web Analytics
Feedback Form
Website Feedback