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?

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