Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Using browser data as a net sophistication proxy

Today marks Firefox's 6th birthday, and what better way to celebrate than with a blogpost on browser data.

Within web analytics packages there are plenty of metrics and dimensions that describe user behaviour on your site. However, without resorting to external sources it's hard to build a picture of individuals and their characteristics as opposed to the behaviour they exhibit on your site. However, there are data within web analytics packages that can hint at these characteristics. One example of this is the browser breakdown report: a user's choice of browser works as a proxy for their level of internet sophistication.

Historically, we could say with a fair degree of confidence that those who didn't use Internet Explorer were more advanced users of the internet than those who did. In more recent years, although this still rings true it's not as black and white as it used to be, as IE's market share diminishes in light of the general public's increasing awareness of the alternatives. There are of course exceptions to this - those who use multiple browsers, or those using the internet in a work environment where their browser choice is restricted, although this can be overcome. However, in general those who use non-IE browsers are by definition exhibiting preferences that indicate their more sophisticated use of the internet.

This definition of sophistication can be improved by looking at browser versions rather than just browsers themselves. Doing this could give you an indication of how early adopters (those using dev or beta versions of browsers) interact with your site as opposed to luddites (those still on IE6), and gives you more flexibility into how you define people. The downside to this though is you need to keep up to date with your definitions as browser updates now come thick and fast. And, of course, you don't have to stop there with your definitions - adding other dimensions (for example keywords used or keyword count) can further refine them.

Creating segments based on these definitions can open up a lot of insights into your site behaviour and traffic sources. However, you need to bear in mind that it is a proxy, and first and foremost it describes the difference in behaviour of visitors using different browsers - so if you see some weird and wacky behaviour as a result of this, your first port of call should be to check how your site functions for this browser rather than put it down to users being less/more sophisticated than average. That said, with some common sense and imagination you can uncover plenty of interesting stuff using different interpretations of "standard" web analytics dimensions.
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