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What web analytics should actually be

For any business, two pieces of information are most important to its survival. One, in order to make decisions, a business needs to know the ground reality of where it stands in the market now. Second, in order to plan forward and determine progress, it needs to know where it stood in the market in the past. These two sources of information individually don’t convey much information. But combined together, they provide actionable insights. Where am I now and where was I is what you need to know if you need to plan for where I want to go.

Making parallels to web analytics, current set of tools (unfortunately) only provide information on what is happening now. Your favorite tool will churn out data on number of visitors, page views, countries, referrers and what not. This exactly tells you how your website is doing today. However, this completely misses out macro trends. Sure, you can see a historical graph of number of visitors and all sorts of other metrics but that is only the first step towards knowing what has changed.

Ideally a web analytics tool should go deep on the segment level and mine signals in the (historical) data and correlate different metrics automatically for you. Here are some of the examples that I expect an analytics tool to mine automatically for me:

  • Accounting for other variables, correlation between Twitter activity and number of organic searches. (Which isn’t obvious but could indicate that I’m doing a great job on Twitter building my site’s brand)
  • Show meta-trends in the drift of the type of traffic I’m getting, countries visitors are coming from or the time spent on page. Am I slowly getting more traffic from niche blogs as compared to Google? That tells me what I am doing is working with niche blogs and should probably do more of that stuff.
  • Automatically deduce what content or website sections see atypical visitor behavior so that I can act fix it (if it leaks) or use it for further gains (if it works).
  • Tell me top 5 common paths my visitors take on the website and if there has been a significant shift over time.
  • Source data from all different inputs: social monitoring tools, newsletter tool, etc and automatically correlate my activities outside the website with what is happening on the website.

Most of what I have written above isn’t super hard. Some of it can be done by having simple heuristics built into the tool. Moreover, data mining and machine learning has progressed a lot and I am surprised web analytics industry has been so slow at adopting the methodologies. Though Google is taking the right steps with their intelligence feature but it still it leaves a lot to be desired: where are correlations, recommendations, trend mining and other interesting stuff? Nuconomy was doing the right stuff but they took far too long, didn’t innovate a lot and end up getting bought by a company for in house analytics.

Web analytics shouldn’t be simply a data collection and reporting tool. It should actually be collection, reporting and mining tool. My tool gives me 100s of metrics to look at which I can’t keep looking at day after day (unless it is my full time job). Instead it should mine all 100s of reports for me, and show me interesting nuggets on what has changed (and possibly what could change). So I ask: where is the innovation in web analytics? All I see around is dumb reports ready to get mind by a human.

What is your perspective on this? Do you think web analytics is ripe for a major change?

5 Comments »

  1. Wow … any entrepreneur reading this not bogged down with the requisite number of projects on hand has just seen the next problem for them to solve, with an addressable market of every single ecommerce website out there. I would sure love to have the type of stats you are talking about!

    Comment by lloyd — April 19, 2010 @ 10:00 am

  2. Yes, I wish someone comes up with a clutter-free intelligent web analytics soon. If not, maybe we will have to make this much needed solution :)

    Comment by Wingify — April 19, 2010 @ 10:06 am

  3. Hi Paras,
    Good point. I would in fact say that instead of tonnes of raw data (that we were trying to escape from) we are now ending up with tonnes of “reports”.
    Out of the fire, on to the frying pan. Only positive is that at least the direction seems right. :)

    The industry needs a revolution else it will drown itself in data / metrics / reports / whatever it is producing now.

    Subhash

    Comment by Subhash — April 19, 2010 @ 4:33 pm

  4. Yeah, I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and may even do something about it after The Book is done. So many ideas, so little time…

    Part of the problem is the one-size-fits-all approach with web analytics, when really it shouldn’t be that hard to use a little bit of input to give the data some context, ie “I’m a blog, and my post URLs are x” or “I’m an e-commerce store, and my product URLs are y”, and then you can make much better reports centered around the ‘atomic unit’ of the site, if I can put it that way, which would be much more useful than just focusing on visits and overall averages.
    There’s also no doubt a space for more meta-analytics tools too, like you mention, which pull a bunch of different things together. A common exchange format there would be nice. Huge task of making sense of all the disparate data sources though, given the difficulty that currently exists in just making sense of web analytics data.
    It’s been surprising how *un*useful I’ve found Google Analytics ‘Intelligence’ feature thus far, as while it’s on the right track, it’s still just not that, well, intelligent, given it can only pick out spikes from the data, with little context, and 99% of the time it’s just noise.
    At the end of the day someone still has to ‘read’ the data, and I think making that as easy as possible is probably where the biggest opportunities lie. That said, you’d think with the 3547854785784587 web stats apps out there, we’d be further along in designing these kinds of applications by now :)

    Comment by Luke Stevens — April 22, 2010 @ 8:44 am

  5. I think it depends on how you look at the goal of web analytics. The reports are not ends in themselves, but raw material for consistent improvement

    Comment by Seoleverage — March 2, 2012 @ 3:37 pm

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