Analytics - Powered by What? (A Software Primer)

Bryan Owen, Former Viget

Article Category: #Strategy

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This third installment of our executive series discusses a critical component of Web Analytics -- the technology. This is a subject that deserves quite a bit more attention than a blog post, so I will gently skim the surface of the topic. In many ways, choosing an analytics package is a typical software evaluation exercise; but, there are a few unique "big picture" considerations you should be aware of. The following are a few logical divisions of the space:1. Tags vs. Logs The major tools can be put into two broad categories -- those that use log files to analyze data and those that use Javascript tags. Tag-based solutions are generally better at uniquely identifying a visitor and offer more options for custom and detailed reporting. They track user behavior versus server behavior. Logs are big and messy; but, they're also yours (which means you have more control over some things). Although you can run a tag-based tool in-house, they are usually hosted by a third-party vendor -- while a log-based solution runs on your servers. Although this decision ultimately depends on your business, we generally recommend tag-based solutions unless there is a compelling reason not to use them. Again, this is a topic that deserves much more than a one-paragraph summary, so feel free to email me for more information. 2. Deep vs. Broad As tools get more powerful, they typically become more complicated. Some tools blur the line between Web Analytics and Data Mining, which is great for organizations that have the resources to run some serious analysis of their web usage. Other tools focus more on the softer side of the numbers, offering built-in tools to support less demanding marketing initiatives. The latter group typically offers a full suite of services that may include content management, site search, and the like. We tend to favor using the simplest tool that will give you the data you need. Again, the data is only as valuable as the action it triggers -- so installing a complex tool that will never get used is worse than doing nothing at all. 3. DIY vs. Full-Service Customer service is a big differentiator in this industry and should be carefully considered here. But, this is more about who is responsible for making sure you get the most out of your tool of choice. If you will have a dedicated internal team, you may not need much assistance and a virtual "hand-off" of the tool will suffice. On the other hand, you may want (or need) to lean on the vendor for just about everything from installing the code on your site to setting up the reporting. Note: this doesn't get you off the hook completely -- you still need someone to look at the data and actually apply it to your business. 4. Specific vs. General The majority of the tools are generalists -- offering a core set of functionality that you can then use to track most of what you would ever want to know about your visitors and their actions on your site. There are a set of tools, however, that offer very specialized tracking of, for instance, sales funnels or A/B testing. You may not care so much about which version of Javascript your visitors are running -- but, you do need to know when a specific call-center referral visits the site and what they look at. In short, get your ducks in a row before you contact any vendors -- make sure you know what exactly you need from them and how the tool will support your business. Know who will perform the key functions within your organization and whether or not you plan on using an outside vendor. By definition, the job of the vendor sales team is to sell you their tool, so remember the ancient Chinese proverb when they start using words that sound like a Star Trek rerun gone bad ..."one who asks a question is a fool for five minutes; one who does not ask a question remains a fool forever." Good stuff.

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