What I Learned About #measure and Google+ from a Single Blog Post

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Quite unintentionally, I stirred up a lengthy discussion last week with a blog post where I claimed that web analytics platforms were fundamentally broken. In hindsight, the title of the post was a bit flame-y (not by design — I dashed off a new title at the last minute after splitting up what was one really long post into two posts; I’m stashing the second post away for a rainy day at this point).

To give credit where credit is due, the discussion really took off when Eric Peterson posted an excerpt and a link in Google+ and solicited thoughts from the Google+/#measure community. That turned into the longest thread I’ve participated in to date on Google+, and subsequently led to a Google+ hangout that Eric set up and then moderated yesterday.

This post is an attempt to summarize the highlights of what I saw/heard/learned over the past week.

What I Learned about the #measure Community

Overall, the discussion brought back memories of some of the threads that would occasionally get started on the webanalytics Yahoo! group back in the day. That’s something we’ve lost a bit with Twitter…but more on that later.

What I took away about the group of people who make up the community was pretty gratifying:

  • A pretty united “we” — everyone who participated in the discussions was contributing with the goal of trying to move the discussion forward; as a community, everyone agrees that we’re at some sort of juncture where “web analytics” is an overly limiting label, where the evolution of consumer behavior (read: social media and mobile) and consumer attitudes (read: privacy) are impacting the way we will do our job in the future, and where the world of business is desperately trying to be more data-driven…and floundering more often than succeeding. There are a lot of sharp minds who are perfectly happy to share every smart thought they’ve got on the subject if it helps our industry out — the ol’ “a rising tide lifts all boats” scenario. That’s a fun community with whom to engage.
  • Strong opinions but small egos — throughout the discussion that occurred both on Google+ and on Twitter (as well as in several blog posts that the discussion spawned, like this one by Evan LaPointe and Nancy Koon’s inaugural one and Eric’s post), there were certainly differing points of view, but things never got ugly; I actually had a few people reach out to me directly to make sure that their thoughts hadn’t been taken the wrong way (they hadn’t been)
  • 100s of years of experience — we have a lot of experience from a range of backgrounds when it comes to trying to figure out the stickiest of the wickets that we’re facing. That is going to serve us well.
  • (Maybe) Agencies and vendors leading the way? — I don’t know that I learned this for sure, but an informal tally of the participants in the discussion showed a heavy skewing towards vendor and agency (both analytics agencies and marketing/creative/advertising agencies) representation with pretty limited “industry” participation. On the one hand, that is a bit concerning. On the other hand, having been in “industry” for more of my analytics career than I’ve been on the agency side, it makes sense that vendors and agencies are exposed to a broader set of companies facing the same challenges, are more equipped to see the patterns in the challenges the analytics industry is facing, and are being challenged from more directions to come up with answers to these challenges sooner rather than later.

These were all good things to learn — the people in the community are one of the reasons I love my job, and this thread demonstrated some of the reasons why that is.

Highlights of the Discussion

Boiling down the discussion is bound to leave some gaps, and, if I started crediting individuals with any of the thoughts, I’d run the serious risk of misrepresenting them, so feel free to read the Google+ thread yourself in its entirety (and the follow-up thread that Eric started a few days later). I’ve called out any highlights that came specifically from the hangout as being from there (participants there were Adam GrecoJohn LovettJoseph StanhopeTim WilsonMichael HelblingJohn RobbinsEmer KirraneLee IsenseeKeith Burtis, and me), since there isn’t a reviewable transcript for that.

Here goes:

  • Everyone recognizes that a “just plug it in and let the technology spit out insights” solution will likely never exist — the question is how much of the technical knowledge (data collection minutia, tool implementation nuances, reporting/analysis interface navigation) can be automated/hidden. A couple of people (severalpublicly, one privately) observed that we want (digital) analytics platforms to be a like a high-performance car — all the complexity as needed under the hood, but high reliability and straightforward to operate. Pushing that analogy — how far and fast it runs will still be highly dependent on the person behind the wheel (the analyst).
  • Adobe/Omniture and Google Analytics had near-simultaneous releases of their latest versions; both companies touted the new features being rolled out…but both companies have stressed that there was a lot more about the releases that were under-the-hood changes that were positioning the products for greater advances in subsequent releases; time will tell, no? And, several people who have actually been working  with SC15 (I’ve only seen a couple of demos, watched some videos, and read some blog posts — the main Omniture clients I support are over a year out from seeing SC15 in production), have pointed out that some of the new features (Processing Rules and Context Data, specifically) will really make our lives better
  • There was general consensus that Omniture has gotten much, much better over the years about listening to customer feedback and incorporating changes based on that feedback; there is still a Big Question as to whether customer-driven incremental improvements (even improvements that require significant updates on the back end) will get to true innovation — the “last big innovations” in web analytics were pointed out as being a decade ago (I would claim that the shift from server logs and image beacons to Javascript-based page tags was innovative and wasn’t much older) — or whether “something else” will have to happen was a question that did not get resolved
  • Getting beyond “the web site” is one major direction the industry is heading — integrating cross-channel data and then getting value from it — introduces a whole other level of complexity…but the train is barrelling along on a track that has clearly been laid in that direction
  • We all get sucked into “solving the technical problem” over “focusing on the business results” — the tools have enough complexity that we count it a “win” when we solve the technical issues…but we’re not really serving anyone well when we stop there; this is one of those things, I suspect, that we all know and we constantly try to remind ourselves…and yet still get sucked into the weeds of the technology and forget to periodically lift our heads up and make sure we’re actually adding value; John Lovett has been preaching about this conundrum for years (and he hits on it again in his new book)
  • Marketing/business are getting increasingly complex, which means the underlying data is getting more complex (and much more plentiful — another topic John touches on in his book), which means getting the data into a format that supports meaningful analysis is getting tougher; trying to keep up with that trend is hard enough without trying to get ahead!
  • Tag management — is it an innovation, or is it simply a very robust band-aid? Or is it both? No real consensus there.
  • Possible areas where innovation may occur: cross-channel integration, optimization, improved conversion tracking (which could encompass both of the prior two areas), integration of behaviora/attitudinal/demographic data
  • [From the hangout] “Innovation” is a pretty loaded term. Are we even clear on what outcome we’re hoping to drive from innovation?
  • [From the hangout] Privacy, privacy, privacy! Is it possible to educate the consumer and/or shift the consumer’s mindset such that they are informed about why that “tracking” them isn’t evil? Can we kill the words “tracking” and “targeting,” which both freak people out? Why are consumers fine with allowing the mobile or Facebook application access to their private data…but freak out about no-PII behavioral tracking (we know why, but it still sucks)?
  • [From the hangout] How did a conversation about where and how innovation will occur devolve into the nuts and bolts of privacy? Why does that happen so often with us? Is that a problem, or is it a symptom of something else?

Yikes! That’s my attempt to summarize the discussion! And it’s still pretty lengthy!

What I Learned about Google+

I certainly didn’t expect to learn anything about Google+ when I wrote the post — it was focusing on plain ol’ web (site) analytics, for Pete’s sake! But, I learned a few things nonetheless:

The good:

  • Longer-form (than 140 characters) discussions, triggered by circles, with the ability to quickly tag people, are pretty cool; Twitter sort of forced us over to blog posts (and then comments on the posts) to have discussions…and Google+ has the potential to bring back richer, more linear dialogue
  • Google+ hangouts…are pretty cool and fairly robust; we had a few hiccups here and there, but I was able to participate reasonably well from inside a minivan traveling down the highway that had the other four members of my family in it (Verizon 4G aircard, in case you’re wondering); and, as the system detects who is speaking, that person’s video jumps to the “main screen” pretty smoothly. It’s not perfect (see below), but we had a pretty meaty conversation in a one-hour slot (and credit, again, to Eric Peterson for his mad moderation skills — that helped!)

The not-so-good:

  • Discussions aren’t threaded, and the “+1” doesn’t really drive the organization of the discussion — multiple logical threads were spawned as the discussion continued, but the platform didn’t really reflect that, which many discussion forums have supported for years
  • Linking the blog post to the discussion was a bit clunky. Who knows what long tail search down the road would benefit from seeing the original post and the ensuing conversation? I added a link to the Google+ discussion to the post after the fact…but it’s not the same as having a string of comments immediately following a post (and if Google+ fizzles…that discussion will be lost; I’ve made a PDF of the thread, but that feels awfully 2007)
  • Google+ hangouts could use some sort of “hand-raising” or “me next” feature; everyone who participated in the hangout worked hard to not speak over anyone else, but we still had a number of awkward transitions

So, that’s what I took away. It was a busy week, especially considering I was knocking out the first half of John Lovett’s new book book (great stuff there) at the same time!


  1. Coming from one of the “analytics agencies” I agree that this is the seat from where you can see patterns played out in the business world–from medium up to large companies, it often turns out the barriers to success are the same.

    Much in agreement with you findings, I would say that far too often the “technical aspect” of web analytics buries the marketing power of web analytics done right. There is a significant gap between what vendors say their products “can do” and what their products “do without expert implementation”. Missing this, many companies get stuck with ho-hum, placeholder-type analytics that help no one and wastes both time and money.

    But if they are willing to work through the technical issues with experts who can get them past it, they are then on their way to to investing in insight.

    The greatest benefits come to those who a)make sure the technology is functioning properly, rather than assuming that somehow it will work all by itself and b)choose what data to look at and have clear reasons for looking at that data.

    Finally, the “ROI” is achieved only when the above are true AND the company can get its creative and editorial team to adjust content and architecture based on the findings; and of course re-test and re-iterate the changes until clear improvements are seen.

    While this is the paradigm to which web analytics pins its banner, it is surprising to me that only perhaps 5% of practitioners are actually seeing this benefit.

  2. Great points, Andrew! Spot-on observation that it’s got to extend beyond “good implemenation” and “real analysis” to include “resources to put recommendations into action.” It’s a longer list of stars that need to be at least somewhat aligned to really realize the value.

  3. Pingback Thoughts On Our 1st G+ Foray | John Lovett at Web Analytics Demystified

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