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Panel Session: 
The Future of Web Analytics

An amazing new field is set to inform in new ways

Brief description:
Web analytics involves the measurement, collection, analysis and reporting of Internet data for the purpose of understanding and optimizing Web usage. The panel was asked to specifically isolate the key challenges and opportunities in the looming future for Web analytics and to work to identify some specific action steps that can be taken today to work for a better tomorrow. Session organizer was Michael Rappa, founder and director of the Institute for Advanced Analytics and professor of computer science at North Carolina State University. Panelists included Nathaniel Lin, president for advanced analytics at Aspen Marketing Services, formerly with Fidelity Investments and OgilvyOne Worldwide; John Lovett, senior partner at Web Analytics Demystified and formerly a senior analyst at Forrester research; Phil Mui, senior product manager for Google Analytics, previously with Stanford University and Lycos; Bob Page, vice president, analytics platform at eBay and former senior director of analytics at Yahoo.

Details of the session

A panel of Web analytics experts painted a potentially troubling, but still hopeful, view of the future of online data collection and its impact on businesses during Day 2 of the FutureWeb conference at WWW2010 in Raleigh.

All the panelists agreed that many companies are spending a lot of time (and often money) collecting an expansive amount of information. But they don’t know what to do with. John Lovett, a senior partner at Web Analytics Demystified, said organizations and Web analytics providers need to find better ways to analyze and use the information they gather.

“One of the things we hear very often is we are data rich, but information poor,” Lovett said. “They don’t know what to do with it. They don’t have designs on what to do with the information . Sometimes it’s not going to help your business to just collect more and more data unless you use it in an effective way.”

And therein lies the biggest issue facing the analytics industry. Do organizations collect a limited, but targeted, amount of information that may have a larger monetary impact in the short term? Or do they collect everything they can and hope one day the technologies are available to reanimate it?

“There’s a disconnect between the production of this data and the business value,” said Bob Page, vice president, analytics platform at eBay.

Also joining Lovett and Page were moderator Michael Rappa, the founder and director of the Institute for Advanced Analytics and professor of computer science at North Carolina State University, Nathaniel Lin, president for advance analytics at Aspen Marketing Services, and Phil Mui, senior product manager for Google Analytics.

Mui said companies need to think clearly about how to collect and use data. They need to have an outcome in mind. And Lin said it’s probably incumbent on analytics providers to help businesses package and monetize the content.

“How do you package those data in a way that will actually generate new insights, new directions?” Lin said. “The company will know what strategy to use based on the data. If we can give them some insights based on data and modeling, then they have some assurance.”

There’s a certain amount of leveling going on in the analytics business today, panelists said. There’s a democratization of data, in that any user or Web developer can access the tools needed to learn more about their audience.

“We very much believe there’s a bifurcation marketplace here,” Lovett said. “Typically, you have small pocket of users who want to use (powerful) tools. At the other end of the marketplace (is) the less sophisticated user who just needs to access the data to make decisions about their jobs. Analytics are becoming pervasive in all web site technologies. In today’s environment the necessity for real time answers has become profound.”

But despite wide access, the panelists said, in large part, much of the information gathered through analytics services is useless because people don’t know how to use it and because there’s no standardization of the data.

“Web analytics has failed,” Lovett said. “They don’t mean a whole lot, and there’s no standardization. We can’t go and look at that in a competitive way and get anything out of it.”

“At eye level,” Page said, “you hear people say, ‘We want to be data driven.’ You ask them what that means, and they’re not really sure.”

Web analytics organizations are also facing the challenge of increasing privacy concerns. Application developers are no longer allowed to attach tracking software to their products, which Lovett says affects the manufacture of targeted content.

“We rely on understanding user behavior by their activities,” he said. “We rely on that. It’s very important to improving that content over time. These limitations are going to spare us from doing that.”

Apple tells users only it will collect their personal information. It won’t let an outside organization use it, which Lin said could create a stronger bond of trust between the company and its consumers. But he also said making that data more widely available means business can extract value from it and pay customers back.

At the moment, Page said he believes analytics will get worse before it gets better. He fears CEOs and other business leaders will begin to look at data subjectively to achieve their personal ends.

“We have so much data and means to collect it and produce endless reports,” Page said. “What’s going to happen is decision makers are going to say, ‘I have a hypothesis. I’ve decided what I want to do with X, Y and Z and go find the data that backs up my position.’ Having folks that are equitable about the data and what it means will be important.”

Mui said data collectors need to use information more advantageously and truly find a way to understand it. But he and Lovett were slightly more optimistic about the potential future of the analytics industry.

“I think there’s going to be a convergence of platforms so that you don’t have to go to 10 different places to look at data,” Mui said. “The ability to track across multichannel data and to be able to understand multitouches, I think, will become easier and hopefully more strategically used in all companies.”

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