Bring Sanity to Your Web Analytics

With continually shifting needs to demonstrate return on investment (ROI) and value, it’s increasingly common for companies to switch analytics solutions every other year or so. Most companies that have been online for any amount of time have had experience with several packages.

There are two basic technical paths taken in the Web analytics space today: one toward log-file analysis, the other toward tracer-based tracking. Log-file analysis requires the analysis software to parse the Web logs for each server. The goal is to pull data from a flat text file into a database structure that can be used to create reports.

Tracer-based tracking is Web based. The analysis company places a piece of code on each page of the site being analyzed, usually a one-pixel image. This ensures a call is made each time a user lands on a page of the site.

These different technical solutions resolve the same problem: getting data into a format that can be used to create reports. Hopefully, reports that show actionable information. Both solutions have strengths and weaknesses and reasons why a customer would prefer either.

Examples of companies in the log-file analysis space are ClickTracks, Red Sherriff, and Tacoda. In the Web-based tracking space are Core Metrics, Live Technology, and DoubleClick. WebTrends’ products fall into both categories. Of course, lumping all together based on the technical mechanism used to gather data is not a good representation of their capabilities. Using one or the other solution may not be possible for some sites due to specific technical paths used.

I had lunch the other day with Jim Rose and C. Decker Marquis, respectively the CEO and marketing manager of Sane Solutions, a Web analytics company in the log-file analysis space. This was remarkable for a few reasons. First, we all live in Rhode Island. It was the first time I’d ever had lunch with a peer company founded in my home state. Second, we didn’t know each other, which is virtually impossible in Rhode Island.

We swapped stories about the experience of doing business in this great small state and laughed about politics and misperceptions by many on the outside of Rhode Island as somewhat inconsequential as a state (although this horrible club fire has kept us in the nation’s eye lately).

Sane Solutions is an impressive company, perhaps more so because it’s a Rhode Island success story. Privately held, profitable, and growing, it offers serious analytics solutions that deserve a look. It’s been a quiet leader in the space. Rose says that’s due to roots as a bootstrapped startup:

We’re a very lean and mean company. We didn’t suffer during the business downturn because we’ve always lived with tight belts. We’re fiscally conservative, which has served us well in bull and bear markets. And we’ve got a big war chest that we’ve built up over the years, so we’re in an enviable position.

The flagship product suite is NetTracker, which is quite an interesting Web analytics solution. The NetTracker line is broken into three products for various levels. The entry-level NetTracker Professional solution costs around $500. It’s possibly the most powerful analytics solution available in that price range. It’s designed to support individual Web sites, and I was impressed with its sophistication.

NetTracker is a log-file cruncher. The tool did a great job crunching through a month of data from the relatively low-traffic Web application built in ASP I ran it on. For the preview, I installed it locally and imported the server logs into a folder on my desktop, but it’s designed to be installed on the server. NetTracker crunched through the logs in a short period and generated a series of impressive prepackaged reports that highlighted quite a few insights. NetTracker’s real power is it offers custom report capabilities beyond anything I expected in such an inexpensive package.

Rose said the company made the decision to offer similar reporting capabilities across all product versions. The main differentiators have to do with back-end capabilities of the solutions.

I played with NetTracker Professional for a few hours and got far more valuable information than I’ve ever gotten from similarly priced tools. It even supports analysis of clustered Web servers at no extra charge.

The mid-tier version, NetTracker Enterprise, allows network analysis for multiple sites with multiple applications and traffic patterns.

The top-tier product, NetTracker eBusiness Edition, offers all the above but stores data in either a SQL or Oracle database. This is critical for high-traffic sites (over 200MB of log files per day). As the solution has an open database schema, users can load Web data into a business intelligence solution for further mining or combine it with offline customer data for a total view of customers. Sane Solutions packaged this integration with business intelligence solutions, offering off-the-shelf solutions for Business Objects, Cognos, and MicroStrategy.

Founded in 1996, Sane Solutions has partnered with e-commerce technology leaders such as Business Objects, Cognos, MicroStrategy, Oracle, Vignette, Macromedia (Allaire), Microsoft, Sun-Netscape Alliance, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and others.

Decker says NetTracker is often the second or third analytics product suite their customers try. The response is always along the lines of, “Where have you been all this time? I’ve wasted so much time and money on solutions that don’t answer my questions and actually cost more!”

I can believe it after reviewing their solution — and not just because we’re “neighbors.” I was a little skeptical when I loaded the software but was pleasantly surprised. Maybe there’s something in the water here. Maybe it’s the good ocean air. Here’s another company showing Rhode Island is the little state that could.

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