How Little Old Google Competes With the Big Dogs in Analytics

If you’re like me, you go to California not just for the sunshine but to get hooked on the latest developments in the world of data analysis. And if you love digital analytics, you should have heard by now about the recent announcements from Google about its free analytics tool. A couple of weeks ago, in sunny Mountain View, Google announced the latest developments and functionality that makes Google Analytics comparable with the big paid-for players in the web analytics industry.

First to the buzzwords: “universal analytics.” It’s what Google is using to describe the big changes it’s making to the way it tracks how people visit your website. Talk of sessions is old hat as Google starts to piece together how people use multiple devices in a single customer journey. No longer will you lose track of a person if they complete a purchase using their mobile device after they researched the product with their desktop. There will still be some data challenges, but if you can encourage your visitors to sign in to your site, you’re going to have access through a free tool that can track your customer’s behavior using multiple devices. Then “omnichannel,” the 2012 marketing buzzword, should hold no fear for you.

This change in measurement protocol and a philosophy that all data is good data have further benefits. Google is now going to allow you to merge CRM data into your Google Analytics. It’s great for the average analyst, as now extra data can be pulled into the system. Imagine being able to target content for your visitors based on the lifetime value of their offline purchases. As Andrew Edwards states, we are now in the age of convergence analytics.

If the phrase “last click” gets you in an analytics rage, then the announcement that attribution modelling is going to be rolled out to the free version of Google Analytics will calm your nerves. The data-mining possibilities have just expanded exponentially. So if you’re a good analyst, you can now have a lot of fun optimizing your ad spend across all channels from brand campaigns through to retargeting. Previously this functionality was only available in Google’s paid-for package. This democratization of data is going to make Nate Silvers of all of us, helping us to build predictive models and increase the number of data scientists in the industry.

How does “little” Google still manage to do this? You must think I’m an idiot for describing Google like that, so I’m glad you’ve made it this far. I call Google little because up till now Google Analytics’ reputation was of a free entry tool that wasn’t really up to providing enterprise analysis. People used Google Analytics in basic ways and left advanced analytics to some of the “bigger” paid-for tools. So why does Google invest in a tool that no one pays for? Clearly if you have $11 billion in revenue per quarter like Google does, you get a freedom to invest in whatever you fancy; especially when the objective of the free tool is to provide insight that encourages extra spend across Google ad networks. We all get hooked by the gateway drug of analysis, and while we stare at our beautiful charts, we spend more on targeted ads.

Google has also developed an analytics partner network whose quality and enthusiasm is mightily impressive (disclosure: I’m a Google Analytics certified partner). Globally there are 250 companies in 46 countries that help Google test out and develop new tools and functionality, and in return get access to senior Google engineers and whitelisted for new products. So the little band of Google engineers utilizes its own social network of partners to amplify their developments.

The big boys Adobe-Omniture and Webtrends both have competing functionality to the innovations I’ve described, but it’s exciting when a free tool sets the bar so high. The kicker to all of this is that just because a tool is free, doesn’t mean it’s going to manage itself. In the first two days of this week I’ve had four meetings with organizations on why their free tool isn’t giving them what they needed. So don’t forget that free tools have a cost of ownership too. You can make this argument for any tool, but if you leave something fallow for long enough, it’s going to fall into disrepair. But with the great fun you can have with the latest Google Analytics functionality, why would you?

SEO icon image on home page via Shutterstock.

This column was originally published on Nov. 14, 2012.

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