Congratulations to the WAA Standards Committee!
I wanted to say congratulations to Jason Burby, Angie Brown, and everyone on the Web Analytics Association’s Standards Committee for publishing their standards document last week. Given the number of web analytics terms they defined (26) and the somewhat slow process the Association has for getting documents approved, this effort is a huge milestone for the organization, one that Jason and Angie deserve great praise for indeed!
If you haven’t already downloaded and read the definitions, check them out here (PDF download).
While the PDF document says that the final product is “Web Analytics Definitions – Version 4.0” this is clearly a “Web Analytics 1.0” document. The committee relegated all of the really wonderful Web 2.0 stuff like AJAX, RSS, XML, and the such to the same confusing obscurity they exist in today with the comment “certain technologies including (but not limited to) Flash, AJAX, media files, downloads, documents, and PDFs do not follow the typical page paradigm but may be definable as pages in specific tools.”
Given the last year’s push towards measuring Web 2.0 the right way and some great, insightful work from folks like Ian Houston and Judah Phillips it is kind of a shame that this document doesn’t address event-based measurement architecture more directly. The group does define “event” but only does so under the header of “Conversion Metrics” stating that an event is “any logged or recorded action that has a specific date and time assigned to it by either the browser or server.
Sounds like the definition of a Web 2.0 event to me, but I’m not sure why this is relegated to conversion metrics.
Regardless, this is great and valuable and useful work on the part of these hard-working volunteers. But the definition of standards raises one particularly important question: Given the definition of standards, what the hell do web analytics practitioners do with them?
The Fundamental Problem
The fundamental problem with these definitions (and any standard definitions IMHO) is that without an enforcement mechanism they are unlikely to provide any real benefit to the folks in the trenches. As long as smart folks like Eric Enge at Stone Temple Consulting continue to uncover as much as a 154% difference in the measured number of visitors and a 161% difference in the measured number of page views between concurrently deployed solutions, the average web analytics end user should not be comforted by the existence of standards.
Put another way, it is not the definition of standards that makes a difference, it is the adherence to standards by technology vendors that will provide the portability of skills, knowledge, and solutions so desired by many in our industry. Jason Burby sagely points this out in his Clickz article on his volunteer work when he says:
“Companies often switch metrics tools and subsequently change the terms they use to discuss analytics. One tool will call something one name, while another tool calls it by a different name or applies different meanings to a very similar name. When people switch tools and bring data with them, they don’t get an apples-to-apples comparisons. As a result, companies lose the important year-over-year view.
Though the new standards won’t instantly take care of that issue, they provide a step in the right direction.”
The Barrier to the Adoption of Standards
The problem as I see it is this: For many web analytics vendors, the way they calculate some of the critical metrics in web analytics is the “secret sauce” in their solution. Consider the WAA’s definition of unique visitors which states that unique visitors are:
“The number of inferred individual people (filtered for spiders and robots), with a designated reporting timeframe, with activity consisting of one or more visits to a site. Each individual is counted only once in the unique visitor measure for the reporting period.”
This is perfectly reasonable, but the definition goes on to say that “a unique visitor count is always associated with a time period (most often a day, week, or month), and it is a non-additive metric.”
Do you wonder what the folks at Visual Sciences who have spent millions to perfect their “data wheels” technology that effectively removes the “time period” requirement would say to this? One of the major value propositions at Visual Sciences (at least during my brief tenure) was that time was irrelevant — if you wanted the number of unique visitors for the football season, you dragged your mouse across the calendar; if you wanted the number of unique visitors for a few hours during the day, you dragged your mouse; if you wanted the number of unique visitors to your site since recording began, you dragged your mouse.
You can make the case that this example more or less removes the time dependence associated with the WAA definition. But should all the vendors who don’t have this capability (anywhere you are forced to use metrics like “Daily Unique Visitors”) spend the R&D money necessary to eliminate the dependence on time? Or should Visual back this functionality out of their application?
When you start to think about these kinds of things, much less issues associated with data sampling and data roll-off that occurs for a litany of reasons, you can start to understand why I made this somewhat snide comment in a MediaShift article awhile back:
“A friend of mine described it as the most beautiful fantasy…but it would never happen,” consultant Peterson said. “Omniture has a $1 billion market cap, and I don’t see Omniture tearing apart their technology to calculate unique visitors and page views differently because all their competitors have decided there’s a different way to do it. It’s hard to imagine. Not impossible. Fantasies sometimes come true.”
Ironically the cost isn’t the main problem: The impact on existing customers who would be forced to learn new definitions and suffer from potentially dramatic changes in data collection and reporting is the main problem. Do you want to be the person who has to tell a Fortune 500 customer that because you’re adopting more standard definitions that their page view count will suddenly drop by 35% month-over-month?
I had to do that once. Trust me here, it wasn’t a fun conversation to have.
An Idea in the Absence of a Solution
Given that I think that the WAA has produced some incredibly valuable work, despite some potential barriers to the work’s adoption, I do have an idea that I would love to see the Association follow-up on, one that would add a tremendous amount of value to this already great work.
I would love to see the Standards Committee create a matrix of standards compliance for each of the vendors in the marketplace today. Basically a checklist that details on a term-by-term basis which vendors are currently using the WAA definitions that would let companies looking for a solution to include that criteria in their assessment. Something that would let everyone quickly determine:
- How standards compliant a given solution is (and which solution today is “most compliant”)
- Which standard definitions are calculated out-of-box in each solution (for example, “Original Referrer” and “Bounce Rate”)
- Which currently available solutions dramatically differ from the norm in their use of standard terms
Something like this would probably have to be backed up with some documentation or examples as proof points, just for reference. And yeah, this is kind of a lot of work, but if you think about it all you really need is for one WAA member per solution to poke around in their documentation and then someone (Jason and Angie maybe) to collate the results and write it up. I would be happy to contribute the matrix assessment for the web analytics solution I’m using now if that would up!
Who knows, maybe we’d discover that all the vendors are already standards compliant and there really isn’t a problem with definitions!
What Do You Think?
I’d love to hear what all of you think about the new standards and my concerns about how they’ll be used (or not used.) Am I missing something? Were you disappointed to not see something that spoke more clearly to your concerns about Web 2.0 technology? Or are you just pleased that the WAA published these definitions and see them as a small-but-important first step?