Single-Page Apps: Dream or Nightmare?
A few months ago, I was discussing a new project with a prospective client, and they described what they needed like this: “We have a brand new website and need to re-implement Adobe Analytics. So far we have no data layer, and we have no developer resources in place for this project. Can you help us re-implement Adobe Analytics?” I generally avoid projects just like this – not because I can’t write server-side application code in several languages, but because even if I am going to write code for a project like that, I still need a sharp developer or two to bounce ideas off of, and ask questions to find out where certain files are located, what standards they want me to follow, and other things like that. In an effort to do due diligence, I asked them to follow up with their IT team on a few basics. Which platform was their site built on? Which programming languages would be required?
When they followed up by saying that the site was built on Websphere using ReactJS, I was sure this project was doomed to failure – every recent client I had worked with that was using either of these technologies struggled mightily, and here was a client using both! In addition, while I understand the premise behind using ReactJS and can generally work my way through a ReactJS application, having to do all the heavy lifting myself was a terrifying thought. In an effort to do due diligence, I agreed to discuss this project with some members of their IT team.
On that call, I quickly realized that there had been a disconnect in how the marketing folks on the project had communicated what the IT folks wanted me to know. I learned that a data layer already existed on the site – and it already contained pretty much everything identified in the solution design that needed to be tracked. We still had to identify a way to track a few events on the website (like cart adds), but I felt good enough about the project to take it on.
This project, and a handful of others over the past year, have challenged some strong opinions I’ve held on single page applications (SPAs for short). Here are just a few of those:
- SPAs have just as many user experience challenges as the page-based applications they are designed to replace.
- SPAs are present a major measurement challenge for traditional analytics tools like Adobe or Google Analytics.
- Most companies move to an SPA-based website because they look and sound cool – they’re just the latest “shiny object” that executives decide they have to have.
While I still hold each of these opinions to some degree, the past few months have given me a much more open mind about single-page applications and frameworks like React or Angular. Measurement of SPAs is definitely a challenge – but it’s not an insurmountable one. If your company is thinking about moving to a single-page application, you need to understand that – just like the site itself is going to be fundamentally different than what you’re used to – the way you measure it will be as well. I’d like to offer a few things you’ll want to strongly consider as you decide how to track your new SPA.
A New Data Architecture
In many ways, SPAs are much better equipped to support a data layer than the old, Frankenstein-ish website you’re moving away from. Many companies I know have such old websites that they pre-date their adoption of a tag management system. Think about that – a tool you probably purchased at least six years ago still isn’t as old as your website itself! So when you implemented your TMS, you probably bolted on your data layer at the same time, grabbing data wherever you could find it.
Migrating to an SPA – even for companies that do this one page at a time – requires a company to fundamentally rethink its approach to data. It’s no longer available in the same ways – which is a good thing. Rather than building the data layer one template at a time like in the past, an SPA typically accesses the data it needs to build a page through a series of APIs that are exposed by back-end development teams. For example, data related to the authenticated user is probably retrieved as the page loads from a service connected to your CRM; data relevant to the contents of a customer’s shopping cart may be accessed through an API integrated with your e-commerce platform; and the content for your pages is probably accessed through an integration with your website CMS. But unlike when you implemented your data layer the first time – when your website already had all that data the way it needed it and in the right locations on the page – your development team has to rethink and rebuild all of that data architecture. You both need the data this time around – which should make collaboration much easier and help you avoid claims that they just can’t get you the data you need.
Timing Challenges for Data Availability
As part of this new approach to data, SPAs typically also introduce a shift in the way they make this data accessible to the browser. The services and APIs I mentioned in the previous section are almost always asynchronous – which introduces a new challenge for measurement teams implementing tracking on SPAs.
On a traditional website, the page is generated on the server, and as this happens, data is pulled into the page from appropriate systems. That data is already part of the page when it is returned to the browser. On an SPA, the browser gets an almost “empty” page with a bunch of instructions on where to get the relevant data for the page; then, as the user navigates, rather than reloading a new page, it just gets a smaller set of instructions for how to update the relevant parts of the page to simulate the effect of navigation.
This “set of instructions” is the API calls I mentioned earlier – the browser is pulling in user data from one service, cart data from another, and product/content data from yet another. As data is made available, it is inserted into the page in the appropriate spot. This can have a positive impact on user experience, because less-relevant data can be added as it comes back, rather than holding up the loading of the entire page. But let’s just say it presents quite a challenge to analytics developers. This is because most tag management systems were built and implemented under the assumption that you’d want to immediately track every page as it loads, and that every new page would actually be a new page. SPAs don’t work like that – if you track an SPA on the page load, or even the DOM ready event, you’re probably going to track it before a significant amount of data is available. So you have to wait to track the initial page load until all the data is ready – and then you have to track subsequent page refreshes of the SPA as if a new page had actually loaded.
You may have experienced this problem before with a traditional website – many companies experiment with the idea of an SPA by trying it out on a smaller part of their website, like user authentication or checkout. Or you’ve maybe seen it with certain third-party tools like your recommendation engine – which, while not really an SPA, have similar timing issues because they feed content onto the page asynchronously. The good news is that most companies that go all-in on SPAs do so all at once, rather than trying to migrate single sections over a longer period of time. They undertake a larger replatforming effort, which probably makes it easier to solve for most of these issues.
Figuring out this timing is one of the most important hurdles you’ll need to coordinate as you implement tracking on an SPA – and it’s different for every site. But the good news is that – as long as you’re using one of the major tag management systems – or planning to migrate from Adobe DTM to Launch as part of your project – it’s the hard part. Because every major TMS has a solution to this problem built right in that allows you to fire any tag on any event that occurs on the page. So your web developers just need to notify your analytics developers when the page is truly “ready.” (Again, if you’re still using Adobe DTM, I can’t emphasize strongly enough that you should switch to Launch if you’re building an SPA. DTM has a few notable “features” that pose major problems for SPAs.)
A New Way of Tracking Events
The good news is that SPAs will force you to clean up your act – because many of the traditional ways of tracking fall down. Because an SPA is constantly updating the DOM without loading a new page, you can’t just add a bunch of event listeners that bind when the page loads (or on DOM ready). You’d need to turn off all your listeners on each page refresh and turn on a bunch of new ones, which can be tedious and prone to error. Another option that will likely not work in every case is to target very broad events (like a body “click”) and then within those handlers just see which element first triggered the event. This approach could also potentially have a negative impact on the user’s experience.
Instead, many teams developing an SPA also develop a new model for listening and responding to events that, just like the data layer, can be leveraged by analytics teams as well.
The company I mentioned at the beginning of this post had an entire catalog of events they already needed to listen for to make the SPA work – for example, they needed to listen for each cart add event so that they could send data about that item to their e-commerce system. The e-commerce system would then respond with an updated version of all the data known about a future order. So they built an API for this – and then, the analytics team was able to use it as well. Without any additional development, we were able to track nearly every key interaction on the website. This was all because they had taken the time to think about how events and interactions should work on the website, and they built something that was extensible to other things on the website than just its core purpose.
This is the kind of thing that a company would almost never do with an old website – it’s a large effort to build this type of event service, and it has to be done inside an old, messy codebase. But when you build an SPA, you have to do it anyway – so you might as well add a little bit more work up front to save you a ton of time later on. Developers figure these kinds of things out as they go – they learn tricks that will save time in the future. SPAs can offer a chance to put some of these tricks into action.
There are many other important things to consider when building a single-page application, and it’s a major undertaking that can take longer than a company plans for. But while I still feel that it’s more difficult to implement analytics on an SPA than any other type of web-based application, it doesn’t have to be the nightmare that many companies encounter. Just remember to make sure your development team is building all this new functionality in a way that everyone can benefit from:
- While they’re making sure all the data necessary for each view (page) of the website is available, make sure they provide hooks so that other teams (like analytics) can access that data.
- Consider the impact on your website of all of that data showing up at different times.
- Develop an event model that makes it easy to track key interactions on the site without relying on fragile CSS selectors and DOM hacks.
A few weeks ago at our ACCELERATE conference, I led a roundtable for the more technical minded attendees. The #1 challenge companies were dealing with when it came to analytics implementation was SPAs. But the key is to take advantage of all the opportunities an SPA can offer – you have to realize it gives you the chance to fix all the things that have broken and been patched together over the years. Your SPA developers are going to spend a lot of time getting the core functionality right – and they can do it in a way that can make your job easier, too, if you get out in front of them and push them to think in innovative ways. If you do, you might find yourself wondering why some folks complain so much about tracking single-page apps. But if you don’t, you’ll be right there complaining with everyone else. If you’re working with SPAs, I’d love to hear from you about how you’re solving the challenges they present – or where you’re stuck and need a little help.
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