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Newfangled works with independent agencies to create lead development web platforms for their clients.

Post-Google Analytics



Months ago, while planning the topics I'd cover in this newsletter through the conclusion of 2011, I had in mind to write something about search. It had been a while—almost two years at that point—since I last wrote anything about search specifically, though I had covered all sorts of things related to search many times since then, like search engine optimization and measurement. So, as is my habit, I created a text document called "search article" and began adding notes as ideas or reference material came up.

As I reviewed those notes, I realized something. Most of them were really about measurement. That's when it hit me: Search as a topic is interesting—there's certainly academic value in exploring how search engines work and how we use them—but for all practical purposes, there's very little perceptual difference between search and measurement. After all, we're not that interested in what people are searching for in general; we're interested in what queries people use when they are searching for the kinds of products and services we offer, and especially in how they get from their search to our websites. In other words, what we're really looking to understand is the feedback loop that exists between search engines and websites, and the key to doing that is in measurement.

In the past year, however, there has been at least one major change to how Google participates in that feedback loop—one you've probably noticed and have urgent questions about. I'm going to get to that. In fact, discussing that single change will be the bulk of this article. But before I get there, let me offer a prediction for the coming year that is, for better or worse, largely the result of decisions Google made in the last few months: 2012 will be the year that many of us start paying for analytics. Whether for specific web analytics applications, API integration, or AdWords, we are going to start discovering that consistent, reliable access to data and analysis is well worth budgeting for.

If you haven't already come to that conclusion yourself, let me try to convince you...







Comments

Jake | January 4, 2012 4:41 PM
Great read and thorough explanation of what has been puzzling me in my GA acct for a while now. But now that I know, I'm ticked off.

It's not that I'm against Google making changes, or even making changes that might push account holders to become paying customers, it's just that it would have been classy if they'd let people know in advance what the outcomes might be. The announcement is one thing, but a "what this means for you" explanation was needed. A missed opportunity for Google to show that they actually gave people a passing thought.

I guess you're right to be skeptical of Google by default. So, yeah, it looks like you're right about paying this year, but for most of us, that's not just an unattractive option, it's not really an option at all. :-(
gk | January 4, 2012 5:55 PM
good analysis as usual. i think you're hunches sound about right to me!
MaggieB | January 4, 2012 9:34 PM
Losing the keyword data is disappointing, yes, but I don't completely get why you're downgrading Google analytics overall. It still is far and away the best tool of its kind out there for most people, isn't it? Most of the other tools you mentioned cost something, but Google is still giving theirs away. Not to harp, but disowning them seems a little premature. :-)

I actually don't really have that much of a bone to pick about the encrypted data, anyway, because in the end I completely agree with your analysis and hunches. Why wouldn't Google want to make some money off of analytics at this point? If they do release something bigger that requires payment, it's probably going to be worthwhile.
Christopher Butler | January 5, 2012 7:30 AM
Jake: Agreed, a more qualitative warning would have been considerate. Maybe there was one and I didn't hear about it?

gk: Thanks, and thanks for reading.

Maggie: I'm not trying to be overly harsh on Google. It's certainly their prerogative to add or remove functionality from their software as they see fit; especially when they've not asked for anything in return for the use of that software to date. That's not why I downgraded them. And by the way, I should say that I was trying to be a bit tongue-in-cheek when I wrote "downgrade," knowing full well that my opinion on the matter should have little to no influence on the value of the tool or their company. It would be absurd for me to think otherwise!

Anyway, to me, the keyword data were what set Google Analytics apart from other tools precisely because the keywords maintained that search-to-stats feedback loop I was talking about. That's why an analytics tool offered by a search engine is such a brilliant idea! Billions of search queries pass through Google every day, and their analytics tool helps you to understand how your tiny piece of that activity corresponds to the traffic your website gets. That's been a game-changer for marketing analysis. Without that connection, it's not as if we have nothing. But we don't have much that another analytics tool can't offer us. This is why I don't find Google Analytics as essential as it was, and frankly, why I spend far less time in it today now that our CMS has been updated than I did a year ago.

As for my hunches, we'll just have to see. But I appreciate your vote of confidence ;-)
Amy | January 6, 2012 11:53 AM
Fantastic article! Thanks for your thorough research and thoughtful insights. I've noticed an uptick in "(not provided)" keyword results and was curious about it. If Google keeps so many keywords in the secured space, would I see a change in results if I paid another company for analytics?
Jill Whalen | January 6, 2012 12:29 PM
But, Chris, because Google has shut off access to the keyword data for any logged in user, that information is not available to ANY analytics tool, not just Google Analytics.

So there's no need to stop using Google Analytics in favor of another analytics program since you still won't get the missing information.

Your point about using other types of analytics tools that provide a different sort of data/information, is well taken, however.
Eric Larson | January 6, 2012 1:39 PM
What do you think of services like Hubspot?
Christopher Butler | January 6, 2012 2:29 PM
Amy: Thanks, I'm glad you enjoyed it. Although on the thorough research point, no matter how thorough I think I am, I always miss something. In fact, just five minutes ago, Mark found a link to a service neither of us knew about: Google Analytics Premium. As far as I can tell, the advantages it offers are heavily in the guarantee area—good SLA, uptime, data ownership, etc.—as well as a much higher level of customization. But there's no indication of whether keyword data is handled any differently within this tool than the free version. My assumption is that most of these distinctions were made before the encryption change went public last October. In any case, we'll still have to wait and see if my big hunch is right—that a tool like this Premium version might offer keyword analytics at some point in the future.

The short answer to your question is no. But let me explain in a way that will answer Jill's comment, too.

Since Google has encrypted the keyword data, no other analytics tool would have access to it either. That's why the API we were using also stopped allowing keyword queries. It's not just Google Analytics, it's the data; Google is keeping it all close to the chest.

Or, in other words, what Jill said.

But just to clarify, I wasn't saying that anyone should switch from Google Analytics to another tool because they might be able to regain access to keyword data. I was saying that it was the keyword data which made Google Analytics such an incredibly powerful analytics tool and distinguished it from many of the others. Google was providing the essential piece of that search-to-stats feedback loop: being able to help website administrators understand what people are searching for and how that directed them to their sites. Without that key piece, I'm not sure that Google Analytics is substantially better than another tool. So my advice is to start experimenting with building a "suite" of tools that are both generalist, as well as unique—as many of them are (i.e. some offer real time, some offer unique social measurement, etc.).

Eric: I have mixed feelings about Hubspot. But I also have limited experience with their services, which I know have grown and changed significantly over the last few years. Mark recently bought a short-term consulting package with them—within the last year—so I'm going to ask him to share his thoughts about that.

The one thing that I haven't been a fan of—and again, this is information I only know about from clients who have used Hubspot in the past so I'd love to hear if this is incorrect or being handled differently now—is that Hubspot customers that use their blogging tool are not given the ability to export that content when/if they decide to end their relationship with Hubspot. Because blog content is such an important piece of a company's web property and marketing strategy, keeping it offsite, and in particular, with a service that restricts access to that content, is a mistake. Mark?
Mark O'Brien | January 6, 2012 3:23 PM
Eric: I've always had good experiences with Hubspot, particularly with one consultant there by the name of Mark Greco. The way I read their pricing, most mid-sized businesses with a decent book of leads/subscribers would end up paying around $1,000/mo. or so to use their tools, so it is in the same basic ballpark as other high-end LMA (Lead Management Automation) tools such as Eloqua, Marketo, Genius, etc. Most mid-sized businesses wouldn't build their sites with HubSpot, so that ~$1k/mo. is in addition to whatever hosting and maintenance costs they're already paying.

None of these tools would be used in place of Google Analytics, but rather are used in conjunction with it.
Tyroga | January 6, 2012 3:27 PM
I gotta say I'm not that bummed about it all, and am pretty sure there was indeed a "what this means to you" type email that went around about it.

Ultimately what it may mean is less "click bait" and "keyword loading" you won't have shady website owners going "awesome we put that keyword throughout our site and got this many clicks from it, even though it doesn't have a lot to do with what we really offer".

The power in Google Analytics is how the user moves through your site, your funnels and filters. They get there because you created good content or connected with them in some way. The "how they get there" should be less important than what they are doing why they are there and what you can do to keep them.

Too much emphasis is placed on the numbers. If you're a content provider, create good content. In the words of that faithful movie "Field of Dreams": "if you build it, they will come".

Granted I'm not in the business of making money directly from my own site (but I have). And maybe my opinion would be different if I were, but word of mouth is an always will be the best we can get, and Google is really just another form of that. And just like any other customer who provides a word of mouth referral they do so on the basis of our products and the overall service we provide.

And I think the other thing with people logged in: users are getting a more curated search these days. Results are based on past searches and all round general belief in what Google thinks you're interested in from web usage while logged in. It's no longer like it used to be, the results you see are not the same as the ones I will see.

For me the "keywords" section of analytics has always been a curiosity thing, I love it when I see something weird pop up in the list, but often when I try and replicate the search it doesn't result in a link to my site appearing on the first however many pages I click through. So it's no longer relevant to me.
Christopher Butler | January 6, 2012 3:52 PM
Tyroga: I get regular email updates from Google Analytics; several came before, around the time of the encryption announcement, and after, but none pertaining to the encryption or what it would mean. That said, if you got one or know of one I'd love to see or be directed to it. Again, I'm not trying to pick on Google about this. As I said, it's their prerogative to make these kinds of decisions. Or, like you said, I'm not that bummed about it. ;-)

As for what it may mean, your idea may be right to some degree, although I think that's already happening as a result of Google's crackdown on content farms and the tweak they made to their algorithm last summer (or thereabouts). In general, though, I agree with you that creating good content should be prioritized over driving traffic. But that doesn't mean that measurement of the traffic you do get isn't important. That's what I'm talking about here, and what I tend to focus on in all my articles on measurement. I'm certainly not a lots-of-traffic-is-a-good-thing kind of guy.

Thanks for commenting!
Russ | January 7, 2012 12:35 AM
Chris, great commentary - it does stink that Google is encrypting search queries - it is one of my favorite features.

Google Analytics has made me a believer. I switched over from webtrends and am absolutely blown away by how they progress this "free" tool - What a gift. The amount of info and how far you can drill down is amazing to me. I get lost in it for hours.

I always thought that they should combine Google Webmaster Tools and Analytics together. There is overlap there and sometimes I like to look at info from both at the same time.

I have given up trying to figure out why Google does what it does - but Analytics still remains the best free package on the market. Nice read....
Eric | January 9, 2012 2:24 PM
Great article, but don't forget that Google Analytics, although free, is already EXTREMELY valuable to Google because it serves as yet another mechanism for them to mine data about our websites. I think this data is actually more valuable than the potential revenues they would make from a paid service.
Richard | January 9, 2012 3:02 PM
You already have to pay for Google Analytics. Apparently if you send more than 10M page views they will make you sample on your own or you have to pay for Premium.
Peter | January 9, 2012 5:43 PM
Piwik (http://piwik.org) is a great alternative you should take a look. It provides a feature rich API with segmentation and stuff. It is free but you should be aware that you are hosting it on your own servers. Hosting strong servers can be expensive, so it is not all in all free in the end.
Christopher Butler | January 11, 2012 8:29 AM
Russ: I hear you. Google has definitely been accelerating in various ways lately. Just posted something on that today, by the way. All we can really do is watch and see…

Eric: Great point!

Richard: Interesting. I didn't realize there was a traffic limit for sites using GA, but it makes sense given how often Google's servers would be hammered in those cases.

Peter: Thanks for the link. I'll check it out!
Andy Harris | January 11, 2012 3:37 PM
Great article Chris - refreshing to see well-thought out content to keep us analytics-heads interested.

When we created our analytics software product (which, like the others, is hit slightly by the lack of keywords being visible, and will increasingly be so over time), it was (as I think other analytics systems are) created as complementary to GA. There are many great things that GA do that other tools wouldn't attempt to replicate, but other tools can add additional insights that are useful to certain types of users.

In our case we decided that, amongst other things, people within companies would be most interested in which other companies had been to their websites, and each page they viewed, how long for, etc. (and keywords they typed of course, when possible to track that!). For our target market, such companies utilise that information in various ways and so get their ROI.

For other analytics systems there will be gems of features that we don't feature and GA doesn't feature. It all depends on what the buyer is most interested in I suppose.

However, I fully agree that 2012 will see a significant increase in people interested in getting deeper into analytics. We've seen a noticeable increase over time and once that hurdle (people 'getting' what the data can tell them) is successfully leaped, companies start to benefit.

A comment about Google themselves and why they hold back on keywords. I'm happy to be a sceptic and my viewpoint is that it comes down to one thing: an awareness that analytics tools (and knowledge) are making people increasingly able to dig deep into their website traffic, makes them aware of where they're wasting money. If Google shut off that ability within organic search but effectively make people pay for it (via PPC) then it's just another way of pushing people into the PPC direction. And of course, it's no secret that Google would love the whole SEO community to just wither up and die so that they can make as much money as possible.

For those of us in the analytics industry who care about the ROI that companies get from their expenditure, all the time that there appear to be unfair practices going on (for example, the content network being switched on by default within Adwords accounts when set up), then our work is never done.

Forecast for 2013-14: consolidation of analytics providers - analytics companies buying other analytics companies purely to get their customer bases who are willing to pay subscription fees.

Jessie | January 16, 2012 4:45 PM
what do you think about IBM's analytics stuff? just saw this piece in the NYT where they say that IBM "has spent more than $14 billion on 25 companies that specialize in data mining and analytics."
tony | April 3, 2013 7:43 AM
Apparel Packaging
Andrew Symonds | August 24, 2013 3:37 PM
Future of Internet will not be decided by google, They are not the company which can successfully organise all the global data in a free and fair way. Other companies must venture in this field now. Even the comsumer must be aware

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