Thursday, January 8, 2009

WAA standards definitions and Dainow

I read Brandt Dainow argument about "The web analytics standard that failed us".

For some reason, it seems to be another rant against the Web Analytics Association, but that's another story and I don't want to know about it.

In this post, I'll give my opinion about:
  • Marketing and IT parallel universe
  • The value of the WAA
  • Consensus vs. authority
  • Algorithm and patents
I conclude with what I see in the field.

Marketing schmoozing vs engineering complexity?

In some respect, Dainow is right. The current WAA definitions is the result of "an amalgamation of various perspectives arrived at through a consensus" (from the WAA document) (i.e. avoid alienating any vendors). Just like the WAA site didn't have any web analytics tool for a long while in order to avoid political snafu with vendors. This is my opinion as a WAA member, based on informal discussion, and maybe I'm totally wrong here!

But beyond that, being myself from a technological background and a witness of the parallel universe separating marketing and IT, it's clear to me those definitions are written in marketing terms rather than engineering terminology. Obviously, Dainow would like to see the definitions written in a more engineering lingua franca. I thing that's the whole point of his argument.

Rather than throwing stones at it, Dainow should realize this document was published with the mention "For public comments". In a way, that's exactly what he is doing with his provocative style.

The value brought by the WAA

"The end goal is to have true metrics standards and uniform adoption of these standards throughout our industry". To get there, "the WAA established the Standards Committee to rationalize variations within the analytics community, and to create a standard terminology for the analytics community."

The point is right there: standard terminology. While Dainow aims to impose a technological standard which would need to be developed, supported and imposed by a standard organization, the WAA approach is to work with involved parties to develop a common terminology which, it hopes, will become a "de facto standard".

Consensus vs authority

We shouldn't forget the WAA is a volunteer organization. If I had to write "standards" as a job (i.e. be paid for it). I would certainly spend countless hours doing it and reaching out to vendors, signing strict NDAs, making friends with the engineers, etc. As volunteers, there's so much we can do. Just writing this post took me valuable time I could have spent invoicing my clients. In a troubled economy, we are looking closely at the time we spend doing "ancillary" stuff and how much those activities are bringing back in our own personal pockets. That's the sad reality!

The ISO is a standard body, and in order to claim ISO certification you need to abide by strict rules, undergo audits and pay to retain certification. On the other end, the IAB is a more open structure, much more similar to the WAA, that was able to define common terminology regarding online advertising and bring "standards, guidelines and best practices". Which one makes most sense? In my mind, the second option is the way to go!

Algorithm and patents

As a tutor of the UBC Award of Achievement in Web Analytics, I have had the chance to tutor to hundred of students. Do they really care about the engineering definition of a visit? Not really. They care about the way they will be able to communicate that information to managers and make them act on it.

My eBusiness MBA thesis will be a review of the literature available on the topic of web analytics. Simply put, literature about the concepts or use of specific products (especially Google Analytics) abound in the form of books and blogs. The rationale behind those is often a desire to stand out of the crowd and serve as bait for high income consulting services. However, scholarly literature with an engineering slant is almost non-existent. The reason might be simple: we're in the realm of privately owned algorithm and patents. For vendors, there is simply no interest in seeing what is perceived as a secret sauce revealed to the world.

Conclusion

Do we need an engineering definition of a page view, a visit, a visitor or a bounce (maybe especially bounce!)? Eventually, absolutely! But what we first need to achieve is a common communication language.

I think that's the true objective of the WAA Web Analytics Definitions document. And we're closer now than we were last year!
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