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Google Analytics, Big G's highly popular free reporting software, is two years old tomorrow, but what impact has it had and what's in store for the future?

Arguably one of the biggest developments in the online marketing space in the past few years, Google Analytics is a fine tool for marketers, although it isn't without its issues.

We caught up with Google Analytics' Brian Clifton, as well as web analytics gurus Jim Sterne and Eric Peterson, to see how the software is shaping up, two years on... 

Firstly, how many people are using Google Analytics (GA)?
Google is notoriously stingy with uptake figures, so knowing the size of GA’s user base is pretty impossible.

Anecdotally, we have been told there are around 1m sites using the service, give or take 200,000 – but that is no way official and needs a big *treat with caution* sign next to it. We asked Google but it isn't telling.

What is certain is that GA is incredibly popular – its early teething problems are evidence of that – and has been a great strategic move by the company. 

Not only has it helped Google justify Adwords spending to its clients; it has also helped the entire sector by promoting the benefits of web analytics to a much wider audience. Some had feared that it would destroy the industry, but it hasn't turned out like that.

According to GA’s EMEA head Brian Clifton, there is a broad range of organisations using the service – from one-man bands to “some of the world’s biggest brands”.

But he also admits GA has had to overcome cynicism about the motivations behind its launch:

“People see us a major corporation with major influence on the internet and look at us a little bit sceptically. A lot of people ask as why our product is free - they don’t believe it’s really free or think there is a hidden agenda. They think one day we will charge them.

“We wouldn’t do any of those things. It wouldn’t make sense. We justify it as it gives advertisers transparency into online marketing.”

Who is using it?
Again, there aren't any exact numbers out there – although Web Analytics Demystifed author Eric .T. Peterson is hoping to reveal more about GA adoption soon through the Fall 2007 Survey on his site.

But clearly, GA has not just been a long tail-type play. Peterson says around 60% of the Fortune 1000 are using the service, often alongside more sophisticated, licensed alternatives.

It also seems possible to imagine GA being popular for what Web Analytics Association president Jim Sterne calls “guerrilla measurement” – as an ad-hoc reporting tool for projects and departments that don't have access to their company's incumbent analytics solution.

Clifton says this was one of the main reasons behind GA’s launch:

“Analytics products and tools have been around for ten years now – ironically, longer than Google. It was really a niche market until we came along and released a free product. Information was held in the hands of a very few people.

“One of our key mantras is to democratise data and make it much more accessible to everyone within an organisation. Spreading that love and spreading that data is a good thing.”

Conspiracy theories
So how is Google going to go about spreading more of that “love” in the future?

One priority, Clifton admits, will be to allay fears among some companies about the amount of data Google controls and how handing it insights into Adwords conversions, for example, might not be a good thing. We're glad he mentioned this, as we hear about it all the time. In a nut, Google gives some people The Fear.

He says:

“I understand why people have fears – it is a lot of data going to one entity. But as with all our data, we take extreme precautions to make sure it is secure and private and only accessed with the permission of the client. It is sensitive data – we appreciate that, and so is Adwords data, and we have to take care with it.”

Making users API
With API-loving Google yet to launch an open development platform around GA, it also seems pretty safe to assume that one is in the pipeline.

Vendors are focusing more and more on integration with other reporting technology, while Google says it gets many requests for an API on which users can develop new ways to analyse and use GA data.

Many expect this to happen pretty imminently - Peterson says he was “shocked” that GA did not launch an API at the eMetrics Summit in Washington in October, but expects it to do so at one of the next couple of conferences.

And although Clifton declines to comment on future release plans, he says such a move "would make sense”:

“If you look at our history, our company is very open source in nature. That is our philosophy. We like to be open with our data. We have an open API for Adwords, Google Earth and Maps etc.

“If you look at our track record it would make sense to do that sort of thing. We get requests for that feature often and we listen to users’ feature requests.”

Lag times
Another issue Clifton says he is often asked about is the lag before GA reports an event, which he says currently stands at between 3 and 4 hours. This seems to mirror what we're seing on Google Adsense.

While several analytics vendors now offer 'real-time' reporting, Google says it has to process feeds from multiple data centres before it can send reports on to users.

At some point, we expected to see the launch of a paid-for 'pro' version, with more functionality / tools such as faster reporting, but it hasn't materialised yet and Clifton says this is not a short-term priority:

“Some of our competitors do have real-time reporting and that’s a great bell and whistle in their feature list, but I’ve never met a customer yet that looks and acts on data on a real-time basis.

“Usually, the marketing or content creation department meets on a Monday morning and decides what will happen that week.

"While it’s a nice feature to have real time reporting, it’s resource intensive and I don’t see many people using that data in a real-time way.”

The future 
More generally, it's widely known that GA is facing a competitive threat in the lower-end of the market from Microsoft’s upcoming free reporting tool, codenamed Project Gatineau, and some are asking how long it will be before Yahoo! follows suit.

Regardless, we're not expecting Google to change course with its analytics software. The vast majority of websites out there are still not using any analytics solution at all, so there is plenty of scope for uptake by smaller site operators.

Also, although GA has already gained traction among medium and large businesses, some question whether it can take on vendors of the most high-end tools without making fairly drastic changes to the service as it currently stands.

Sterne, for example, asks "how much can Google invest in Google Analytics before it reaches the point where you can’t use it any more without a consultant? That’s an anathema to the goals of scaleability.”

Whatever happens, those same vendors will also be grateful for the positive effect GA has had on their market by promoting analytics to customers.

Clifton says:

“If you surveyed FTSE 100 companies and asked them whether they were using analytics data to drive business decisions a lot of respondents would say ‘Eh? What’s web analytics?’, even though they had a product and were paying a lot of money for it.

“The issue of people just collecting data and not turning it into information exists within a lot of organisations. It’s not unique to any tool. The challenge for the industry is to spread knowledge and educate users about what to do with data.”

So there it is, two years on. Still free. Happy Birthday Google Analytics.

Further Reading
Interview with Google's Brian Clifton
Eric T Peterson on the difficulties of Web 2.0 measurement
Interview with Jim Sterne

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Published 13 November, 2007 by Richard Maven

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