March 27, 2008, 12:00 AM

Google Gets E-Retailers Rolling on Analytics

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“For now, the net is that Google Analytics has benefited the industry as a whole because it has gotten more people involved in analytics,” says Megan Burns, analyst with technology research company Forrester Research Inc. “In the future, it’s hard to say. Google may decide to build out functionality so that it rivals a platform like Omniture or WebTrends or Unica, in which case they could certainly be competitive if they changed their model. I don’t know that Google plans to do that. We’d have to see where the market is at the time to see what kind of impact that would have.”

What will shape any direction or development of Google’s analytics tool is the experience that users including retailers are having with it now. Online retailers who use Google Analytics cover a broad range of circumstances showing where the tool is-or is not-fitting their needs.

Take Beach Audio Inc., which launched online in 2002 and had sales of $15.6 million online in 2007. Three months ago, the retailer implemented Google Analytics after having no analytics capacity other than an outside web service that tracked campaigns. “One of the problems we have is that we are so busy,” says David Schloss, founder and CEO. “We look at analytics only a few minutes every day.”

Schloss says his team is still figuring out how to use the Google tool, but he expects it to be a learning experience about analytics itself as much as a source of data on his site. “We didn’t know what we wanted and Google was free,” he says. By starting with Google, he figures, he’ll be in a better position to know what to look for should he later decide to upgrade.

It’s hard to argue with the experiment-for-free rationale, but analytics vendors point out one aspect some retailers may overlook. As when moving from any vendor’s platform to another for many kinds of technology, there is the risk of losing historical data in the transfer.

“Online retailers need to consider whether they want to start with a lower-end solution and possibly lose some of that historical transaction data when they outgrow Google and move to a solution that meets their needs today, a year from now and 10 years from now,” says Matt Belkin, vice president of Omniture Consulting, the consulting arm of analytics provider Omniture Inc.

Google’s free offering also has gotten the attention of retailers such as Todd Rath, co-founder and chief operating and marketing officer of RockBottomGolf.com, which sold $21.7 million of golf gear in 2007. “Free is good,” says Rath, who has been using Google Analytics for two years. RockBottom’s previous experience with analytics was with some limited tracking ability bundled into the Yahoo Merchant Solutions platform on which the site runs.

Rath says he’s looked at analytics packages from vendors that would have cost from $3,000 to $5,000 per month. “But when we only do a certain amount on the Internet, and when I want to see what more they are going to do for us than Google does for us, it’s not enough to make up for the cost,” he says.

The importance of tagging

Rath can see on the Google interface basic data such as where his traffic is coming from and which campaigns are selling, data he checks against campaign tracking from outside vendor ChannelAdvisor Corp. He can also track whether his visitor rate is going up month by month as well as his conversion rate, but only if he tags the site’s pages correctly.

That illustrates one way Google is helping to build the analytics market overall. “It gets users to learn to tag their pages,” says Bill Gassman, research director at Gartner Inc. For analytics to have any data to report, retailers must place a unique piece of code on a web page to alert the analytics engine to activity on the page. Tagging is a requirement of all of the advanced analytics packages should retailers later decide to upgrade, he adds. Gassman also notes that Google’s hosted tool gets site operators to think through privacy issues and accept software as a service, the delivery method for most of the advanced packages.

Beach Audio and RockBottom are examples of relative newcomers to analytics that rely on Google Analytics entirely. ReStockIt.com offers the example of a retailer who’s found Google Analytics works well for some things. The company, which launched in 2004 and sold $12.2 million in industrial supplies online in 2007, demonstrates that it’s not only retailers with high sales volume online who use web analytics packages from the major vendors: besides Google’s tool, it uses Omniture.

“We’re finding a balance between using Google and the branded analytics package,” says David Redlich, co-founder and director of sales and marketing. According to Redlich, Google’s interface makes it easy for anyone on Redlich’s team to run simple A/B tests without involving I.T.; for instance, testing response to two different pieces of copy or two different banners. The Google package also manages Google AdWords for the retailer. Redlich adds that sometimes he uses both packages, using one to validate results measured by the other.

“With Google, you are getting a great tool. But there are definitely some capabilities to segment, slice, strip and do other things that only hit the home page or other specific pages. There are much deeper tests you can do with, in our case, Omniture,” he says.

Google Analytics’ inability to do such advanced segmentation is one of the tool’s major lacks pointed out by analysts. “There are tremendous ways and forms of applying visitor segmentation with some of the paid tools that Google Analytics doesn’t have,” says Forrester’s Burns. “Experienced senior web data analysts say segmentation is one of the most valuable forms of analysis they use, so not having that is a significant limitation for a company that is looking to do more advanced analytics.”

That said, some high-volume retailers using advanced analytics have found a place for Google’s product as well. Blue Nile Inc., which launched in 1999 and sold $319.3 million worth of jewelry online in 2007, runs Google Analytics alongside the web analytics system it developed internally. For Blue Nile, part of Google’s appeal is easy access to some less-frequently needed reports not built into its own analytics system, according to senior vice president Darryl Cavens. For example, it might use Google to check data on how many visitors are connecting to the site at different speeds.

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