Brian Clifton is a search and web analytics expert. From 2005, Brian was Google’s Head of Web Analytics for Europe, Middle East and Africa.
He recently left Google to become Senior Strategist for Omega Digital Media. We caught up with Brian to ask him about his experiences at Google, his views on web analytics and his new book.
Are you happy with the progress Google Analytics has made?
Like any practitioner and enthusiast, you always wish to push back the envelope for your clients and I must admit at being frustrated in the early days when adoption was so great that we had to restrict access with an invitation only system. However, since the launch of version 2 in May last year, the product is changing so fast that I am struggling to keep on top of all the new features!
To put things into perspective, the acquisition of Urchin, its Googlefication (running it on Google’s vast data centre infrastructure), and its update to its current user interface took two years. In that same timeframe, Microsoft acquired DeepMetrix, yet they have still not released their own integrated product.
That is no dig at them, achieving that is a difficult task I experienced first hand. However, it does illustrate what Google is so good at – launching products to market rapidly and scaling them up to a very wide audience.
How do you think the web analytics industry has evolved during your three years at Google?
Web Analytics is a completely different industry now compared to when I joined Google in 2005. It really is amazing how fast things have moved on. What used to be a niche industry with just a few thousand active participants worldwide has now become almost mainstream.
That is, measurement of online marketing activity is no longer considered an optional extra and so industry participants are now in the millions. I think it is safe to say that Google has been the driver of this change and for me it has been fascinating to be a part of it.
Can you briefly tell us a bit about what is covered in your book and who would find it most useful?
The book is entitled Advanced Web Metrics with Google Analytics. By “Advanced” I mean going beyond just reporting of numbers and figures. Anyone with an interest in making their web site successful can learn how to interpret their web analytics data and act on it.
That includes website owners, marketers, web designers/developers, content creators, PR departments and all the various intermediaries. It’s about measuring for success (the title of the first section) and applies best practice techniques on how to do so using Google Analytics.
Do you have any stories to share about how analytics data has helped large companies become more efficient / profitable? Any examples?
The main story has been how web analytics is helping to shape business decisions. Customer analytics and consumers insight i.e. business intelligence, has been around much longer, helping organisations understand more about their customers. What web analytics brings to the table, is the ability to understand your potential customers. That is, understanding why the vast majority of visitors to your web site do not become customers.
As bringing those visitors to your site in the first place often eats up a considerable amount of any businesses resource, web analytics is proving invaluable at helping organisations optimise marketing budgets and is being used as a market research tool by the most progressive companies.
When would an organisation need to consider paying for web analytics technology?
Possibly never! With so many enterprise class tools becoming available for free – Google Analytics, Microsoft adCenter Analytics and now Yahoo / IndexTools, selecting a web analytics tool is rapidly becoming a buyer’s market.
The reason is that bandwidth and the storage of data is today’s equivalent of Moore’s Law for computer hardware: doubling capacity while halving in price every 18-24 months. The point I make is simply that collecting data and reporting on it is now so cheap, that companies are able to provide the service for free.
Of course very large or complex websites may require a very bespoke product and of course that requires using a paid-for product. However, in my experience most companies wish to know how their marketing efforts are performing – is offline better than online campaigns, can the two be merged, are my brand keywords effective, where is my audience coming from, which are my poor performing pages? Knowing the answers to these questions can often lead to significant improvements in a company’s bottom line.
And that’s the caveat: collecting the data is easy, interpreting it and turning it into actionable information is the hard part. My advice is to invest in the latter until you can extract no further actionable information. Only then should you consider spending on a paid tool.
Are there any specific industry sectors that are ahead of the curve, with regards to integrated analytics? Why do you think this is?
Actually, I rarely see this at industry level, but rather at the organisational level. Some organisations simply “get the web” as a two-way communication channel and so include web metrics as an integral part of their business.
Others don’t yet know what to do with their website other than to treat it as another one-way medium such as TV, radio or print. Until that internal leap in thinking is made, web metrics remains a low priority for the organisation.
I have seen this pretty much across the board in all industry sectors (FMCG, Telecoms, Tech, Finance and Banking, Auto etc.). There is one exception, travel. The travel sector has whole-heartedly embraced the web within its business model and so these companies tend to be the ones that are early adopters.
The problem I still see in the travel industry however, it that the majority of web analytics tools are still being used as little more than hit counters so further work is still required to get on that curve.
Why did you leave Google and what are your plans now?
The beauty of working with a product that is free is that it gave me the freedom to build a team of product experts rather than sales managers. That’s a pretty unique position for anyone to be in and one that I feel immensely privileged to have been a part of.
Unfortunately that is also the caveat of being a manager – as your team grows you move further away from client interactions which is the part that most excites me. In fact, the vast majority of web content is made up of poorly optimised websites.
By that I mean poorly optimised for visibility (visitors can’t find you via the search engines) and poorly optimised for the user experience (leading to low conversion rates). These two are closely related and web analytics is the key to unlock the potential of both.
Therefore I am now Senior Strategist for Omega Digital Media – the company I founded back in 1997 that specialises in search integration and conversion marketing. They have been an official analytics partner for Google for many years (that’s how I got recruited by Google!), so the connection continues. I will be focusing my efforts on providing the service needed to help clients grow their business by making web analytics central to their strategy.
What do you say to critics of Google who say that the company is trying to amass a dangerous amount of information about businesses, for example through Google Analytics and Checkout?
That’s a good question that I was often asked while working at Google and no doubt Microsoft and Yahoo will start to face the same questions for the same reasons. Posed with the same question recently at SES London, Jim Sterne gave a great quote: “Do I worry if my bank knows how much money I have?”
My view is that it’s a two way relationship and Google is like a bank – with data as the currency. Let’s put this into perspective to explain Google’s business model. According to comScore (August 2007), approximately 37 billion search queries per month are made via Google around the world.
That in itself is a phenomenal number. Most people click on the free (organic) search results listings though a significant amount of people also click on the AdWords advertisements. It is these click-throughs that generate leads for advertisers and revenue for Google.
Ultimately Google wishes to provide the best user experience for visitors of its search engine. That’s good for Google because more visitors will go to them for search. It’s also good for advertisers as more people will click on their ads to fulfil their search needs.
Any data that can help achieves these two ambitions is a good thing – strengthening advertiser’s businesses and in turn Google’s business. Of course that does mean that data is treated in the same professional way a bank treats cash. That is, it should only be used at the anonymous and aggregate level and of course remains strictly within Google itself.
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