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Stereotyping “Free” Tools

An interesting article about Free vs Paid Website Analytics tools is published at Hotel Interactive. Measuring the right parameters is very important in the hospitality industry where hoteliers constantly find ways to maximize returns using minimal amount of advertising expenditures. Obviously, we all want to use campaigns that yield the highest Return on Investment (ROI).

No disrespect to Max Starkov & Jason Price, who are highly regarded folks from Hospitality eBusiness Strategies (HeBS), but I guess the article was biased towards the paid web analytics tools. Apart from that, a few claims of inaccuracy and absence of certain reports are a little inaccurate themselves.

I agree that the metrics that matter should be the ones closely monitored, fine tuned and be the basis of decision making. The conventional or pedestrian metrics such as visitor numbers, page views and referral URLs can’t just be reported by the numbers they spit out. They are an integral part of the data mining process which determines certain patterns in visitor activity and identifies user behavior as they navigate through a website.

Websites have become more sophisticated as markets grow and globalization becomes mandatory. A hotel website can represent dozens of properties across four continents and rendered in seven different languages. Tracking banner and pay per click (PPC) campaigns can be an arduous task. Providing a daily number of visitors can be meaningless BUT providing a daily number of visitors who used specific keywords or clicked on which banner sounds more interesting. Yet it is still insufficient. And it is widely perceived that only paid web analytics tools deliver the goods while the freebies either don’t have such features or have inaccurate data presentations.

Which brings us back to the stereotype of free web analytics tools as discussed in the article,

on the web and in life in general, free means unreliable, unsupported and inaccurate

Too bad for businesses who have limited or no budget to acquire sophisticated tools such as WebTrends, Visual Sciences or Omniture. Businesses who have to rely on Google’s engineers while fearing data might be padded or misrepresented by Google to cater to its own interests.

Unreliable. Misleading data can ruin someone’s confidence in trusting future numbers that are generated by a tool. This borders with consistency, such that if a report shows an average of 0.5 visits per visitor, one would think how could that happen if the minimum page visit of an online visitor is 1.

Unsupported. I am using Google Analytics to track several websites. Yet once I have problems with the reports, or if I wanted to inquire about being a certified professional, I get a reply usually within two days. Unsupported could probably mean certain features are unavailable and definitely we’re at the mercy of these “free” products to implement them. But as for Google’s consistent upgrades, I can only cross my fingers.

Inaccurate. It is not good to compare numbers between different web analytics tools. If we use WebTrends in the past and introduce a newbie like Google Analytics or another freebie (Webalizer), stick to WebTrends for traffic trends and Google Analytics for newer metrics. Different tools have different definitions of how they interpret data (Google Analytics, for example, uses a 30-minute span to define a session and changing its settings in the code can affect the numbers).

Starkov and Price were quick to point the following:

It can track only a single website
Really? If we agree that the definition of a website is the entire collection of web pages and other information (such as images, sound, and video files, etc.) that are made available through what appears to users as a single web server (according to Snooble) then a Google Account (a unique Google e-mail address) can have up to 50 profiles, each of which can represent a website or different variations of subdomains within a site. So it should track more than just one website in an account.

There is no customer service or support of any kind
Maybe it’s just me being so lazy to browse over the Help Center but I always head to the Contact Us section once I can’t figure out something within ten minutes. After a day or two, I get a response to my question. Imagine Google is paying people to answer questions from free users?

Perhaps we can take a look at the new version released only a few days ago, where it promises a more intuitive layout, easier to retrieve reports and a flexible array of features intended for search marketers, not just IT personnel.

I understand that Omniture and Visual Sciences aren’t expensive tools without any reason, but if we are resourceful enough, it’s also possible to track certain contents such as Flash events, banner ad exits, outbound links as well as AJAX applications.

Google Analytics currently supports Google AdWords campaigns but it explicitly mentions it is working on Yahoo! Search Marketing.

Even spammers use Google Analytics, in this Google Video feature.

World-Class Analytics = Smarter and More Efficient Marketing

Absolutely no brainer. But free analytics don’t always mean useless or unreliable just like the common brands found in Hong Kong so notorious for being add-ons and prize rewards.

This complex analytics is impossible to perform with existing “free” analytical tools. Therefore hoteliers have to adopt sophisticated analytical tools that provide the capabilities mentioned in this article. When budgeting for Internet marketing, hoteliers should include a separate line item for website and marketing analytics.

The first sentence is a sweeping statement. The third looks imperative, but in markets like Hong Kong where corporate pursers are conservative in spending their money into something that’s previously untested by someone in the office or nobody’s capable of interpreting the numbers into a more meaningful pieces of information.

I am not a big fan of Google Analytics or any other freebies (Activemeter and Webstats, both of which I still use currently). In fact I had a list of Google Analytics problems listed only last month.

In an article whose title is “Free vs Paid”, only the free products were described as if to hide what are the capabilities of the paid ones by not naming even a single product. That’s even suspicious when we read the following:

Through HeBS our client hoteliers can now enjoy the same state-of-the-art analytical tool as the major hotel brands and online intermediaries at a fraction of the cost (e.g. 10+ times lower).

Why spend on analytics when you can have it for free? For those with tight budgets, why not spend our hard-earned money on marketing instead? Most of the time, the value of information relies on how someone understands the numbers and interprets them accordingly.

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Elmer W. Cagape is an SEO consultant based in Hong Kong. Into Seinfeld, Toad the Wet Sprocket, space exploration, comedy films, digital marketing and travel. Follow him on Twitter (@elmercagape).

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