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Things That Throw Your Stats (Part 2)

Things That Throw Your Stats (Part 2) Brandt Dainow

In the first part of this article, I discussed how the nature of web technology itself made absolute precision in web analytics impossible. We’re “guestimating” visitors; we’re inevitably under-counting duration, and a visit is an arbitrary unit of time rather than a genuine measure of someone’s activity.

We should remember that these stats are gathered, processed and delivered by software. The web analytics software industry is new and far from mature. Web analytics software is not perfect, and it introduces inaccuracies of its own into the process. This article discusses the inaccuracies introduced by the software we use.

Log Analysis Issues

Many people use log analysis to get their stats. Log analysis is much less accurate than page-based tracking. Here’s why:

Spiders and Robots

Search engine spiders read your site, so does performance monitoring software. Most log analysis software doesn’t distinguish between page requests by humans and page requests by software. This inflates the number of page views dramatically. Since search engines go through pages at a rate of one per second, it can also reduce average visit duration and average page read time. This is okay if you know and adjust for it. If you think all the reported activity is coming from people, but your system is not separating out spiders, then you believe that people are making shorter visits than they really are. I believe this is why most designers think the average visit duration to a website is three to four minutes and the average page duration is about 30 seconds. In reality it’s about twice that.

SWF Files

SWF files are flash files. Flash is a problem for log analysis. A flash file can be a complete page. It can also be a simple animation inside a page. So when a log analysis product sees that an SWF file has been viewed, does it count as a page view or not? Most count it as a page view. If you’ve got flash animations inside your pages, look at your stats again. If you’ve got flash as both full pages and as page elements, then I doubt you’ll be able to get accurate stats from log analysis at all.

Caching and Cache busting

Most browsers keep a copy of each webpage you read. If you hit the back button they serve you that page instead of bothering to ask the server for another copy. Log analysis misses this because the server never saw the second viewing. This accounts for about 30 percent of all page views. Saving pages like this is called “caching.” It’s a major problem in online advertising because if an advertisement is cached people may not get paid for delivering it. This is why there is so much talk about “cache busting” technology in ad delivery.

It isn’t just browsers that cache. Corporate gateways cache commonly requested pages to save time and bandwidth. ISPs may cache for the same reasons. If you’re using log analysis for your stats, you’re missing about one-third of your activity. Page-based tracking works from the act of reading the page, so it is “cache-busting.”

Wake Turbulence

While page-based tracking may avoid the caching problems of log analysis, it is victim to another back button issue that log analysis avoids. Many people exit a site by repeatedly clicking their back button. Log analysis doesn’t pick this up, but page-based tracking does. This means many visits end with a series of one or two-second page views in reverse order from the first half. 

There’s no official term for this, but I call it “wake turbulence.” Most analysis tools don’t even recognize this problem, let alone deal with it. It increases the average number of page views per visitor, and reduces the average page duration.

I don’t think you can blame software for this one. If you watch people fill in multi-page forms, you’ll often see them go back and forth within the sequence, so the system can’t automatically eliminate quick views of preceding pages. This would mean you would have to examine the click-streams yourself and decide which were valid reads and which were just wake turbulence. Obviously that’s an impossible job. You just have to accept a degree of fuzziness around your stats for visit duration, number of pages read and average page read time.

Time Changes

Think about what happens when daylight savings cuts in. Someone enters your site at 11:45 pm. He or she stays for 30 minutes. Daylight savings starts at midnight and the clocks roll back one hour. The visit finishes at 11:15 pm. At the end of the daylight saving period the clocks go the other way. In this case the 30-minute visit starts at 11:45 and finishes at 1:15.

You’d be surprised how few web analytics packages handle this accurately. In fairness it is a tough one to code for. Some systems can cope with this because they work in GMT, then convert the visit times at the point of reporting. But most use local time. How do they handle this? A surprising number simply discard all the records during the crossover period.

User Resistance

Some of your visitors don’t trust you. Some major-name tracking systems are listed as spyware and blocked. Some people block cookies. Some people clean out their cookies regularly. If you are tracking repeat visitor behavior with cookies you have to accept some degree of inaccuracy as people block or remove them.

This is more likely if you have another company gathering and analyzing your cookies. It depends on how they do it. If your site sets the cookie you have less chance of being blocked than if their system sets the cookie. A cookie set by them is called a “third-party cookie.” Third-party cookies are much more likely to be blocked than your own. Under some circumstances, in some countries, third-party cookies can even be illegal.

Transversal Losses

Transversal is what you do when you click a hyperlink -- you transverse from one page to the next. Sometimes people click on a link but never arrive at the other end. Browsers crash; they change their mind, and so on.

This is starting to become a source of contention in PPC advertising. Google usually charges me for more visits than I can see arriving in my client’s sites. It is usually over by 25 percent or so for my clients. I’m not the only person with this problem. Google believes this is a minor and rare problem, but many users are not so sure.

I have questioned Google on this and they have informed me they use log analysis for calculating click-throughs. I have asked them if they filter out search engines and robots that we know read Google results and follow links. They have replied:

“I would like to reassure you that our system will only count legitimate clicks to your client's ads and will filter out all other traffic. As stated in our Terms and Conditions, we require that all parties using Google AdWords services accept our metrics.”

This problem is not unique to Google. It occurs to a greater or lesser degree with all forms of inter-site link activity. This means that your ROI calculations for PPC advertising and affiliate marketing cannot be perfectly accurate, but need to permit a margin of error.


We have to accept that web analytics software is in its infancy. Anyone old enough to remember Pong? Compare that with the latest computer games. Look at your web analytics software and try to imagine the same level of improvement over the next 20 years. Now look at the software you use today again. Understand that this stuff has a long way to go.

We can do great things with web analytics software today compared with five years ago, but we have only just begun. Remember that this is not precision accounting but statistical analysis with flawed software. Work with big margins of error and focus on trends, not detailed numbers. Understand that no matter what you do, a certain degree of guessing is inherent in the process.

Life’s full of uncertainties and web analytics is no different. Somehow we all manage to get by.

Brandt Dainow is CEO of Think Metrics, creator of the InSite Web reporting system. Read full bio.

Return to Introduction

Despite all the hype about search engine algorithms, viral videos, ecommerce and social networks, your primary job is still to make viewers feel emotional about brands online... not just to think about them rationally. What the web offers you is the opportunity to reward people for the time they spend with your message through interaction.

So leverage it.

Once you nail down your "big brand" idea, create narratives and experiences that invite input from the "viewsers" (my combination of "viewers" and "users") to create, customize and share their creations with others. GE's ecoimagination online campaign uses a basic algorithm to allow consumers to randomly generate their own one-of-a-kind floral images, which engages them with the brand message.

GE plants a seed with consumers

As an interactive creative director, fostering the development of interactive campaign experiences like these help extend your idea and typically have a shelf life long after the image TV spot has "been there done that." Offer it up in a microsite, an advergame, a widget, or a video with a clickable Flash layer over the top, even a WAP site.

But whatever you create, make the viewer feel good about the time they spent with your brand, just like a great TV spot does.

Next: Think "instant gratification"

Return to Algorithms don't feel, people do

Press a button, something should happen. Click a mouse, something should activate.

Remember, this is the time-strapped video-game generation, and once you get someone's online attention, there better be a way to gratify them... fast. A cool looking Flash banner might pale in comparison to your last TV spot, but if it intrigues, involves and persuades the viewer to check out what's behind it and you've got the goods waiting for them to jump in and learn or have fun creating, then you're half way there.

Otherwise, if it takes too long to get the "experience," your unique visits will drop like flies.

One way to avoid this is to make sure your experience kicks in the instant someone mouses over an image or even text. Check out www.vibrantmedia.com or Comcast's wicked new site and mouse around to see what I mean.

Vibrant Media's dynamic experience

Next: Create once for multiple platforms

Return to Think "instant gratification"

Don't limit yourself to 30-second story arcs. Shoot narrative scenarios that can go shorter for broadband and wireless, and longer for VOD and PVR showcases like TiVo.

If you're an interactive creative, don't wait for the video to be shot by the "other" creative agency for your site to be complete. Find a reputable director to shoot the content for you. Then build the consumer experience all at once from banners to microsite to broadband video, so there's continuity across platforms.

Most importantly, change your perspective from television campaign to video library. Just because it's digital video doesn't mean it can't have production value. Check out Splenda's www.foodnetwork.com/journeys

Splenda sweetens production value

If you're an experienced television campaign creative, think about presenting your boards in multiple unit lengths, so you can demonstrate the legs of the idea well beyond the 30-second or 60-second.

Next: Go beyond the brand site and banner

Return to Create once for multiple platforms

Most traditional agency creatives still think of interactive advertising as banners, buttons and pop-ups. That was true way back in Web 1.0, but now that we're comfortably in the age of broadband, with quasi-acceptable speeds by western standards, you can move way beyond the banner.

Think about ways to offer more extensible ad units that go beyond your brand website or banner ads. From branded widgets to custom-created pre-roll videos that are contextual to the content, the opportunities to innovate and create are endless.

Remember, if the Titanium Lion at Cannes can go to cleverly designed next-generation UPC codes, then don't let digerati speak like PHP, actionscript and widget syndication intimidate you.

Checkout VW's downloadable desktop widget that gets you in the loop with free events in your city "quick as a rabbit."

Rabbit widget

Next: Invite the consumer in

Return to Go beyond the brand site and banner

Pride of authorship is no longer reserved for the creative team. A big idea can come from anywhere, including the consumer.

Where it was once limited to writer and art director, the consumer now enters the team, and you'll be amazed by what can happen. Sure, there are days when you'll wade through lots of really bad ideas, but then there are others when you can combine the brand sentiments of multiple consumers and use them to help get your message across.

The key to using user-generated messages isn't to stand by while you let the consumer try and do your job, it's to check the patterns of chat and then use it for insight as much as impact.

Check out Toyota's amazing "reasons why I buy" site and see for yourself.

Toyota embraces users

Next: Now is the time to JUMP!

Return to Invite the consumer in

Agencies continue to re-invent themselves. Some by necessity. Some by inspiration. Others by the sheer force of their clients' demands.

Only you know where your agency fits. But for those creatives with an urge to experiment and create new forms of messaging, the wind is at your back.

You may fail once or twice, but ain't that America? Don't just think of interactive creative as a different kind of advertising. Think of it as a conceptual challenge that truly provides you with a new canvas every day.

Now, jump in!

Return to Introduction

Alan Schulman is chief creative officer of Brand New World. Read full bio.

The Walt Disney Co. is the biggest media company in the world. It has a rich, storied legacy that represents the very essence of the American dream. The conglomerate that grew from humble beginnings has supremacy in theatrical, home video, consumer goods, resorts, television, radio, and now even superheroes with its recent acquisition of Marvel.

And yet, Disney knows all too well that it trades largely on the brand legacy it has so carefully managed over the last eight decades. So much so that the company recently launched a new community-based service called D23, which was born to manage the explosion of fan sites and social networks created around the Disney brand.

By taking a page from Comic-Con, D23 held its debut expo a few weeks ago, to great fanfare. This is a very interesting concept from a company that already has a robust online presence for its many different brands -- a new brand that is solely focused on its own legacy. Disney takes its fans very seriously -- the cult-like reverence that many adults retain is largely built on childhood-fostered trust and being made to feel like they are part of the "magic" that Disney promises. With D23, Disney has given a home to some of the most passionate and vocal fans, and transformed them into "charter members" and, more importantly, effective brand evangelists.

Lesson 2: Listen to your audience.

The Beatles
Q: How do you reboot The Beatles, the iconic 1960s band that once proclaimed they were "bigger than Jesus?"

A: With 21st century technology -- and 3D avatars, of course.

On Sept. 9, 2009 (09.09.09), Beatlemania 2.0 was unleashed. For the faithful, there were newly remastered albums, produced with scientific precision and cutting-edge technology that did not exist when they first debuted on compact disc in 1987. For the uninitiated, an entry point was created to a musical legacy that has spanned generations. And for the first time, officially sanctioned Beatles music was featured in a new medium: the Beatles Rock Band video game.

This legacy brand secured its immortality decades ago, but with each subsequent re-release it had remained fairly unchanged -- until now. Fans and gamers can interact with the brand as never before, and increase the relevance of the Beatles brand to new heights, hopefully inspiring yet another generation of songwriters and musicians. (And yes, it worked on me. I picked up all the re-masters, and yes, they are awesome.)

The 09.09.09 campaign was a brilliant, multi-platform effort that leveraged every possible outlet, from traditional point-of-purchase to relentless print, broadcast, and rich media. In addition to the Beatles Rock Band microsite, there was a dedicated Amazon store that was impossible to avoid during the final weeks of the big push. Ironically, the technology that has been employed to improve, sweeten, and create a new immersive experience has yet to embrace the obvious final hurdle -- the iTunes "I want to hold your hand" experience -- but that is an obvious post-script. Even as we gleefully predict the imminent decline of packaged media, millions of satisfied customers are happily ripping tracks from their new CDs and rocking out to "Revolution."

Lesson 3: The biggest brand in the world can be rebooted -- with a little help from their digital avatars.


Once upon a time, there was Kentucky Fried Chicken. Colonel Sanders, a friendly Southern gentlemen, offered up fried chicken by the bucket that was, and I quote, "Finger lickin' good." In the 1990s, an abbreviation of the name took hold: KFC.

Freed from the negative associations that words can convey, these three consonants became the call letters of the brand -- which was still fried chicken. Then, Kitchen Fresh Chicken was introduced -- an attempt to subvert the meaning of the brand entirely, yet keep its ubiquitous call letters. And now, in a further twist, we have KGC, which is not an offshoot of a Soviet spy agency, but rather a new grilled chicken, which asks us to "unthink" everything we have previously learned about the KFC brand.

There is a whole new effort underway at a dedicated microsite to create awareness for KGC at KFC, including a Facebook app and a recent stunt involving the United Nations and a massive amount of free chicken. 

The brand has a distinctive Southern fried legacy, but is hesitant to leverage it, partly because the South reminds us of the War Between the States, and "The Colonel" looks like a land baron holdover from the Reconstruction. Also, "fried" is no longer considered a healthy dining option (see Krispy Krème).

That being said, KFC, like McDonald's, Oscar Mayer, and Coca-Cola, can also evoke warm family memories of picnics, parties, and childhood gatherings, if positioned correctly.

Lesson 4: There is great value buried in the backstory -- a vast, undiscovered story of Kodakchrome moments that could be celebrated online with a simple photo upload promoting KFC as a family tradition. If I can join the Grilled Nation, I should also be eligible to participate in the KFC Family Photo Album of summers past...

The reboot to end all reboots. With a brand nearly as steeped in its own mythology as the more grandiose "Star Wars," "Transformers" began life as a Hasbro toy line in 1984, accompanied by a Marvel comic and an animated series. A quarter-century since Optimus Prime and Bumblebee first sparked to life, the second installment of the film franchise, "Revenge of the Fallen," has hauled in over $400 millon in U.S. box office, and the DVD will undoubtedly keep the busy bots red hot.

Central to the current fan-based frenzy, the online movie marketing included a fan kit, fan art, and other tools to keep the troops engaged. The DVD boasts a "25 Years of the Transformers" retrospective that will entertain the faithful with interviews and footage from Botcon. 

This is a legacy brand that understands the collective power of its cross-generational audience, and has secured a "Star Wars"-like fan base that will flourish online and off for years to come. Gen-Xers watched the cartoon, and today's kids can interact with their Transformers on- and offline with microsites for the film, a toy line, and a passionate online community.

Lesson 5: By embracing a legacy as intricate as the Transformers, the brand is able to build upon its mythology and make each individual generation feel that it belongs uniquely to them.  

Remember when you could print your photos instantly? Heh.

So says the corporate site of Polaroid, whose fortunes fizzled with the advent of the digital revolution. Now, its iconic artifact from last century is making a splashy comeback.

Currently marketing a compact digital camera that prints 2x3 stickers, the once mighty Polaroid is poised to return its clunky classic Instant Camera and famous Instant Film, this time aimed squarely at the hipster market. There is an emotional connection to be made here -- the ubiquitous Polaroid is woven into the very fabric of American culture. Vacation photos, photo booth funnies, and guys like Warhol and Hockney making high art with lowbrow equipment has given the humble Polaroid a mythic place in our personal pop culture history. 

Lesson 6: Even though there is no online campaign to point you to yet, watch this brand play the nostalgia card hard in 2010.

Russell Scott is CEO and creative director at Jetset Studios and co-founder of Retroland. 

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet. 

Content marketing

Non-interruptive owned media that does not involve a media buy, which is either entertaining, informative, or useful.

Examples of content marketing: American Express OPEN Forum, Kraft Food & Family Magazine, and John Deere's The Furrow Magazine.

Origin: The American Society for Newspaper Editors, in a roundtable discussion led by Rick Doyle, first used the phrase in 1996.

Rebecca Lieb ends our conversation by explaining what content marketing means to the average consumer and what it looks like when done right.

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" Man in a dunce cap with eyes crossed," "Moron," and "Idiot" images via Shutterstock.

Brandt is an independent web analyst, researcher and academic.  As a web analyst, he specialises in building bespoke (or customised) web analytic reporting systems.  This can range from building a customised report format to creating an...

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