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Free analytics tools you should be using

Free analytics tools you should be using Josh Dreller

One of the main differentiators between online marketing campaigns and their off-line cousins is the sheer amount of data generated online that needs be collected, sliced, diced, and analyzed. Each website visitor leaves digital footprints all over the site's analytics tools, and viewers of advertising banners are cookied in the billions daily across the web. Heck, we can even pixel our Facebook pages now. It's almost incomprehensible the number of rows in Excel you'd need in order to track just one hour of the data this industry generates.

This business runs on technology to help us break down crucial information into palatable chunks. There are certainly many expensive tools and platforms on the market available for purchase -- some cheap and some extremely expensive. Frankly, there are just some things we need to be able to do that won't ever be available for free. For example, enterprise-level web analytics tools from data heavyweights SAS, IBM, and Adobe are needed for the most trafficked sites on the web. In addition, most vendors in the digital marketing space have a reporting component to their platforms; ad servers such as MediaMind, DoubleClick, and Atlas can help users make sense of their online display buys. Search platforms like AdWords and AdCenter not only enable marketers to buy keyword-triggered ads, but also to figure out what's being clicked, what's driving users to convert, etc. The same goes for email service providers, mobile ad vendors, and the like -- for every tool we buy, there's a reporting component.

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But there are some really great free tools out there to consider adding to your technology stack as well. For various reasons, development companies allow users to engage with their tools whether it's to entice them to upgrade to the paid versions, provide valuable data collection in exchange for free usage, or even just to build their name and reputation in order to leverage that on future projects. Regardless of the motivation behind the curtain, I suggest you don't look a gift horse in the mouth. Of course, the other old saying that comes to mind is that you get what you pay for -- so I urge you to do your due diligence; don't go slapping every free pixel onto your website or pass sensitive data without understanding the final outcome. However, most of the time, especially with tools from reputable companies, the tradeoff is worth the cost.

Check out some of the following free tools that can help you collect, analyze, and take action on data. In fact, a combination of all these systems would certainly push your data-driven organization to another level. With these free analytics platforms, any company could truly compete with the advanced data tools and tactics of even its largest competitors.

Google Analytics (GA) 
From Wikipedia: Google Analytics "is a free service offered by Google that generates detailed statistics about the visitors to a website. The product is aimed at marketers as opposed to webmasters and technologists from which the industry of web analytics originally grew. It is the most widely used website statistics service, currently in use at around 57 percent of the 10,000 most popular websites. Another market share analysis claims that Google Analytics is used at around 49.95 percent of the top 1,000,000 websites (as currently ranked by Alexa)."

Wow! That's amazing penetration for any tool, even if it is free.

Implementing GA is as easy as creating a free account and dropping the JavaScript code on every page of your site. This is usually a fairly easy thing to do, as most website content management systems have the ability to affect every page on the site from their interface. Once implemented, the GA code begins to track user behavior and develop rich profiles of what's happening on your site. Common metrics include:

  • Visitor data: new versus returning visitors, what geolocation the visit is originating from, to what language the users' browsers are set, how long in time and how many pages are viewed in each visit, etc.

  • Traffic data: from what sites users are coming, and what search engines, keywords, marketing campaigns, etc., are directing them to your site

  • Goal data: what desirable actions users are taking on the site, such as orders (and revenue), what lead generation forms they're filling out, what videos they're watching, etc.

Out of the box, Google Analytics rivals even the most robust analytics tools, but the ceiling limitations are certainly felt if you really try to push the envelope; thus, larger websites usually require enterprise level (i.e., paid) solutions. However, for many small and mid-sized websites, GA represents a very crucial piece of the puzzle. To understand what kinds of users are visiting your site, what actions they're taking on the site, and what's influencing them to convert is incredibly valuable in driving optimization and content decisions. The interface is very intuitive, and even a novice user won't have trouble learning how to quickly garner deep insights. Google also supports the tool with a stellar learning center and certification program.

The question remains on what Google is actually doing with all of this data. GA was built upon the Urchin platform, which the company acquired in 2005 for a tidy sum (you can upgrade to a more-robust paid version of Urchin still), and certainly the development and bandwidth costs must be justified somehow within the organization. At the very least, Google is probably using the data aggregately and anonymously to better understand how web behavior is trending. Of course, wherever there's mystery, a minority of cynics wonders whether the data is being used for more nefarious purposes. For this reason, some site owners refuse to take advantage of this amazing free system -- but certainly many others don't have similar issues based on GA's impressive adoption rate. In my experience, I've seen website after website optimize its marketing ROI based on the data provided by this tool, and I feel it's a major competitive advantage for those using it.

Honorable mentions of free web analytics providers: Woopra, Clicky, and Piwik.

In February 2010, Quantcast ranked third on Fast Company's Top 10 Most Innovative Companies on the Web list, behind Facebook and Google respectively. For the last several years, Quantcast has provided websites the opportunity to become "Quantified" (i.e., participate in a free aggregate site tagging program, using a propriety pixel, in order to gain more insight about the visitors to their sites). For site publishers, this allows them to understand the makeup of their site users in order to develop content and advertising solutions against a highly relevant target. Marketers also find value in this data, as they are able to find sites that match the demographic profiles of users they're trying to reach with advertising. In fact, Quantcast has branched out with a paid program that allows advertisers to tap into online display targeting based on this demographic data.

However, you don't have to implement the company's code on your site in order to take advantage of this tool. By simply typing any URL into Quantcast's search engine, you can immediately have access to very rich data on any site in its tagged network. Here's an example of what I found by searching on Hulu.com:

Some of the types of info you can get about a site from Quantcast, over a variety of date ranges, include:

  • Traffic: visits, page views, unique visitors, etc.

  • Demographic: gender, age, race, children in home, income level, education level, etc.

  • Geographic: visitor makeup from countries, cities, states, DMAs

  • Lifestyle: other sites the audience visits, what types of topical categories are of interest (for Hulu.com, the top three: music, humor, and fashion)

But as great as this free tool is, Quantcast's data has sometimes been scrutinized for accuracy, although the same can be said for even the biggest (paid) demographic tools in our industry. Additionally, Quantcast has come under some fire by privacy groups for "covert surveillance" with regards to persistent Flash cookies; but once again, it's not the only site to be targeted by these special interest groups.

Ultimately, Quantcast has done a great job providing data that had before been pretty much in the hands of paid (and sometimes very expensive) tools.

From 4Q's own FAQ: "4Q Free is a simple and 100 percent free product for companies of all sizes to reach out to their website visitors, capture their feedback, and use their insights to plan for success. The 4Q survey consists of four of the most important questions you can ask, each worded in a way to elicit the most statistically valid feedback possible."

Those four questions are:

1. Based on today's visit, how would you rate your site experience overall?
2. What was the primary purpose of your visit?
3. Were you able to complete the purpose of your visit today?
4.1. (If no) Please tell us why you were not able to fully complete the purpose of your visit today.
4.2. (If yes) What do you value most about the [company] website?

The survey invite is served up via a pop-up looking delivery. The site does allow some slight customization of the survey form, including the ability to add a few more (pre-loaded questions), but the format is fairly strict. Here's an example of what a user would see if he or she agreed to participate in the survey:

Why would a company want this data? As web analytics has evolved, the awareness of the importance of voice-of-the-customer (VOC) data has been raised. Historically, web analytics teams and tools do a great job of capturing traffic and visitor data. But without user input, it's hard to put this information into proper context. For example, a common strategy online is to try to increase visitor time spent on a website. But if users become annoyed at the various tactics used to keep them on the page longer, increasing time spent could actually have a negative effect. By gathering VOC data, sites can tap directly into feedback from real visitors in order to improve the overall user experience.

You're probably wondering, "Who even fills out these surveys?" Well, the response rates have traditionally been very low, but a site that has even just a few thousand visitors a month would be able to gather enough survey data over time to really provide some valuable information to its development teams. Larger, more visited sites would even have more finished surveys from which to pull these insights.

Compete.com is the brainchild of e-business guru Bill Gross, one of the main pioneers of the paid search industry that now brings in tens of billions annually around the globe. His company, Goto, eventually became Overture and was later purchased by Yahoo. It went on to become one of the biggest money-earning ventures in web history. In 2000, Gross created Compete.com to "organize the clicks we all make on the web. The vision was simple: If we all share our clicks, then each of us gets smarter by knowing what's happening across the web."

Compete.com has a PRO version with access to all of its data, but the free information is still pretty good. Here's one example of a 90-day search report for the term "iPad":

This is just scratching the surface of the kinds of data you can pull from the platform. Compete.com's free, self-service tools include:

Where do they get this data? According to Compete.com: "Compete's data comes from a statistically representative cross-section of 2 million consumers across the United States who have given permission to have their internet clickstream behaviors and opt-in survey responses analyzed anonymously as a new source of marketing research."

The one drawback I would point out is that Compete (almost annoyingly) urges you all over the site to upgrade to the PRO level (full disclosure, I am a client). In almost every free report, empty columns of scintillating blocked data will mock you. However, the free data is still worth checking out.

Google external keyword tool and Google Insights for Search 
Of course, Google's going to shine when it comes to search analytics tools. Being one of the internet's data heavyweights and owning two of the world's top three search engines (Google.com and, yes, YouTube.com) put the company in a unique position to provide some of the most valuable search data on the planet.

The Google external keyword tool is a great way to find relevant keywords for your business as well as search volume and competition on those terms. You can start with a keyword (such as "iPad" in the example below) or input a website URL to let Google extract term ideas. There are category filters and other tools to help you slice and dice your results.

Google Insights for Search compares search volume patterns across specific regions, categories, time frames, and properties. Although Google doesn't give you the whole picture by offering actual data numbers, the trend lines and patterns are more than helpful enough to create some very interesting data insights. The example below, "Top 10 Celebrities in New York," shows an example on how you can sift through the information. If you're signed in to a Google AdWords account, you can get more real numbers.

Other ways to utilize Google Insights for Search include:

Video: TubeMogul 
TubeMogul's initial concept was to provide a single tool that would allow video makers to upload their videos to all of the major sharing sites. This seemed like a no-brainer way to get in front of many more eyeballs rather than just uploading to YouTube. In addition, the company provided aggregate reporting to show how many views occur across all sites.

The folks over at TubeMogul must have gotten it right because their platform (and overall business vision) has grown since inception. Now, with the OneLoad video distribution service, video makers can view information on their uploads, as well as viewed minutes, second-by-second engagement, geographic tracking, embeds, and much more. Along with the analytics, the free service provides numerous content management tools that are an amazingly sweet deal.

TubeMogul has evolved itself into a fully fledged media buying and ad serving/optimization company (somewhat resembling -- but not exactly -- an ad network) that offers unique targeting based on its video analytics data and expertise. As well, the company offers a publisher-side tool that brings the analytics layer to on-site video players.

Mobile: AdMob Analytics (beta)
Tracking mobile sites with traditionally fixed web tools can sometimes get tricky due to the nuances of the mobile web. In 2008, a year before becoming part of the Google family tree, leading mobile ad network AdMob released AdMob Analytics. With the undeniable adoption power of Google Analytics, it's not a far stretch to think that AdMob Analytics might end up being its mobile cousin. After all, the trends point to the fact that, in the very near future, the mobile internet will eclipse the fixed web as the most common way to access the web. That's a lot of data up for grabs.

The system in still technically in beta right now and actually feels like a beta tool (i.e., it seems a little light). Sure, all of the standard metrics you would hope would be there are there, but there's still a ways to go until it becomes a truly powerful platform. However, even as I finish this column, AdMob's site promotes that real-time ticking number of 154,998,789 pages analyzed daily. Not bad.

The interface is slick and looks great. Here's a screenshot:

The paid services from competitors Bango and Amethon Mobile Analytics might arguably have more robust systems, but they're not totally free like this one. AdMob clearly states in its blog post introducing the product that its three objectives are to be completely and unconditionally free, easy to use, and accurate and actionable. I think the company has more than succeeded. If you want to take your mobile site's analytics to the next level for free before investing in a paid service, you might find that AdMob Analytics is the right tool -- and maybe you'll find it can do even better than that.

Social analytics: Social Mention 
A light tool with a big punch, Social Mention bills itself as real-time social media search and analysis. Simply enter in a keyword set into its search engine, and you'll be transported to a nice little dashboard with results from all over the social sphere. Sources include blogs, microblogs, bookmarks, comments, events, images, news, video, audio, Q&A, and networks. It's not a robust buzz-tracking system such as a tool like Radian6, but it's pretty decent for a free data pull.

You'll not only see blog posts on the topic, but also a stab at sentiment, passion, reach, average minutes between mentions, etc. Check out this results page from a search on "Sheen dumped":

For a quick check on your competitors, your own brand, or other topics, Social Mention is a handy resource to keep in your digital toolbox.

Website testing: Google Website Optimizer (GWO)
This is Google's fourth appearance on this list, but for good reason. The company builds really smart and effective tools, and the GWO is one of its better creations. Using the Google Website Optimizer, site owners can test which pages of content are the best for their users -- meaning which ones drive the most conversations whether it's sales, leads, or any other desirable action.

How does it work? Instead of uploading a page of content to your site, your web developer uploads a blank page with the GWO code on it. From the user interface, your team can upload multiple pages that are then served randomly (you can control the weighting) to users who reach that page. The desired site conversion event is also tracked by the system so that once the test has run its course, you'll know which page version converted at the highest rate. From there, you can take the "winning" page and use those insights to develop new pages and then test those. Ultimately, if you do that over and over for all of your key pages, you will create a conversion-generating machine. This web analytics best practice is called A/B testing, GWO allows you to run many tests on your site for free.

Below is an example screenshot. As you can see, Combinations 5 and 7 each showed a 16 percent improvement over the original page while Combinations 15, 9, and 12 actually tested below the original.

It's not hard to see how this tool could be a useful addition to your technology stack.

Ultimately, from the beginning, the digital marketing industry has had a huge analytics component to it. As our industry has matured, the tools have matured. This featured list of free analytics tools are many times more powerful than some of the leading products on the market from just a decade ago. Eventually, you might find the need to upgrade to paid versions that have more robust features and dedicated support, but in the interim, build your web practice with confidence using these smart tools whose only cost is your time spent using them.

Josh Dreller is VP of media technology and analytics at Fuor Digital.

On Twitter? Follow Dreller at @mediatechguy. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

As a media technologist fluent in the use of leading industry systems, Josh Dreller stays abreast of cutting edge digital marketing and measurement tools to maximize the effect of digital media on client goals. He has achieved platform certification...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Fred Weissman

2011, May 26

I would have mentionned google analytics

however I'm using more and more http://www.capptain.com for my mobile and web apps

they have a free plan

Commenter: Andrew Ettinger

2011, May 26

Great article Josh. Kudos!

Commenter: Spencer Broome

2011, May 26

Had heard of many of these, but there were a couple I hadn't looked into. Thanks for the compilation.

Commenter: Angel Grant

2011, May 25

I noticed that Admob Analytics has been officially rolled into Google Analystics, so it's not really a separate tool at this point.

When registering and access Admob Analytics it states, "We are no longer accepting new site registrations at this time. If you are interested in Mobile Analytics, please visit Google Analytics."