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Evolution of E-commerce Tracking & Analytics

Jan 07

Our day today opened with a hearkening back to the days when the internet was young and we were all trying to figure out how to complete transactions on the new vehicle. Websites were a new idea and almost exclusively “brochure” style sites that existed only to serve the purpose of delivering a static piece of information to the user. Organizations had begun to adopt the idea that you could tell people about your products, services, and business on the “world wide web”. Something like 80% of the US population thought that the Internet was AOL, even static codes like HTML were still in their infancy, and the foremost thought on our minds was, “How can we actually generate a sale on the Internet?”.

We were all chomping at the bit when the online payment gateways started appearing that allowed us to virtually connect a merchant account to a means of processing a transaction on the internet.  Now we could gather credit card information in an encrypted HTML form and process the transaction manually using a virtual terminal. We could facilitate a sale and make real money without waiting for the checks to come in the mail, waiting for the checks to clear, and then finally handling fulfillment. Amazing!

So now we’re cooking! We are no longer using 3rd party platforms (Lycos Auctions, Yahoo Auctions, eBay, etc.) to drive sales and generate exposure, we were now thinking about things like online advertising and search engine optimization. We were literally sitting around contemplating this huge new idea, “How do we get people to our sites to buy now that we do not need 3rd party platforms?” It seems so silly to look back at what has become massive industry and know that we were really contemplating that question.

As we began down the path of negotiating advertising buys and optimizing our websites to procure search engine traffic, the natural result of such efforts was to be able to understand which of these efforts was working. I can still remember the day that I sat down at my computer and read about the idea of recording how many times an image on a particular page was called by a web browser to understand how many times that page had been viewed. We still thought about everything in terms of hits at that point. At some point in the near future, as HTML advanced with browser capabilities, we came to learn about the idea of calling a piece of code disguised as an image. We just unknowingly witnessed the birth of the tracking pixel which spawned the arms race of web analytics.

We were then able to track how many times a resource on the Internet is called, and realized that traffic does not equal performance in terms of revenue. We could get a ton of traffic from one site that had no desire to buy the products and services we offered, conversely we could get a very small amount of traffic from a source that had a very high affinity to our offerings, and thus a very high percentage of those people purchased. Houston, we have a problem!

A smart guy somewhere understood that the page after a transaction was completed could be used to track how many people had been through the purchase process, and the foundation for tracking online sales began to take shape. As dynamic languages (first ASP, then PHP) came into play we now had the ability to track many different data points and apply intelligence to that data in order to optimize our marketing efforts using methods like variables, cookies, and database communication.  As is the way of the world, advances always create the need for new solutions.

Now that we can track sales and traffic data dynamically, new ideas about what and how to track web activity appear rapidly. You have an industry testing, testing, testing, and then testing some more. Every time they want to test something they have to update code that exists, in some cases, on thousands of web pages. Some of these web pages can be accessed directly but in extreme cases there could be thousands of pages, across many different servers, owned by many different organizations, that have to have their code updated every time you wish to test any new idea or gather any new information. There is a serious problem facing the teams and individuals responsible for driving revenue.

The advancement that finally overcame this new problem facing online advertisers and marketers has it’s roots in a new object oriented programming logic. Object oriented development works within the idea that you call an object, that many different functional pieces of code can use to perform the task, rather than perform the task internally in every functional piece of code you write. We now have modular applications built to easily interface with any new methods that you might development as you move through the development life cycle of an individual application. New code written can use any of the functionality already in place to accomplish the functional goal elegantly and easily. Web browsers became more robust and the object oriented mindset created an environment that allowed the same remote tracking script to be called to collect the data, rather than collecting the data remotely on every page.

A single tracking script (generally a java script) can be edited and updated to collect any new piece of data or interface with any outside system, without ever touching any of the actual websites. We have the ability to collect any piece of data we want with almost no implementation barrier, and do almost anything we can think of with that data internally or externally.  There are some very complex attribution models and tracking/analytics models that owe their existence to this new environment.

So here we are. There is a new, unknown object on the horizon that can revolutionize e-commerce as it exists today. It can overcome the barriers and risks that every agency and network hears repeated again and again. Through a simple, yet very profound shift in mindset, we can utilize the new technologies available to add yet another piece to the puzzle and lure that ever illusive new enigma to the distant, outside reaches of our field of vision so that it may in-turn be conquered.