April 30, 2009

What would you like to ask Avinash Kaushik?

boxer The gloves will be tied tight. Brightly colored silk dressing gowns will be shrugged to the floor; gum-shields inserted. In the blue corner: yours truly. In the red (and blue, yellow and green) corner, web analytics heavyweight, Avinash Kaushik. As the crowd bays for blood, battle will be joined. The Garden never saw anything like this.

Well, ok, it’ll probably be a bit more civilized (well, a lot more civilized) than that. But at next week’s E-metrics Summit in San Jose, Avinash and I will indeed be going head to head in the “Rules for Analytics Revolutionaries” session on Wednesday May 6 at 3.25. In that session, I’ll be asking Avinash some genuinely tricky questions to really get to the heart of some of the thorniest issues around web analytics today, such as campaign attribution, free versus paid tools, and what, really, the point of all this electronic navel-gazing really is.

But I could use your help. In my comments box below, or via e-mail, suggest the question(s) you’d most like me to ask Avinash next week. This is your big chance to ask Avinash the question you’re too embarrassed/polite/nervous to ask him in person. If you’re going to be at the Summit, then be sure to come to the session to see if your question gets asked; if not, I’ll post a follow-up post here after the event and shall be sure to include Avinash’s answers to any questions from the blog.

So come on – what have you got to lose? It’s not like it’s you who’s going to be picking a fight with one of the industry’s most revered and respected advocates, is it? Leave that to old numb-knuckles here.

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March 22, 2009

In New York on March 30? Drop by

rethink-home-promo Curmudgeonly hermit that I am, I don’t often leave my Pacific Northwest aerie and venture out into the wider world (unless you count the Eastside as the wider world, which I don’t). But next Monday, March 30, New York City will be blessed by my mysterious presence, as I participate in a panel at the Advertising Research Foundation’s annual convention, re:think, at the Marriot Marquis.

The name of my session is “Maximizing the Value of Your Digital Media Measurement Strategies”, and is on Monday 3/30 at 3pm. I’ll be joined by some smart folks from the world of online audience & campaign measurement from Carat Digital, Mullen, RAPP and Datran Media.

If you want to come along and and heckle, the nice folks at Datran have kindly sponsored some free passes (just for this session, not the entire event) – you can register for one here. Alternatively, if you’re in New York at that time, and would like to meet up, drop me a line – I’ll be around until the end of the day on Tuesday.

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March 12, 2009

adCenter Analytics beta closing: Goodbye, Gatineau

red-sunset-casey1 If you’re an adCenter Analytics (ACA) beta customer, or you’ve read my colleague Mel’s posting over on the adCenter Community site, you’ll know that we’ve decided to close the ACA beta program at the end of the year.

In some senses, this is a sad day for me, since ACA (then known as Gatineau) was the first project I worked on when I came to Microsoft back in 2006, and even though I moved off it early last year, I’ve stayed in close contact with the ACA team since. But in assessing my own reaction to this news, it’s important to separate out the damage to my ego from a more level-headed assessment of this news. And in the latter regard, I’m full of optimism.

I know from the time I spent on the project and from talking to the team since that we have learned a great deal about the kinds of analytical capabilities that we need to provide throughout our ad platform to enable our advertisers and publishers to get the best value out of working with us. And let me be clear: analytics is tremendously important. But this announcement reflects a conclusion that we’ve come to that, for us, providing analytics in the form of a standalone tool like ACA doesn’t present the best value or utility for our customers.

Of course, it’s not my place to be making ad hoc pronouncements about our analytics product strategy, especially not at a moment like this; so I’ve probably said enough already. But I’d like to add my personal thanks to all of you who took the time to try out ACA and provide us with valuable feedback and ideas. Hopefully we provided some value for you along the way.

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February 23, 2009

A new new job

Yield1956 I have exciting (for me) news to share with you today – I have a new job, with the somewhat tongue-twisting title of Director of Yield Business Intelligence Product Management. I know, cool, huh?

In case you’re left a little non-plussed by precisely what Yield Business Intelligence is, let me enlighten you: I’m in charge of the systems that Microsoft has to analyze the yield of our online advertising inventory. My more long-standing readers may remember that I’ve blogged about yield before, in my Online Advertising 101 series of posts.

For an online publisher – in fact, for any advertising-funded business (hell, for any business) – yield and cost are what it’s all about. If you can’t sell your stuff for more than it cost you to make it, you’ve not got a viable business. So understanding yield, in detail, is essential. And that’s my new job. Should be a great opportunity to return to my analytics roots, but this time with a slightly different data set. And I get to continue to think about online advertising from the publisher/network perspective – something that I’ve really enjoyed doing in the past year.

So you can look forward to more posts here about the trials and tribulations of making money from online advertising inventory. Given the convulsions some parts of the industry are going through, it should be an interesting ride.

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February 10, 2009

Googopoly vs Micropoly

dastardly The excellent Tom Slee (aka. Whimsley) has been on my blogroll for some time. Tom writes longish posts about a range of interesting topics – at the moment he’s in the middle of a dissertation about whether Amazon’s recommendation service really does help unknown authors to find an audience and side-step the ‘evil’ publishing business (I have a suspicion about how the answer will turn out).

Part of Whimsley’s appeal is that he seems to toil away in the same kind of semi-obscurity that I do [violins]; but recently he’s had a burst of traffic to his site thanks to a link from Jeff Atwood, who referenced an excellent Whimsley post about the role of Google in shaping the Internet. The short version of Whimsley’s thesis is that because of the way Google’s ranking algorithm (especially the PageRank part) works, Google is as much as driver of what’s popular on the Internet as it is a reflector of that. You should read the whole post to get the full story.

But the interesting point raised by Jeff Atwood is, is Google a monopoly? The comments to Jeff’s post are full of people echoing Google’s official response to the accusation of monoplism – which is that users are free to switch their search engine at any time.But Whimsley makes the point that it’s extremely difficult for an advertiser to switch away from Google. This is not because Google makes it difficult, but because Google provides such an essential service – AdWords – to advertisers that it’s almost impossible to run certain kinds of businesses without it. And, of course, it’s the advertisers that provide Google’s income, not the end users executing searches.

Now, I’m aware that I would be on extremely thin ice, both morally and legally, if I were to speculate on whether Google’s market position constitutes a monopoly. And, just to be clear, I’m not. I’m also not speculating on how it was that Microsoft ended up in trouble with the DOJ (I in fact have very little knowledge of the specifics of the case). All I would say is that Google and Microsoft have a lot more in common than people might like to believe. Neither is staffed by moustache-twirling evildoers (to borrow Whimsley’s excellent phrase); both are trying to develop their business and improve the services that they provide to customers. The challenge is to do so from a strong market position without ending up behaving in a monopolistic fashion.

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January 30, 2009

Internet Explorer 8 RC1: Porn mode gets a face-lift

ie8logo Now if that headline doesn’t get me some search ranking juice, nothing will - though my contextual ads (left) are likely to be less impressed.

I was going to post this earlier in the week, but Eric Peterson’s swashbuckling defense of cookies (and my hand-wringing response)  intervened. As it turns out, though, that debate is very relevant to this post, which concerns the latest build of Internet Explorer 8 (still used by around 80% of the world’s web users, though not by you lot, who seem to favor Firefox by a nose), which hit the web this week.

I’ve already posted once about IE8, and talked about its new “InPrivate” features (also known as “porn mode”) that allow you to surf the web without leaving a trace (on the machine you’re using, of course – the websites you visit can still track your behavior). It’s worthy of another post because the specific feature that piqued my interest the last time – InPrivate Blocking – has a new name and somewhat different behavior now.

The new name for InPrivate Blocking is InPrivate Filtering, which is certainly a better name. You may recall that InPrivate Blocking was a feature that allowed the user to tell IE to block requests to third-party websites, either manually, or if content from those sites had been served in a third-party context more than 10 times. Examples of this kind of content? Web analytics tracking tag code; ads; widgets; embedded YouTube videos. The idea is to enable users to opt out of this kind of content because it enables third parties to track user behavior (with or without cookies) without them really knowing.

So what’s new in RC1, apart from a friendlier name? Well, a couple of things. The first is that InPrivate Filtering can be turned on even if you’re not browsing in “InPrivate mode”, via the Safety menu, or a handy little icon in the status bar:


Click it, and InPrivate Filtering is on. There’s no way to turn this on by default; you have to click the icon every time you start a new IE instance.

The other major change is that there’s more control over how third-party content is blocked. In the previous beta, content was automatically blocked if it turned up more than 10 times (i.e. on 10 different sites) as third-party content. That number is now tunable, to anywhere between 3 and 30:


The idea of InPrivate Filtering Subscriptions still exists – a user can import an appropriately formatted XML file (or click on a link on a site, such as this one) to subscribe to a list of blocked third-party content.I’ve not seen any public subscriptions pop up, however, in the time since IE8 beta 2 came out.

In my previous post in IE8, I wrote about how, as someone whose job depends on being able to track users, I am conflicted about this functionality. This revision makes it slightly easier for privacy hawks to block third-party content, and whilst I welcome it, my original prediction – that it will be relatively lightly used in practice – still stands.

Interestingly, since IE8 beta 2 was announced in August, other browser manufacturers have followed suit – most notably, Mozilla, which will be including InPrivate-style functionality in Firefox 3.1 – though without the third-party content blocking feature. Apple’s Safari browser has had similar functionality for some time.

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September 02, 2008

Internet Explorer 8 beta 2: Privacy vs Monetizability

image Once upon a time, when I was a young turk, I would assiduously download every last doodad that my employer created as soon as it shipped - or often long before, happily reaching for the pile of floppy disks as I rebuilt my computer for the umpteenth time following the latest toxic combination of untested software.

Age (and a need to still be able to work on my computer) has slowed me down. So I passed over IE8 beta 1, preferring to read about others' experiences of the new "standards mode" that is the default rendering mode for the new browser.

But last week, only hours after its public availability, I downloaded and installed IE8 beta 2. Why? Because it contains a raft of new features for protecting user privacy. I've blogged previously about the eternal tension between user privacy on the web, and the measurement and tracking that is so essential to many websites' business models. Put simply, if users' behavior could not be measured online, a lot of online businesses would go out of business.


What's new?

So how does IE8 contribute to the debate? Well, there are a number of minor features to protect users, and one major one. The minor ones include a nice feature in the address bar to highlight the actual domain of the site you're looking at:


This makes it much easier to spot phishing attacks, since many phishing sites try to confuse users by including familiar looking domains as subdomains of the real site, e.g.:


Another nice feature, related to phishing, is the "Smartsite Filter". This allows the user to check the current website against a known list of bad sites.It's essentially a UI into the automatic phishing filter that was built into IE7  - but it allows users to report sites as well as check them, adding a Cloudmark-like element of user contribution to the process of spotting evil sites.

This feature is rolled up under a new Safety menu, which also contains options to view the privacy policy info for a site (which shows all the cookies that were served and/or blocked, per IE7), and the security report for a site (any problems with the site's SSL certificate etc). Neither of these features is new, but it's nice to see them called out in their own menu.

The other small enhancement worth noting is that the "browsing history deletion" feature has become smarter - you can elect to delete the cookies etc. for all sites except those in your favorites list. This is a step forward, but it still mystifies me that IE has no easy way for browsing the cookies (and their content) on your computer, and selectively deleting them (as Firefox has had since v2, it pains me to say).


InPrivate Browsing & Blocking

The big new security/privacy feature in IE8 is called InPrivate Browsing (others have dubbed it "porn mode", but I am above such lewdness). InPrivate Browsing allows the user to browse without storing any cookies or browsing history, or locally cached files. It's good for when you're borrowing someone else's computer, or if you share a computer and don't want the other people who use the computer to know what you've been up to (now you are starting to understand where the "porn mode" nickname comes from).

The naming of the InPrivate functionality is somewhat confusing. Once you turn on InPrivate Browsing (either from the Safety menu or using Ctrl+Shift+P), something called InPrivate Blocking is also activated. InPrivate Blocking prevents your browser from sending requests for third-party content that it thinks are principally for the purpose of tracking your behavior. The big difference here is that this isn't just blocking third-party cookies - it's third-party content. That's tracking pixels, third-party JS calls, and yes, ads.

InPrivate Blocking will block third-party requests if one of the two following conditions have been met:

  • The request URL has been made in a third-party context on more than 10 other domains
  • You have specifically added the request URL through an InPrivate Blocking Subscription

To understand the first condition, take a look at the screenshot below, which is the dialog that comes up if you select InPrivate Blocking from the Safety menu when InPrivate Browsing is active:


You'll notice that there are some third-party request URLs that come up, well, a lot. googleadsyndication.com is the domain that Google AdSense ads are served from; and you will doubtless know what comes from google-analytics.com. In the dialog above, the four URLs across these two sites have each been requested at least 20 times in a third-party context, and I've only been using IE8 for a few days. With the default settings ("Automatically block"), these URLs are blocked when I am in InPrivate mode.

The other way of adding a URL to the blocked list is to subscribe to an InPrivate Blocking list. This is an RSS or Atom feed of URLs that IE8 should block in InPrivate mode. I have created a subscription list which blocks third-party requests to analytics.live.com - the domain for adCenter Analytics's tracking JS and pixel. You can try it out by clicking here.

The power of the feed-based approach to InPrivate Blocking is that privacy advocacy sites can post a single link to a feed XML file which users subscribe to; if that file changes, the users' blocking lists change. So you can expect to find "click here to block ALL tracking pixels and ads" links on such sites in the not-too-distant future. You can take a look at your InPrivate Subscriptions through the Manage Add-ons option in the Tools menu:



"Aargh! This sucks!"/"Great!" [Delete as applicable]

Whether news of this functionality sends a shiver down your spine or warms the cockles of your heart depends on whether your business depends on online advertising or web analytics. Popular third-party analytics systems like Google Analytics, or third-party ad servers like Atlas Enterprise will lose data on users who enable InPrivate Browsing; and even a less popular service that might not normally be blocked automatically could end up on common "Opt-out" feeds and have its tracking blocked, especially if had a poor reputation for privacy.

I must admit that when I first read of this functionality, I was - ahem - a little apprehensive, for the reasons above. And in truth, only time will tell what proportion of users are engaging InPrivate browsing (although, given the nature of the functionality, we'll not be gathering this data). But my gut feel is that, whilst this capability is a welcome addition to the privacy and security arsenal of Internet Explorer, actual take-up of the feature will be low. It needs to be invoked explicitly, of course, and the blocking of persistent cookies means that some desirable features of websites (such as being able to remember you from visit to visit) will be disabled. So I imagine it will be used sparingly by the vast majority of users.

Even so, this feature could easily add another 1 - 2% to the existing disparity between different measurement systems (such as an in-house web analytics system and a third-party ad server). Though there are techniques that vendors could use to work around the automatic blocking - the best example being the use of CNAME DNS entries to make the third-party tracking URLs look like first-party URLs - these techniques will add complexity to the implementation of such systems; so it might be easier for us all to live with a little less certainty.


If you'd like to read more about the new features in IE8, there's a ton of stuff over at the IE blog. And, with my Microsoft hat firmly on my head, I should say that the IE team has done an outstanding job with this beta, which is performing really well for me, and rendering most sites flawlessly, with just a few slight layout differences cropping up here and there. Well done, guys.

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July 30, 2008

Check out the new adCenter Analytics

Even though I'm no longer working on adCenter Analytics, it still gives me great pleasure to be able to tell you that the product (formerly known as Gatineau) has had a significant upgrade and now boasts a bunch of fancy new features:


Path analysis

CropperCapture[7] Ever wondered how people navigate through your site from your homepage, or how they reach a particular point? The path report shows an interactive, graphical view of navigational paths from or to a particular page, helping you to understand where folks are getting lost, and giving you ideas on how to make your site more effective in getting people to do what you want them to do.



Every good web analytics product needs a dashboard to give an at-a-glance view of essential site statistics, and now adCenter Analytics has one. The dashboard is customizable via drag-and-drop, and you can also add new dashboard "gadgets" from the gadget library.



CropperCapture[2]Improved Treemap

The treemap report, which we introduced in the last refresh of the adCenter Analytics beta, has some great enhancements in this refresh, most notably the ability to segment the treemap view by age and gender, so you can get the benefit of the treemap's easy-to-digest visualization when looking at this segmentation data, and cross-reference that with site page usage.


CropperCapture[3]Time trends

You can now trend many items from reports by time, such as a particular page or referrer, seeing how traffic for this item has changed over time. Great for understanding when it was that that item started to contribute (or stopped contributing) traffic to your site.


CropperCapture[4]More segmentation

In addition to being able to segment your reports by age or gender, you can now segment reports by age/gender composites - so you can see whether men aged 25-34 are really into your cat photos, or not.


Enhanced plumbing

There are also a bunch of changes we've made behind the scenes to improve the reliability and performance of adCenter Analytics. You should see a snappier, more responsive UI, and far fewer of those annoying "Microsoft adCenter is experiencing problems" messages.


If you already have an adCenter Analytics account, you merely have to log into your account to see the new features. If you don't, you can request an account here. My colleague Mel will be posting more about the new features over on the official adCenter Analytics blog, so stay tuned.

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June 03, 2008

Try out Silverlight Streaming, earn money

silverlight_logo_mix You may have heard of Silverlight, our Rich Internet Applications framework - and if you haven't, you're sure to hear more about it this summer, as it'll be used on the NBC site to stream Olympics videos. But you don't have to be NBC to take advantage of Silverlight video streaming - or know anything about Silverlight development.

Our friends over on the Windows Live Dev team have had a hosted Silverlight Streaming service up and running for a little while now. You can upload your own videos (in pretty much any format) and we'll transcode them into streaming format and give you a nice little snippet of HTML that you can include on your own website to embed your streamed video whereever you like. And the quality is waaaaay better than those other guys - even if the content might be of questionable quality.

Why I'm telling you about it now is that we're about to start a trial program where we insert ads into the video stream as overlays, and cut you in on the revenues. All you have to do is add a few keywords each time you upload a video and we'll insert some relevant (and appropriate) advertising into the stream (see an example here - scroll down the page a little). So if you've been struggling to monetize your video content with something like AdSense, now's your chance.

Sign up for Silverlight Streaming itself by clicking here - and if you want to sign up for the ads trial, click here. I'm afraid this trial is only open to US residents with a US Social Security number or tax ID right now; if you don't have one of these, we can't pay you, unfortunately.

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April 17, 2008

The running of the programmers

bridges_12142006_1700  Off-topic, this, but there's an interesting report in this week's Economist about the changing lifestyle patterns created by mobile technology, and the rise of the digital "nomad" who works anywhere and everywhere (I'm writing this from my local coffee shop, just to prove what a trendy nomadic-type person I am). Particularly interesting (to folks round here, anyway) is a write-up of the results of a series of studies of US traffic patterns carried out by Alan Pisarski over the past three decades:

Car trips had stopped increasing and were even declining in cities such as Seattle, Atlanta and Portland. Traffic was still heavy but now spread out over much longer periods, starting at 5am and lasting till noon, say. Bizarre new patterns were cropping up, such as a “reverse commute” in Seattle as lots of male computer scientists at Microsoft in the suburb of Redmond raced downtown to find females—a weekday ritual called "the running of the programmers".

I have to admit that I've never heard the term "running of the programmers" (and besides, I live in Seattle, and am married), but I can attest to the misery that is the 520 into Seattle at 5pm, and I use everything in my power (including not going to Redmond, or traveling on a wi-fi enabled bus) to avoid it. So now I'm part of a lifestyle trend.

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