Interview of Google Analytics' Brett Crosby | Perficient Digital

Interview of Google Analytics’ Brett Crosby

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Brett Crosby

The following is the transcript of an interview of Brett Crosby, Senior Manager of Google Analytics, conducted in several sessions in January 2007. He has been shaping the Web Analytics industry for ten years as the co-founder of Urchin Software Corporation and more recently as a senior product leader at Google. He is currently responsible for product positioning, feature roadmap development, and all external product communications. Brett holds a degree from USC in Political Science and International Relations.

Interview Transcript

Eric Enge: To start off, can you talk about your background, and what unfolded with the experience of Urchin being acquired by Google.

Brett Crosby: I was one of the co-founders of Urchin, and I helped to build the company from the beginning, doing things like writing our original business models and coming up with our product plans and features and all that stuff. And I started the sales organization, which was basically just me in the beginning when we were a five-person company. One of our other co-founders, Jack Ancone, and I got many of our first major clients like Earthlink and Cable & Wireless. Later, Scott took over the sales team. At the time when we got acquired, I was VP of marketing and had been building out our marketing organization with several other intelligent people on the team.

Our philosophy was always to create a product that was fairly simple to get going and didn’t require a tremendous amount of technical support. We built our business around a very scalable product, which allowed us to do things like target hosting companies and get massive numbers of users with one deal, rather than focusing on one very complex deal. That was our business philosophy – a Guy Kawasaki type of thing, where you get twenty companies to give you one dollar instead of looking for one company that will give you twenty dollars.

That kind of model actually fits very well with Google, which is not a super heavy professional services type of company, but more of a scalable product company focused on working with the long tail, right?

So it was a natural fit. When we got acquired by Google, our philosophies were very similar. That’s not to say our objective is to eliminate technical support, or that we won’t provide professional services. At both Urchin, and now at Google, we have full tech support available. But what we have done is focused a lot of effort on making our products extremely easy to use, easy to set up, and we’ve tried to get rid of integration hassles wherever we can. For example, by pre-integrating with products like AdWords; and we’ve also done some stuff with Google Checkout. We hope to make these things a kind of one button “click and it works.” That’s the model we tend to go toward when we can.

And then on top of that, we have built self-help resources. And then we offer professional services through third parties. We don’t push support packages onto customers or make them pay us for additional services. We work with the top professional services, companies like Zaaz and Stratigent for example, and they offer professional services packages to our customers.

Eric Enge: So do you actively recommend professional services companies to people?

Brett Crosby: We do, we have an area on our website on the Google analytics website that has our “Google Analytics Authorized Consultants,” that’s what we call them (Editor: the authorized consultants are listed here).

We have a list of global professional services companies as well as tech support companies for people who want support services that we don’t offer, such as someone to come onsite. Having the model that we have allows us to provide regional support, in proper languages, proper time zones, proper currencies, for whatever customers we may be working with throughout the world. This helps because our products are in sixteen languages, seventeen if you count US English as well as UK English too.

So that’s our philosophy. There are a lot of things that we do on a practical basis that implement that philosophy. I mentioned the AdWords integration but there are a lot of other things too. For example, we have a single page tag for all of your pages rather than having to use different tags for goal or funnel pages.

Eric Enge: Can you comment at all about the experience of being acquired by Google and finding yourself in a somewhat larger company then you were before?

Brett Crosby: Yes, it’s been extremely interesting, and quite educational. Let me tell you about one of the best parts in my opinion about being acquired by Google, besides the excellent free food and other benefits like that. I have been in this industry for a long time, so I have watched Google become a very big player in the industry. I watched them get into a variety of things, and before I was here, I was wondering about several things that Google is up to. And working here, obviously, you get to find out about a lot of those things. So, that’s been one of the most rewarding things, being able to satiate my curiosity and get some of those questions answered.

And, then the second thing is that we get to leverage some of the very powerful things that Google has created. Everything from data centers to proprietary technologies and all sorts of other things like that, it’s pretty exciting. And then, on the bad side, I can tell you that there is a lot of e-mail at Google. I thought I had a lot when I was doing a startup, but then at Google, it’s an order of magnitude larger.

Eric Enge: A whole lot of communication.

Brett Crosby: A lot of communication and you are expected to stay on top of things. Google’s well known for its hiring practices and really going after some of the best and the brightest people that have done extremely well in school etc. Very driven people and so these people expect you to respond, and you have to be very motivated to stay on top of things.

It’s been interesting to have so many very motivated people working in the same place. One other point that I think is kind of interesting is the way Google allows people to work on products and develop things. It’s like you are working for an incubator in a lot of ways because you know you have a lot of centralized resources, and you pitch to the powers that be about what you are trying to accomplish and then you get those resources. At a real incubator would be financial resources, and things like them handling your HR, and your back end systems. At Google, that stuff is handled for you as well but it’s in the form of getting personnel, engineers, and machine allocations and stuff like that.

Eric Enge: Well, it’s still money; it’s just in a different form, right?

Brett Crosby: Yeah, exactly, it’s resources.

Eric Enge: Right, exactly. Okay, so you talked a little bit before, about your approach of focusing on twenty customers; get a dollar each, instead of one customer that pays you twenty. Could you take a moment and provide, maybe your own sense of the segmentation of the analytics market, and how you see the various players?

Brett Crosby: You mean from a competitive standpoint?

Eric Enge: Yes.

Brett Crosby: The way I see it, is that we really took the traditional model and flipped it on its head. Instead of having an expensive product, like most of the rest of the market, we have a free product. Many analytics products come with a pre-determined set of professional services, and then if you want additional things the analytics vendor will up-sell you. For a lot of analytics vendors, professional services is a big piece of their revenue stream. Google has used a really different approach. It’s a free product that anyone with a website can use. If you want, we have all those services that I mentioned before, such as self-help and Conversion University. And, then we have a Google groups area where you can ask other users questions and that’s a user supported forum. And then we have the paid professional services, through our channel partners. Because we don’t offer the professional services ourselves, we don’t compete with that channel.

We don’t necessarily target a single segment. We have customers from some of the very largest; most highly trafficked sites on the web right now using Google Analytics, and we also have some of the smallest guys on the web; and everyone in between, and a lot of companies from all of those of segments.

Eric Enge: The companies that are offering bundled services, and up-selling more services are offering theoretically more comprehensive integration.

Brett Crosby: Exactly, but here at Google we are highly incentivized to make a product easy to use, and integrated, and easy to install. Whereas, if you get paid for tech support and professional services, you are not necessarily incentivized to do that.

Some people say that their product is more complex and therefore it’s better. I just think that if you analyze that model, it tends to breakdown. You can make a difficult product that’s difficult to use and then get paid to implement it, and then you have a nice revenue stream and you’re kind of incentivized to keep that revenue stream coming in by itself.

Eric Enge: But there probably are people out there who’ll benefit from inherently custom approaches.

Brett Crosby: Yes, that is true, and we have our professional services network for those integrations, but what percentage of people need that level of integration work?

Eric Enge: Not necessarily everybody.

Brett Crosby: Yeah absolutely.

Eric Enge: You mentioned that you have some very large customers. I think it would be interesting if any of those can be disclosed.

Brett Crosby: The only ones that we disclose are the ones that have agreed to do case studies for us. We have those on our website (Editor: the list of case studies is here). They are guys like RE/MAX, Deckers (the company who own Ugg Boots, Teva, and Simple Shoes), and Roche.

Eric Enge: Can you provide some insight as to why there is a variance in the visitor number between analytics packages?

Brett Crosby: I think there are few reasons: (1) the first one is how you define unique visitors and; (2) how the analytics package handles the length of time between visits, and: (3) whether anti-spyware is blocking cookies for one vendor and not another.

Eric Enge: When we talk about the length of time on the site, I assume you mean the way sessions are handled.

Brett Crosby: Yes, but that shouldn’t be too much of a factor. If you are talking about unique visitors and the time frame, that’s a little bit of a different thing.

We actually just did a blog post on differentiating between those two things. In Google Analytics we have two reports. One deals with unique visitors or absolute unique visitors, so how many unique visitors period have you gotten in the lifetime of the site versus how many have you gotten in a specific time frame that you are looking at. So are the new unique visitors for this specific time frame or have they been to your site ever before.

Another thing that can change is whether you are looking at log file-based data versus page tags.

Another thing is potentially how far back historically each package might be looking at unique visitors. So how much history you have could be an issue.

Eric Enge: Right, so how far does the Google Analytics look back?

Brett Crosby: We are looking back at any time in the date range that you’ve selected. If you look at absolute unique visitors we are looking at whether we’ve ever seen that visitor before.

Brett Crosby: Currently our guarantee is thirteen months. We’ve actually extended that to twenty-five months, so that you can compare the last three Septembers, for example.

We’ve bumped that up because we found new efficiencies in storing the data.

The other thing that can be a factor is where your tags are located on the page.

Eric Enge: I suppose the simple solution is if you put the tag at the bottom of the page and a user clicks on a link before the page fully loads.

Brett Crosby: Yeah that’s one but, the best practice is to put the tracking Javascript at the bottom of the page. While you might miss some users in your analytics it’s better to have that than have your page fail to load in the extremely rare event that your analytics server has a slowdown.

Eric Enge: Absolutely. So what does Google Analytics do with users who reject cookies?

Brett Crosby: They are not going to be counted as traffic.

Eric Enge: What about with Javascript?

Brett Crosby: Same thing.

That’s the short answer – that you’re not going to see that traffic. The long answer is that we do have a software product and you can do log file analyses with that if you want to. But, that’s really not something we would expect the bulk of our users to be forced to do.

Eric Enge: You have an option which allows people to do log files instead of Javascript tracking?

Brett Crosby: Not with Google Analytics, but we still have the Urchin software products. We sell Urchin through our channel partners.

Eric Enge: Is that done under the Google brand or under the Urchin brand and company?

Brett Crosby: It’s still under the Urchin brand, but, it’s wholly owned by Google.

Eric Enge: Okay, so what are the key challenges you think that the analytic industry faces at this point, here in 2007?

Brett Crosby: Great question, I think one of the most obvious ones is people deleting cookies and not allowing Javascript. Another one is people being concerned with privacy although we’ve started to see people relaxing about that issue as they see that web analytics are fairly benign. Yet another one is being able to track rich Internet applications and things like Ajax on pages.

Brett Crosby: For products like Google Calendar, the entire thing executes on essentially the same page. So if you look at life in the form of page views, it’s kind of a strange paradigm for things like Google Calendar. So trying to understand that technology is definitely a challenge, I don’t think it’s insurmountable, I just think it’s something that the entire industry needs to start to take a look at. I also think mobile is definitely something that’s been on the horizon and we’ve had various versions that have done things with mobile browsers.

Eric Enge: You are not going to get Javascript or cookies on your mobile phone, right?

Brett Crosby: Yeah, exactly. But who knows maybe as mobile browsers become more powerful then those things may change?

I have one more that I think is very important, and that has plagued the industry for a long time. Scaling the human side of doing the analyses is a very interesting problem and it’s something that needs to be tackled much more aggressively than it is now. If you are not doing it right, the right people don’t get the information and they don’t take action based on the data. But I think overcoming that and doing it in a way that it gets to the right people at the right time, without requiring a lot of human involvement, is something that is a pretty big challenge.

Eric Enge: Right, I know from, I can’t remember if it was a Jim Sterne book or an Eric Peterson book, but the notion was, what’s your ROI on measuring your ROI?

Brett Crosby: Yeah, exactly.

Eric Enge: Making sure it’s simple and straightforward, first of all, to sell the package and then making it practical and useful on a day to day basis.

Brett Crosby: Yeah, that’s right. And there are a lot of ways to handle that, a lot of different ideas around it. We have some stuff that we think are the right ways to approach the problem, but I think it will be a constant thing to continue working on. And you know, in our opinion it takes more engineering effort to build a product that’s easy to use than to make one that is difficult to use. Our philosophy is that it should be fairly simple to use and you shouldn’t have to be a super highly trained expert to use it. Our goal is to make it much more highly adopted and much more accessible to companies, and many people within the companies.

Eric Enge: Is there any plan to more directly leverage data that you collect from other tools or other services? For example, there may be data that you can get at the Google AdWords that will help you deal with blocked cookies or disabled Javascript.

Brett Crosby: Yeah. AdWords is a very clear system, it’s not ambiguous in the way that the analytics are because it can tell if someone clicks your ad, right? And there is no question around that, we know if someone actually clicked it or not. We have already done some nice integration with AdWords and Analytics can tell you your impressions, cost data, which ad group your ad was in. We can tell you your keyword position on the page, whether it’s at the top of the page or position one, two, or three. So we have already done some of those integrations and there are many more integrations that we can do at Google. You’ll see us continue to take advantage of those things with the goal of making things easier for our users. The other one is being able to cross-correlate data, analytics data with other things outside of Google. What we try to do is create a platform approach. We try to avoid integrations that are one-offs with one single company. So we look to create a systemic approach, which is how we work with eCommerce providers and CRM Systems vendors. What we try to do is make it scalable, so it’s something that will work with the entire industry.

Eric Enge: With the CRM systems you can start creating correlation with offline activities.

Brett Crosby: There are all sorts of things that we can do with a CRM system. We had some of that working at Urchin. One of our concerns when we launched at Google was potential privacy backlashes, so we kind of pulled some of those integrations away from the forefront. But, I think we’ve gotten to a point now where CRM integrations aren’t perceived as an invasion of privacy, so now we can continue exploring those integrations again.

Eric Enge: Latent conversion tracking is an interesting topic. The notion that someone comes in on one paid click, doesn’t buy then comes back some other time, maybe through a different paid click or through an organic search or via direct traffic, and converts it at that time. I’m curious as to whether or not there’s a mechanism in Google Analytics to track that now, and just what your thoughts are about the right way to deal with that problem.

Brett Crosby: Yes, we do track that. We looked at the way cataloguers had approached this problem, whether it was that the original lead that you give credit to, or the most recent catalogue that got someone to buy. We took our cue from the methodologies they had decided on, which was that it’s the most recent thing that causes someone to actually buy. That is the most interesting one, and if you have to choose, that’s the one you want. In an ideal world, however, you don’t have to choose, because you know every interaction that ever brought someone to your site. And we do have the capabilities to show that, but we give conversion credit to the most recent click — the most recent thing someone typed in to bring them to your site and convert. Unless they came back to your site through a bookmark or by typing your URL into their browser, in which case we credit their previous visit from a paid source.

Then a long time ago, even before I was at Google, we’d heard from people like Yahoo that their number one searched keyword was, which the people actually typed into their search engine. You get the issue where people type the URL into a search engine instead of just using the address bar in the browser. In this case, we still credit the prior search term used, because we think that typing a URL into a search engine is the same thing as going directly to the site.

Eric Enge: Right. Very interesting. Any other interesting observations you’d like to pass on to wrap up the dialogue?

Brett Crosby: I really think that one of the things that marketers and webmasters should look at is how many resources it takes to get up running and actually pull the analysis out and using their analytics tool, and then using the data to drive actionable decisions. And that’s one of the things that we focus on a lot, is just from the time you decide to implement the analytics to the time you are actually able to make decisions. To me that’s a big piece of the game right now. We have AdWords, which helps you drive traffic to your site. We have analytics that helps you understand what your traffic is doing, and where your website has problems. And we also have tools such as the recently launched Website Optimizer tool (Editor: you can find information on this tool here), which is a multivariate-testing platform that helps you perform content testing on your site.

Yeah, we created Website Optimizer to help you fix any problems that you can identify with analytics, for example, pages that do not convert. This helps you re-tool a page a little bit. So our philosophy is what does the big picture look like and how do you fix the problems so you can run a more efficient business and create a better user experience.

Eric Enge: Excellent. I really appreciate your time for the call.

Brett Crosby: Thank you. I enjoyed it. Let me know if you have any other questions.

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