Should you use a free Web analytics solution?

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Lately there has been a lot of talk about free Web analytics solutions like Google Analytics and Microsoft Gatineau. On this subject, the most common question I get from readers is "Should we consider a free solution?" The answer, of course, is "It depends."

I recently published a report titled "The Problem with Free Analytics" exploring how companies leverage their investment in measurement. The report uncovered some important differences in how companies use free solutions today, especially regarding measurement "best practices." Most importantly, companies currently using free solutions are significantly less likely to dedicate resources to data analysis projects. Unfortunately, Web analytics is hard, and organizational commitment is a proven requirement for success.

Some pretty bright people read my report and commented that perhaps companies using free solutions were not less committed because they were using free analytics, but rather these companies are using a free solution because they're not yet committed to measurement. An excellent point, but it begs the obvious question: If a company is not fully committed to optimizing their marketing efforts, does using a free solution make you more or less likely to actually do the necessary work? It is perhaps more likely that, lacking financial drivers, measurement will fail to get the attention it deserves, delaying benefits attributed to Web analytics.

Others have commented that free solutions are great because you can use the savings to hire dedicated resources to manage your analytics. While I absolutely agree with this theory, in reality experienced Web analysts are very difficult to find, and most experienced practitioners are more likely to want to use powerful solutions like Omniture, Coremetrics or WebTrends.

A more likely scenario is that companies using free solutions will train internal resources using books and classes available in the marketplace today, slowly benefiting from their education over time. But again, Web analytics is hard, and many of the subtle aspects of analytics take far more than an hour a day to learn.

The decision to standardize on a free Web analytics solution depends entirely on what you hope to accomplish. If you want to save money, go free, and know that the true benefits may be slow to materialize. But if your business success absolutely depends on understanding visitor behavior, "free" may end up costing you more than you think.

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