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What iPads & Tablets Mean for Web Analytics

Web analytics software companies are still touting their (recent) ability to segment mobile traffic in reports. This is important primarily because people using mobile devices interact with sites differently than people using more conventional machines.

With iPads and competing tablets entering the scene, the terrain becomes a bit more complex. It raises important new questions for the web analytics industry and companies who rely on it.

Identifying iPads in Reports
First, it’s important to recognize that the iPad marks the beginning of a new era. Whatever you may think of Apple or the device itself, manufacturers are already poised to launch competing devices almost immediately. These devices will be just as portable, and they will seek to fill the same need. Lines are being blurred between phones, tablets, netbooks, laptops and desktops.

The first hurdle for an analyst is one of identification. Some web analytics products, like Google Analytics, already identify visits from iPads automatically. But what of competing products and anything else that falls into this new category? What standard will identify them all? Without a unique identifier, there is no way to distinguish between a tablet and a netbook or even a more advanced phone. They all have similar screen resolutions, operating systems and browsers. Some will support Flash and some won’t.

Also, with these new devices, even if visitors are using a wireless signal, like 3G, they are unlikely to be viewing the mobile versions of a site. They may prefer to view the site like they are accustomed to viewing it at home.

How iPads Change Visitor Behavior

The real reason identifying tablets is important is because we don’t have a clear grasp yet on how visitors on tablets will use the Internet differently. Will visitors be using tablets like phones or like netbooks? Will they be using Wifi or cell towers? Will they be using them on the road, at home or in the office? What will they do differently on a tablet than they would do on a bigger or smaller device?

The kind of connection speed visitors can get will likely impact their usage. Will they view the site the same way, but view less pages because of slower load times? Will they use the devices while waiting and abruptly stop browsing your site when they’re done waiting? What will these devices mean to our understanding of conversions and engagement? Even though your site was fully optimized, it’s possible that visitors will leave your site without converting because their friend just showed up or their movie started.

We may find that our definitions for success need to be redefined to take into account new usage patterns.

More Nuanced Reporting

None of this spells disaster for web analytics or meaningful reporting. It will make aggregate reports even less useful. But the most important take-away is that it will require a higher level of analytical ability.

Rather than relying on tools to segment tablets vs. phones, actionable analysis may increasingly require good analysts who can tell what kinds of segmentation makes sense. That will vary from site to site, depending on a lot of things. But it will require certain skills to be able to stay on top of visitor expectations and actual usage across all the diverging segments.

Maybe (fingers crossed) this shift will spell the end of dashboards. Perhaps executives will be more inclined to ask for meaningful analysis instead of regurgitated reports and graphs. As users become more splintered and begin to use multiple devices more frequently, all sorts of things will need to be reconsidered. How important is calculating unique visitors when the average visitor starts using three different devices to access a site? How important is average time on site if visitors are accessing your content during short waits and no amount of engaging content will keep them longer than a specified time? How do we measure success in this new environment?

Only one thing seems absolutely clear: making sense of the shifting terrain will require more nuanced and skilled analytical abilities than ever before.