The Hyper-Text Trans­fer Pro­to­col (http) that runs the web is built on a request/response model.  The client (your browser) makes an HTTP Request which is han­dled by a server.  The server will send an HTTP response back to the client which con­tains the infor­ma­tion requested.  The response can con­tain the con­tents of a web page, a link to a video stream, or a num­ber of other things.

Trans­ac­tions

This whole process is state-less by def­i­n­i­tion.  This means that the pro­to­col doesn’t have any con­cept of mem­ory to remem­ber some­thing from one request to the next.  To com­pen­sate, both the client and the server have come up with a way to keep track of state between requests (cook­ies and ses­sions respectively).

The upshot of all of this is that the web is built upon a series of trans­ac­tions of data, each one con­sist­ing of a request and response.  A user action in a browser, such as click­ing a link, trig­gers a request to a server (please give me the con­tents of this page) and the server processes the request and sends a response (here are the con­tents of that page you asked for).

This is the way that web ana­lyt­ics data col­lec­tion works as well.  Usu­ally the send­ing of the request is han­dled by JavaScript which is trig­gered by the load­ing of a new page.  The request con­tains all the infor­ma­tion about the page and vis­i­tor that you want to record.

The response is an image file (hence the name “image request”).  The only rea­son that any­thing comes back at all is because there must be a response.  That’s the way the web works.  No one really cares about the image itself, so we make it a 1×1 pixel trans­par­ent image that’s easy to hide away some­where where no one will see it.

State

Abra­ham Maslow is per­haps best known for defin­ing the hier­ar­chy of needs.  He also coined a now-famous phrase that you’ve all heard before.  “If the only tool you have is a ham­mer, you tend to see every prob­lem as a nail.”

State intro­duces a new aspect of web mea­sure­ment.  Stan­dard web mea­sure­ment tells us how many things hap­pened within a cer­tain time frame. By con­trast, state mea­sure­ment tells us how many of some­thing there are as of a par­tic­u­lar point in time.  The funny part is that we, as humans, actu­ally deal with states all the time with­out ever think­ing about it, but it’s almost entirely for­eign within the realm of web analytics.

The Dif­fer­ence

How much money did you make?  How much money do you have?  Two related, but very dif­fer­ent ques­tions.  The first is transaction-based ask­ing how many dol­lars rolled in dur­ing a given period.  The sec­ond is state-based ask­ing how many dol­lars are in your pocket?

You’re start­ing to hear the dif­fer­ence.  One is past-tense and one is now.  So what are the ana­lyt­ics equiv­a­lents?  Transaction-based would be some­thing like how many vis­i­tors did we have last month?  Now let’s try the state-based ver­sion.  How many cus­tomers do we have?

Soul Search­ing

When was the last time you asked a ques­tion like that?  I’d wager most of you never have.  In 2.5 years as a mem­ber of Omni­ture Con­sult­ing, never once did a client ask me a ques­tion like this.  Why not?  Why don’t we ask ques­tions like this?  Per­haps we’ve trained our­selves not to ask them because we don’t expect the answers to come from our ana­lyt­ics tools (but they can!).

I’m not debat­ing the power and insight that rests in trans­ac­tional data nor am I sug­gest­ing a replace­ment.  I’m stat­ing that adding an under­stand­ing of sta­tus to your trans­ac­tions can greatly enhance an under­stand­ing of your online pres­ence.  Use trans­ac­tional data for trans­ac­tional ques­tions and use sta­tus data for sta­tus ques­tions.  With a lit­tle twist on stan­dard imple­men­ta­tion, Site­Cat­a­lyst can be used to help you keep track of your status.

Next time I’ll dis­cuss in detail how we use sta­tus track­ing within Test&Target to under­stand cam­paign usage,  but in the mean­time, take a moment to think about how state applies to you and ask your­self a few ques­tions you haven’t asked before. The how many new reg­is­tra­tions did you get last month ques­tion can be enhanced by the how many reg­is­tered users do you have ques­tion.  The per­cent­age change in new user reg­is­tra­tions ques­tion can be enhanced by the per­cent­age change in the total size of the cus­tomer base ques­tion.  And also note that the sta­tus ver­sion of the ques­tion also accounts for attri­tion!  There are so many applications!

Photo Cred­its: A pock­et­ful of change ca. 1970 by a.drian and Close Up of The Thinker by Brian Hil­le­gas