Summertime may be the time for blockbuster movie releases, but I don’t usually associate summer with blockbuster releases among web analytics vendors. WebTrends (site, news), with its Analytics 9 release in early August, sought to change all of that. WebTrends is having quite a busy summer, also acquiring a small multivariate testing firm called Widemile at the end of July.

The Analytics 9 release is quite an intriguing package and upon first look at all of its features there is definitely a “wow” factor -- both because the interface and analysis functions are cool in of themselves, but a vast improvement on the “traditional” WebTrends interface. The general thrust of the release is geared to making it easy for your report users to access reports more easily and analyze the data more quickly. Does WebTrends succeed?

User Interface Improvements

The new Insight report profile report summary and drill down is clearly presented to the user with both standard and custom reports available. Rather than split up reports into a vendor-centric hierarchy (a frustrating norm from all vendors since the beginning of web analytics), the reports are presented in alphabetical order.

A search function is also available to quickly find a specific report. However, you must enter the specific name of the report, as it is not a fuzzy search. On the plus side, the search form does fill in with possible reports based on your entry.

Story Telling, the Old Fashioned Way

A “story” feature is available for all standard (not custom) reports. This is a great little feature that spits out a descriptive analysis of the report that’s been run.

For example, instead of you needing to write about the top level numbers and trends, the story feature populates the analysis template with the numbers in all of the right places. I laughed when I first saw this because I could completely relate to having to spend time on writing these rather obvious analyses that are both labor intensive and tedious…but often necessary when sending reports along to stakeholders. There is a bit of a downside, in that you cannot customize the canned analyses.

RSS Overlay for Event Associations

If you are using RSS for news, press releases, blogs and so forth, you can insert the RSS URL into a report, and see on what dates stories were going out on the RSS. All you need to do is a cut and paste of the URL into the RSS Overlay field and you’re good to go.

Data Access, Reporting via REST

The other aspect of this release that is quite exciting is the use of the REST API to create automated Excel reports. Readers of the CMS Watch Web Analytics Report, and more sophisticated users of WebTrends know that automated Excel reporting (a la Omniture’s Excel client) has always been a weak point.

The new REST APIs make this pain a thing of the past…for the most part. As long as you’re using Excel 2007, all you need to do is copy the http link generated by the report in WebTrends and paste it into the “From Web” field under the Data tab to get the report.

The good news is that you can generate the same report as often as you’d like…daily, weekly, monthly and so on, and the http link will be the same, so you can point to the same link. In addition, there is no limit to the number of rows available in the data export.

The automation aspect...that is hands free update of the data into the Excel sheet… is not currently available. This means that you’ll need to do the data refresh manually. This is a bit of an inconvenience, but would not likely be too much to bear unless you’re doing quite a lot of automated Excel reporting.

A Nice Step Forward, More to Come

Analytics 9 is a great step forward, but rather than being a standalone summer blockbuster it has to be viewed either as the first part of a multi-part serial or a preview of things to come. There are a few significant unfinished parts to this story:

What is to become of WebTrends’ custom report interface? This is not covered by the new release. If you need to develop advanced reports, such as those using filters or importing campaign and product IDs into reports, you need to use the “traditional” UI from release 8.5. Same goes for doing drill down reporting.

Other “cliffhanging” aspects in Analytics 9:

  • The list of reports in Insight is pre-defined; the company indicates that you’ll be able to custom configure the list in the next release.
  • There are two different log ins…one for Insight and one for the “traditional” UI, but there is on administrative control over setting permissions from one or the other.
  • Insight does not work with Marketing Warehouse.

There is definitely a “work in progress” element to the WebTrends product right now -- which feels both exciting and risky. Management stresses that it is now in a mode of rapid release, and that the product will be fully re-engineered over the next 6-9 months, with the next release coming out in October. According to the company, there have been 44 customers in beta since mid-June, and they are planning to use the feedback from this group to help shape the evolution of the new product.

On-Demand Roadmap Clarity in Demand

I think it’s all a good thing, and I’m impressed by the progress the WebTrends team has made since Alex Yoder took over as the CEO a year ago. But for all of the advancements in Analytics 9, I have a question about what exactly and when exactly the core product will be completely re-engineered. It is not exactly clear what features will be addressed and when they’ll be addressed going forward.

I think it would be helpful to have more definition around the product development roadmap. Without this guidance from the company, I’m not exactly sure when the “new” product will be finished or available in entirety.

If I were evaluating WebTrends, I’d ask my rep to be as clear about this as possible. Otherwise, I’d feel a bit like I’m guessing on how the product story is going to turn out. That might be fine for the movies, but in the case of a web analytics investment, I’d like to know how the story ends before I pay my money.

I'm definitely interested in hearing your take on this -- either in the comments here or at the up coming X Change Web Analytics Conference, Sept 9th - 11th in San Francisco.