For Ellen Pao, former CEO of Reddit, one of the largest active social media platforms, to come out and confirm web analytics are “fake,” raises some serious questions. But what led Pao to make this statement on Twitter in the first place? And is it actually true? Are all web analytics fake? 

CMSWire, along with leading experts and practitioners, investigates.

The Reasons Behind Ellen Pao’s Statement

Pao’s Twitter comments arose as a response to a tweet from Washington Post’s Aram Zucker-Schariff that shared a segment of a New York Magazine article discussing the authenticity of web analytics.“Take something as seemingly simple as how we measure web traffic. Metrics should be the most real thing on the internet: they are countable, trackable and verifiable, and their existence undergirds the advertising business that drives our biggest social and search platforms. Yet not even Facebook, the world’s greatest data gathering organization, seems able to produce genuine figures.”

The article then went on to refer to a number of lawsuits filed against Facebook for overstating the time users spent watching videos on the social media platform.

On seeing the post, Ellen Pao responded by tweeting: “It's all true: Everything is fake. Also, mobile user counts are fake. No one has figured out how to count logged-out mobile users, as I learned at Reddit. Everytime someone switches cell towers, it looks like another user and inflates company user metrics."

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So, Is All Web Analytics Data Fake?

Amy Vernon, VP of community at Rivetz Corp, said, “I tend to agree with Ellen Pao’s statement about web analytics. The problem isn’t the data itself, it’s how all the platforms share and label the data. In their rush to make their platforms seem as busy as possible, they [tend] to use the most inflated definition of pageviews, video views, uniques, active visitors and more.”

However, on the other side of the debate, Andy Gibson, head of news and media vertical at InfoTrust, disagrees with Pao’s comments. “[Pao] is basing her argument on the fact that Silicon Valley companies like Facebook have in the past misled or outright lied about web and video metrics. That doesn’t mean web analytics data is fake. That means there are bad actors presenting false analytics data," Gibson said. Gibson added that companies who overinflate their web analytics data are a reflection of their poor core values and culture, and not web analytics tools or the industry as a whole.

Learning Opportunities

In reference to the challenge of tracking “logged-out” mobile users that Pao mentioned, Alan Santillan, marketing specialist at G2Crowd, mentioned this is “well understood” in the analytics industry and is “not a secret” at all. “Looking into the actual quote, what Ellen Pao learned while working at Reddit is that web analytics data is extremely hard to track,” Santillan said. “The numbers are not fake, they are also not a completely accurate representation of current metrics we are tracking because of the way users are represented and tracked.”

Santillan said, "that there are ways of tracking people across multiple devices that can alleviate the issue concerning 'logged-out' users, which Pao fails to mention. Marketers will still be able to justify data points like demographics and other more technical aspects available through platforms like Google Analytics.”

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More Transparency is Coming

While it seems the lack of trust in web analytics platforms emerged from certain Silicon Valley giants misusing their data, web analytics brands, or companies that rely on web analytic solutions for their customers, must now focus their efforts on being transparent to regain consumer confidence.

Steve Weiss, CEO at MuteSix, explained how his company is being open and honest with their customers concerning analytics. “As an advertiser, we insist our customers know what they’re paying for,” Weiss said. “It's so vital to break down internal silos, be more open with partners when it comes to success metrics, and have those very necessary conversations around investing in technology.”

There are a number of variables that can influence an ad’s performance or how your website performs each month. All of these variables need to be communicated to the customer. “Cross-customer collaboration and transparency is what we’ll see more digital marketers moving towards. We expect to see agencies include more useful tools that connect the customer with actions, which will inspire trust in the process,” Weiss said.