The phenomenal growth of online advertising is driving demand for smarter tools to track results: enabling advertisers to see clearly how many people have accessed the website in question, how many people have bought something and how much they have spent.
Sophisticated graphic website and advert-tracking software set for 2008 launch
Europe-based development team driving key innovations
A Microsoft product development group in Dublin, Ireland, is developing advanced visualisations for Microsoft's new website and advertising analytics software. Part of Microsoft's European Development Centre in Dublin, Ireland, the team, called Global Product Development – Europe, is developing key components of a product called Gatineau Analytics (a beta release codename for the advertisement analytical tools in Microsoft's adCenter offering), the first of which are due to be launched in a beta test release in January 2008. After a further test release later on in 2008, the final version of the product is set to be launched by the end of the year. The product will be web-based and free of charge. There will be no need for those accessing it to buy or install any software. Gatineau Analytics will also provide information such as where visitors come from and their demographics.
The new product is off to a flying start before it has even been officially launched. Microsoft says that it has had thousands of requests from people wanting to be invited to take part in the beta-testing and describes the response as “unprecedented”.
Advanced data visualisation techniques
“It's state-of-the-art technology in the sense that we're using very advanced data visualisation techniques to convey complex data relationships to a very non-technical, business audience,” explained Group Programme Manager Dan Stevenson. “By leveraging Ajax, ASP.NET and other Web 2.0 technologies, we're able to present these customers with really powerful visualisations that they can understand and act upon.”
Huge demand driving huge opportunity
“There is huge demand in online advertising and we see it as a huge market opportunity,” said Stevenson. “We're developing a product that does more than any analytics tool in the market today with the aim of driving a bigger slice of advertising budgets to Microsoft.” One of his team members, Programme Manager Olivier Dabrowski, describes the two new tools as being “a sophisticated but user-friendly representation of complex datasets”.
One of the components, an advertising campaign timeline, is targeted at helping advertisers evaluate their online ad campaigns, while the other components help both advertisers and web publishers to make sense of the way people are navigating through a website.
The goal of the advertising ‘campaign timeline' visualisation is to provide marketing managers with a long-term, at-a-glance view of how much revenue is being driven from their web advertisements placed on Microsoft's Live.com search engine, or even competing search and ad networks such as Google or Yahoo. The top half of this interactive data visualisation shows a high-level view of ad campaigns across both online and offline media (such as television and newspapers) while the bottom half allows advertisers to ‘drill down' to compare advertisement and purchase activity across different ad campaigns in considerable detail, comparing trends in the number of page views and resulting revenue. “They will be able to associate the revenue generated with a website event, be that purchasing a physical product, downloading some content, or signing up to a newsletter,” said Stevenson.
The second visualisation is a website traffic analytical tool that uses a technique known as a treemap to display hierarchical data. In this case, it shows how many people have visited each page on the website, presented as a set of differently-sized and coloured boxes to facilitate comparison across different pages and the entire site. “People don't necessarily navigate through a website the way the website producer expects them to,” said Software Development Engineer Vincent Vergonjeanne. “For websites with hundreds of pages, it would be highly inefficient to look at a long list of data in a spreadsheet.”
The third visualisation that the Dublinbased team is developing shows the most popular paths that visitors take through a site. “This tool presents the data clearly in visual form so that the user can quickly see which pages website visitors are clicking on, how they are getting from the home page to the ‘product page,' for example, and whether they are using some pages at all,” said Programme Manager Reeves Little.
User-friendly tool to track performance of adverts
Stevenson is confident that the product will provide the right balance of usability and functionality for the target audience, mainly business analysts and marketing managers. “Usability studies have been carried out in Dublin and in the US. The upcoming beta testing will also gather valuable feedback that we can incorporate into the final version if necessary,” said Stevenson.
“When a company is selling a given product on their website, our analytics software will help them to optimise their website structure and advertising campaigns to better serve their customers and their business,” said Stevenson. “By analysing complex data which are presented in a more accessible way, it will, for example, help companies track how their web-generated advertisements are performing and determine which keywords bring the best return on investment.”
The Global Product Development – Europe team is based in Dublin, Ireland, and is an example of Microsoft's increased emphasis on core development work outside the US. The group in Dublin was created to tap into the large pool of European software development talent, as Microsoft's own studies show that Europe is second only to the US in terms of the numbers of highly qualified software engineers it produces. “Ireland's high standard of living, high-tech culture, and progressive immigration policies have also helped draw talent from Europe and around the world,” said Stevenson.
Julian Hale is a Brussels-based freelance journalist who writes about and produces TV reports on EU policy issues for a range of publications and broadcasters.
This article is based on an interview with Global Product Development – Europe Group Programme Manager Dan Stevenson, Software Development Engineer Vincent Vergonjeanne, Programme Manager Olivier Dabrowski, and Programme Manager Reeves Little. The team is part of Microsoft's European Development Centre in Dublin, Ireland.