Web Analytics vs. Mobile Analytics: What’s the Difference?

People are increasingly using mobile devices to interact with organizations through mobile browsers and apps. A recent study indicated that mobile devices now represent 15% of Internet traffic. In December 2012, tablet devices for the first time surpassed desktop PC and notebook sales. By the end of 2013, it’s estimated that nearly two billion apps will be downloaded each week.

If you’re not paying attention to your mobile traffic today, you will be in the not too distant future. If you’re new to mobile analytics or just getting your feet wet, I thought it would be helpful to note some important differences between traditional web analytics and the emerging area of mobile analytics.

Mobile Analytics Spans Mobile Web and Mobile Apps

Mobile analytics is generally split between mobile web and mobile apps. Mobile web refers to when individuals use their smartphones or tablets to view online content via a mobile browser. Many companies redirect these users to a mobile-specific site (typically a different subdomain such as m.example.com) or use responsive design to adapt content to the screen size of the user’s device or computer. Some organizations are starting to build tablet-specific sites as they are discovering that neither their mobile-specific site nor their main website ideally serves the tablet segment.

In the beginning, many smartphones didn’t support JavaScript or cookies; however, today most popular mobile devices support both of these technologies. At its core, the page tagging method for measuring web properties is similar to measuring the mobile web—with just a few caveats.

    • Data connection speeds of mobile networks can vary dramatically by location and carrier technology (3G, 4G/LTE). Mobile sites need to be light and fast so that they load quickly for impatient mobile visitors. Because JavaScript can slow down mobile site performance, the JavaScript analytics tags should be optimized for mobile devices.
    • There are several mobile-specific dimensions/reports such as device name, device type, mobile browser, and carrier network that apply only to the mobile web. Many of these reports key off of the device’s user-agent string, which is much more diverse for mobile devices than desktop computers because the device’s make and model are also included. In contrast, with desktop computers you only have to worry about two operating systems and a handful of web browsers that are regularly updated. In the mobile ecosystem, there exists a wide range of operating systems (iOS, Android, Windows, Blackberry, etc.) and mobile browsers for each device type. Web analytics vendors often partner with device library services to help map the user-agent strings to up-to-date mobile device lists. Unfortunately, this approach is not foolproof if manufacturers decide to re-use the same user-agent string for different devices such as what recently happened with Apple’s iPad 2 and iPad Mini tablets.
    • Mobile sites that leverage HTML5 can tap into the GPS location of visitors if individuals grant permission to access this data. The ability to pinpoint where visitors are by specific GPS locations far exceeds the geographic precision that can be provided for desktop visitors based on IP address.
    • While screen size or resolution isn’t foreign to website analytics, its importance increases for devices with smaller, varied form factors. The orientation of the screen (portrait or landscape view) adds a new twist that isn’t a concern in the desktop world as well as the fact that users are not interacting with the mobile site by clicking but by touching and swiping.

Although the mobile web is primarily reliant on the JavaScript-based page tagging approach for data collection, mobile app tracking uses an entirely different client-side approach that is more conducive to capturing native app activity. Web analytics vendors have created software development kits (SDKs) for various mobile platforms such as iOS, Android, Windows, and Blackberry. Analytics SDKs provide a package of pre-written code that developers can insert into applications, which can be tailored to measure different app-related dimensions and metrics.

The SDKs help to streamline the measurement process because developers don’t need to write their own unique tracking code. For example, an iOS SDK will provide measurement code in the Objective C programming language that is used to build iPhone and iPad applications. Once a mobile application has been implemented with tracking code, it will send data directly to the data collection server whenever the mobile device is connected to a mobile network.

Besides using SDKs to deploy analytics code, mobile app measurement is different from both mobile web and website tracking in the following ways:

    • Say goodbye to page views and hello to screen views. Applications don’t have pages like websites, but users do interact with various screens. You also have sessions instead of visits. Despite these subtle differences, you’re essentially trying to understand the same thing—usage. Understanding the usage of specific screens is just as important as knowing which content is or isn’t being consumed on a website.
    • For mobile devices you can measure more than just what appears on the screen as mobile app analytics can access other built-in features such as the device’s accelerometer, gyroscope, GPS, and storage capabilities. Web measurement is limited to just the content that is seen in the web browser and some basic information about the computer, IP address, and referral source. Mobile app measurement offers the ability to track new types of user interactions that aren’t seen on the Web.
    • Unique users (not visitors) are identified via user IDs instead of cookies. Unique user IDs are more resilient than cookies, which are susceptible to being deleted. Due to mobile carrier contracts, people are often locked into using the same device for at least two years. In addition, due to the personal nature of mobile devices—especially smartphones—you’re more likely to understand behavior for a specific individual as opposed to a shared family computer that could have several users. User IDs can persist across version updates so that users are not lost when they upgrade. With user authentication the same unique user can be recognized across multiple apps and devices.
    • Mobile apps have a shorter session timeout than that of websites. In general, a session will end after 30 minutes of inactivity for websites. However, for mobile apps the session timeout may be as short as 30 seconds of inactivity due to a shorter perceived attention span. In addition, when users are multitasking and the app remains idle in the background for longer than the timeout duration, a new session will be triggered when the user returns to the app.
    • Depending on how the application was developed, a user may not need to be connected to a mobile network to use the mobile application. Analytics tools can store what offline interactions occurred, record when they happened with time stamps, and then upload the data to the collection server when the user re-connects to their mobile network.
    • App development teams are frequently rolling out updates and new versions. Unlike websites where all visitors receive essentially the same experience, the app users’ experience will depend on what version they’re using. When analyzing mobile app data, you can have users who are spread across different versions with potentially dissimilar app experiences.
    • There’s a greater emphasis on cohort analysis where distinct groups of users are measured over time to evaluate app retention or churn rates. By analyzing weekly cohort groups based on when they installed the application, you can evaluate the effect different app updates are having on retention as well as the app’s overall performance in terms of engagement and conversion.

This table summarizes the differences and similarities between web analytics and each of the two mobile analytics areas.

Aside from these key differences, mobile app analytics still inherits familiar measurement practices from web analytics. Web analytics and mobile analytics may not be siblings, but they’re still closely related (first cousins? Maeby and George Michael but not as dangerous?).

For example, measuring engagement is a key emphasis for mobile app analytics—something that has been frequently measured in web analytics. When measuring the effectiveness of mobile apps, downloading the app is only the first step for users. Organizations want to know how engaging their mobile apps are and whether users are using them on a regular basis. Event tracking is employed in apps to provide insights into how users are interacting with different features within each application. Similarly, measuring in-app conversions shows how successful each app is at driving specific key outcomes.

Campaign tracking is another mainstay of web analytics, and it has surfaced on the mobile apps side. For example, campaigns can be tied to the Google Play Store (Android apps) so that you can understand which campaign and traffic source led to an app download (Note: iTunes Store currently does not support campaign tracking). In addition, some organizations are direct linking from their mobile site into their mobile apps and tracking these links like campaigns.

As long as you’re aware of the subtle differences from web analytics, mobile analytics represents an exciting, new frontier for digital analysts. Eventually, cross-channel analysis (apps, mobile, and web) will be just another day at the office for most analysts.

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4 Responses to Web Analytics vs. Mobile Analytics: What’s the Difference?

  1. Barbara says:

    Thanks for the post, Brent.

    You mention that “Mobile Analytics Spans Mobile Web and Mobile Apps”. I have a few questions in regards to that and I am hoping you can help me with that.

    a) How do you see the research department make sense of mobile analytics overall if measurements are different and divided into page views vs. screen views. How can you / or do you even want to combine them into a cohesive measurement for mobile visitors overall.

    b) How do you see hybrid/wrapper apps fitting into this? Could the wrapper app using the web-based tracking code to make it simpler or is this not recommended?

    Much appreciated

    • bdykes says:

      Great questions, Barbara. Here are my thoughts on each:

      A) While you can track both metrics and report on them to the business, I’m not sure if anything can be gained from combining them into a single metric. While they are similar, they are different enough (contextually) that I wouldn’t recommend mixing them together. In general, they are used for different marketing scenarios. For example, mobile web is more likely to be used for acquisition activities; whereas mobile apps might be more focused on retention/loyalty.

      In addition, mobile apps can provide richer user experiences where multiple actions can take place within the same screen. As a result, apps may produce fewer screen views than a website’s page views; however, the amount of time spent and the number of interactions can be higher. In some unique situations, companies have created apps to replicate a more web-like experience, which would make the screen views and page views more of an apples-to-apples comparison. I would carefully evaluate how similar page views and screen views really are at your organization before combining them.

      B) Web views from an app can only be measured from the web pages, not from the app itself. The challenge you can run into with web views within an app is having a consistent visitor or user ID across both the app and web experience. Unless the visitor ID or user ID from the app is passed along to the web experience, one visitor will appear as two visits and two visitors. Here’s an article on how to merge the two worlds.

  2. OJULARI, Abdulkabir Tola says:

    This is a superb write-up! It helps to focus on particular approach in the development of any web application that can run on either.
    Mobile web is very essential and need to be critically studied for better performance of any web application.

  3. Nihal Shaikh says:

    Very insightful !Presents clear differentiation between mobile web and mobile app analytics

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