The Coming New Standard for Digital Data Collection via Tags

Having served in the digital analytics and marketing industry for the past 12 years, I remember waaaay back in maybe 2006 there were passionate voices in the industry advocating that the page tagging layer should be interchangeable, i.e. standardized, between web analytics solutions vendors.

Customers should have it easier to switch out web analytics solutions. Vendors should be competing on the merits of the insights that they help customers derive, not on the mechanics of data collection.

Back then, those proposals went nowhere since all of us back then at Unica, Coremetrics, Omniture, Webtrends, etc. were busy growing business like crazy and getting acquired.

Standardization is poised to become a reality now

I shouldn’t jinx it by speaking too optimistically but all signs are that we are on a very promising path to standardization of data acquisition via page tags now.

And this will be not just  for web analytics solutions, but more generally for all digital marketing applications.

The goal is to save marketers from needing to learn and program a whole new tag data collection language with every vendor’s solution that they want to try.  The value is that marketers can then be more agile with trying and using new applications since these could all feed off of a common data collection layer.

Who is in the standardization effort?

Today, the standardization effort is being lead by a few dozen member companies including the ‘who-is-who’ in digital.  They are working in the W3C Customer Experience Digital Data Community and making rapid progress towards proposing a standard for data acquisition.

The participants represent:

  • Digital marketing and analytics vendors such as Adobe, Criteo, Localytics, Google, Marin Software, Reevoo, and of course IBM
  • Tag management pure play vendors such as BrightTag, Ensighten, Tag Man, Tealium
  • Web practitioners and managers from multiple businesses who will be among the prime consumers and beneficiaries of this specification
  • The Digital Analytics Association is also a participating member

IBM’s “Sri”, Viswanath Srikanth, from the IBM Software Standards team is chairing the group effort.  Sri is planning to be in Nashville at the Smarter Commerce conference to share details from the community’s work.

How will this work?

Aside from the impressive list of participants, the other great news to me is that this is really straight forward from a technical and practical perspective.

You could compare it to the way standardized electrical power plugs and sockets make it possible to plug in any electrical device no matter where or which power company is serving the region. They all rely on there being a standard interface in between them, namely standardized power sockets and plugs.

In digital, data is the fuel that powers marketing and analytics applications. Yet all websites and digital marketing applications have developed their own data language, i.e. JavaScript key-value pairs for things such as page titles, categories, URLs, retail shopping cart details, visitor data, behavior events, etc. etc.

  • So one application may expect page category in a variable named “pageCat = ABC” while the next app may expect it to be named “CategoryPage = ABC”.
  • Similarly one website may place a shopping cart item into a variable such as cart[] while the next might place it in something like basket[].
  • etc

Welcome the uniform JavaScript Object Data Layer

But … if there is a common translation layer in between sites and apps that everybody can rely on … that would solve the problem.

That translation layer will be a uniform JavaScript Object Data Layer, i.e. a set of key-value pairs under pre-agreed key names and definitions. Websites can populate these with their data. All digital marketing and analytics solutions that need access to this data can get it from the standard data layer regardless of the website’s details.

In other words, vendors and websites do not need to understand each other directly anymore, e.g. how a page is designed, or how shopping carts work – since the basic contract would be that the standard JavaScript Object gets populated and all solutions can get data from that layer.

How do you apply the uniform JavaScript Layer to Your site?

When the coming new standard is first established, the plan is for website managers to populate the uniform JavaScript Object Data Layer manually, just like you are used to adding any data collection tag to your site today.

But after doing this just once, all standards compliant third party solutions can plug and play.

When solutions require additional key-value pairs of data beyond those specified in the standard, no problem, those can be deployed through additional tagging.

In the future, once the standard is well on its way the plan is for content management and eCommerce systems to facilitate the uniform JavaScript Layer out of box as much as possible, cutting out even the initial manual effort where possible.

When can you expect to see the benefits of this?

The next milestones in the W3C Standards discussion group are for the data layer spec to be readied in May/June 2013 and finalized and published by July/August 2013.

From there, it is only a matter of time before the member organizations adopt the standard into their product road maps.

I have no doubt that the tag management solutions and major digital marketing suite vendors will be first to race and implement the standards. Once that has happened, point solutions will follow.

How can you contribute and influence?

Simply go to the W3C’s web page for the Customer Experience Digital Data Community Group and follow the links on information about how to join.

Why are vendors driving the standardization? Why now?

What is it you might wonder that is driving vendors such as IBM to invest in this standards effort now given that for so many years most vendors weren’t prioritizing standardization at all.

The first major change has been the advent of tag management solutions. With those available widely, no vendor can hope to lock in their customers by making it cumbersome to retag.

Secondly, many of the participating vendors offer a wide and ever growing portfolio of solutions. We need to make it easy for our customers to plug and play with our native solutions plus with point solutions of their choice.

This is a core strategy that customers should expect from their vendors. At least that is why IBM is in it.

After all,  … could you imagine undoing the standardization of electrical power plugs?

Learn more at the upcoming IBM customer conferences

To learn more, join IBM customers and prospective customers in Nashville (May 21-23) and Monaco (June 18-20). Sri and our IBM colleague Eliot Towb are presenting on the topic and available for discussion and your feedback.


2 Comments on “The Coming New Standard for Digital Data Collection via Tags

  1. Hi Jacques, wow that was back in 2008. I even see my own comment on that post from way back then.

    It is really quite remarkable that the tide has turned and this thing is now on its way.

    I had to go look up what Tom Hochstatter is doing these days, who was the Yahoo guy that was also adamant about tagging standards back then together with yourself and others.

    Best wishes up to Montreal

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