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Monday, March 24, 2008

What's the Deal With GA and Geography?

If you delve into Google Analytics reports by geography in my neck of the woods, you get some curious results: places that are really neighborhoods are classified as municipalities. Places that are only distant memories, officially speaking, are still ontologically in your face in GA reporting.

For example, one site I work with gets a lot of traffic from Etobicoke, Malton, Weston, and Islington. If we're laying out the information architecture of our website, should we perhaps use Google Analytics as a guide in planning? Definitely not.

Problem: Etobicoke, once a town near Toronto, then a borough of Metro Toronto, and finally, a mere ward district and place with a name that is meaningful from a real estate standpoint, is definitely not a city or town today. Malton is a mere "neighborhood" within Mississauga, although it might once have been a town, city, postal unit, etc. etc. in the distant past. "Islington" is a nice name for a certain intersection and surrounding areas, in loving memory of many decades ago when Islington was a town and postal unit. Rexdale and Weston are much the same as all of the above. The problem is compounded by the fact that many users are still associated with national ISP's like Rogers and Sympatico that have IP addresses assigned to these locales.

Not only isn't GA hip to the subtleties, it's using designations that don't exist and phantom names-of-things that recall fond memories of malt shops and filling stations from the 1940's.

We can all agree that an information architecture on a site like Toronto Life should be as flexible as possible, and include neighborhood names and informal names. (I personally get a great kick out of people from West Queen West who write letters to the editor decrying Toronto Life's version, Queen West West. Ha ha! I'll say it again - Queen West West! Queen West West! Hope that guy's reading.)

If it's neighborhoods you're after, there are certainly databases of neighborhoods for every city and town out there through major data providers. But if you want to know the difference between a neighborhood, a ghost town, a real town, a city, or a metropolitan area, don't look to GA. It hasn't a clue.

Rather disappointing. Beyond that, for people that don't re-examine their geographic assumptions, they're likely to get tripped up when using the information for real-world purposes.

In general, geography is a lot harder than it looks at first glance, especially when you're building a website. Looks like that could be an interesting panel for the Local Search tracks.

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