Thursday, January 31, 2013

Problems with Google Analytics

Most of the Google utilities I use are great - they usually have an intuitive design that make them frictionless and have most of the features someone needs. The features they have usually work as expected too, which isn't trivial with some other competing utilities.

Lately I've been using Google Analytics and the truth is, I don't like what I see... :(

The most annoying part of using Google Analytics is that there's no way of testing it!
It would seem like a trivial feature to me, but apparently not to the people at Google. Maybe most people don't have this problem, since you set up the analytics reports when first designing the website, and then the testing process is done on your production environment which could be really easy, and if you have no stats, then you obviously have nothing to ruin.
When I was trying to make some of the most minor changes to the way we report some of the stuff on the website I work on at my job, the first thing that interested me was how I was going to test the changes.

When you have many users in production, there's no chance you'll notice the change you made when you login. Even if you would, I could by accidentally affect other analytics and I was obviously afraid to do so. So, I set up a test account, and tried reporting to the test account from my local machine. This didn't work since Google makes sure you make the request from the domain you registered in the GS (Google Analytics) account, which is great! After looking into this a little, I found out that I can tell GA to ignore the domain that the request is coming from so that this will work. From their documentation, this feature was meant to be for using multiple subdomains, but it works for reporting from any domain. Since this helped my cause, and I'm not afraid of others causing harm to my test account, I won't go into why this is a bad idea, and can be harmful to some other sites using this... :/
After doing all that, I came to realize that the analytics aren't reported in real time, which is also logical, since an analytics system usually needs to deal with large amounts of data, and it takes time to handle the load. (Not only it's not real-time, but it's pretty far from being almost real-time as well) BUT, this doesn't mean there shouldn't be a way around this for testing, like an option I could turn on, just so the reports effect will be seen in real time, even if it's limited for a really small number, just for testing!

In case someone reading this ran into the same problem - The configuration setting I used like this :
_gaq.push(['_setDomainName', 'none']);

By the way - From my experience with the Adobe Omniture utility, they have a great 'debugging' utility that you can use a bookmarklet. It opens on any site, and shows you the live reports going out, which is a GREAT tool for testing, and should've been implemented by Google in the same way.

Another issue I had (and frankly, still have) with GA, is that some of their documentation isn't full... For example : There are some pages (like 'Page Timings') where you can view the stats of different pages, and the average. You can sort this list by 'page title' or some other parameters. The problem is that when you have many pages that are the same, but with dynamic content (meaning all the 'page titles' are different), you might want to group them by a 'user defined variable' that you report on that page.
Great! You have this option. ...BUT, in the documentation, the way you report a 'User defined variable' is by using the '_setVar' method. It continues on by stating that the '_setVar' method is soon to be deprecated and they don't recommend using it. Instead you should '_setCustomVar'. The problem here is that 'Custom Var' and 'User Defined Variable' aren't the same, and in some pages you can view one and in some the latter. There is no documentation anymore for the '_setVar' method, so I searched various blogs about people writing about this in the past, and found the way to use it, but it works in a different way, and I couldn't find a way to define it's lifespan (per session/page/user/etc.) like you can do with '_setCustomVar'.

Long story short... It seems like they have quite some work to do on this before it's perfect, or close to being perfect, and I'm not 100% I'll be using this again as a full site solution for web page analytics.

Friday, January 18, 2013

It's time for yet another change...

I started out programming ~13 years ago, when I was only 12 years old. The first language I learned was VB. I was building some small winforms utilities for myself. Then (about a year after) I started learning php and went into web development, building some dynamic websites (mostly php & MySQL) for the next 6-7 years...

Once I drafted to the military (mandatory in Israel), I did some programming for the Air Force. It was then when I got into the .net world, and was doing most of the programming in C#. I got used to it really fast, and learned to like it, so after the military (~3.5 years), I went on to work for ICC (the Israeli VISA company) as a .net programmer for 2 and a half years. After that I immediately got a job for Sears Israel, mostly developing in C# but also doing some java.

The past couple of years I learned a lot of new technologies and new programming paradigms, but it was mostly using the Microsoft platform. I didn't get to work with other programming languages, not to mention working on Linux platforms...

So... I think it's time for yet another change... :)
I'm not talking about quiting my job (note to my employer: no need to worry yet), but I'm talking about learning some new languages and technologies on my own. I'm not kidding anyone here - I've been programming since a young age and have been loving every moment of it. I do it a lot at home and a lot in my spare time just for fun!
I recently decided that I will dedicate my spare time to learning some new technologies and new languages. I'm sure, even this won't pay off immediately at work, the knowledge I will be gaining will still be priceless and will definitely help me in the future, possible even at my current work place.

First step - A couple of weeks ago I installed Linux on my home computer. I went for the Ubuntu distribution, since I heard it's the most user-friendly, and this way I could hit the ground running.
It's only been a couple of weeks, and I already know how to do everything I need from the terminal. Manage my files, install new packages and even work with vim. Seriously, if I didn't need a web browser, I would be installing the server version. Now, I started copying all my old files I want to backup from my Windows installation, and planning on removing Windows all together.

Next steps - I decided I need to learn new technologies as well. Recently reading about nodejs a lot got me really excited and so I started learning it. I also figured it would be easy for me to get into, since after years of web development I can say I know a fair amount of javascript.
I'm already working on a small project just for myself which is coming out really cool (might blog about this soon). I'm working with the expressjs mvc framework, jade view engines, stylus and even implementing OpenId in javascript!

I'm always thinking about how I can use this information to leverage some utilities we have at work... :) Every programming language has its strengths and it's all about choosing the right tool for the job.

What's next ? Well, I think after I finish my project in nodejs I'll go onto learning python which has also been interesting me for a quite a while now...
I already read a lot about it, and now I just need to get my hands dirty a bit too.

In conclusion I will say that learning new technologies is always a good idea, can always be a lot of fun, will always give you new tools to deal with everyday problems and put you ahead of many other programmers that are 'stuck with the same technology for years'. I already feel I have quite the experience - programming in VB, php, C#, javascript, using MySQL, Oracle, SQL Server, (and many frameworks within each language) and having at least a couple of years of experience with each of these. I really believe this puts me ahead of most, especially when it comes to solving new problems - I have a better point of view then others and a lot of experience to lean on.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Some good to know C# attributes

Just felt like writing about a couple of C# framework attributes that I happened to use lately, and not enough programmers know about (in my opinion, and this usually surprises me).

The first (and the name of my blog) :
This attribute can be used to tell the debugger not to "step-into" a piece of code, and instead, it will skip over it. The best use for this that I can think of is when using an IoC/AOP framework and you have method interceptors, debugging can be a big pain in the ass... You keep on going through each interceptor, on every method call!
All you need to do is add [DebuggerStepThrough] above your interceptor, and the code won't be debugged.
public class DontDebugInterceptor : IInterceptor
    // do something...

This attribute is used to tell the debugger what to display when in the 'Watch' window or when hovering over the variable in debug mode. Most people know that if you override the 'ToString()' method than you get the same effect, but sometimes this just isn't possible, since you might need the 'ToString()' method for something else.
All you need to do is add [DebuggerDisplay('Some string representation')] to the field/property/class you want to modify. You can also evaluate code inside the string given to the attribute constructor, just by wrapping it with curly braces.
[DebuggerDisplay('This class is : {OutputClass()}')]
public class MyClass
    private string OutputClass()
        return "Whatever you want here...";