A Better Definition of Web Analytics

In my presentation yesterday (thanks to everyone who came!), I mentioned a new definition of web analytics after seeing how lame the definition on wikipedia is:

Wikipedia: “web analytics”

Web analytics is the measurement, collection, analysis and reporting of internet data for purposes of understanding and optimizing web usage.

It’s not that this definition is wrong. It’s more or less technically correct, but it doesn’t focus on output, value, the weight of the actions associated (measurement, collection, analysis, reporting), and it’s just that it’s not marketable. For the purposes of wikipedia and the fact that the definition has to fit tools, people, an industry, and a practice, well…I can live with it there. But I was disturbed that “analysis” was only one of four verbs that fit the description, so I was hoping for an inspiring definition of “analysis”:

Wikipedia: “analysis”

Analysis is the process of breaking a complex topic or substance into smaller parts to gain a better understanding of it.

Fail. I’m equally disappointed in this one. While this may again be true from the analyst’s perspective, I don’t think it captures the output or the value of analysis at all, nor does it accurately describe the true conclusion of analysis. Yes, analysis may consist of breaking things down into smaller pieces, but that is not what helps us understand things. The understanding comes once you begin to realize the ecosystem that is in place: how these various smaller pieces interact and influence each other.

And the real output of analysis is communication in simple terms, not understanding. It’s the spreading of understanding, in our business. It’s wonderful for us (the practitioners) to analyze and understand things, but completely wasted if we’re not able to convey this understanding to others in a variety of simpler languages specific to the audience.

So, here’s my new and improved (at least according to me) definition of web analytics that we analysts should use to market ourselves to executives:

Web analytics is an unbiased discipline that actively finds and validates business opportunities by studying the habits and behavior of users, competitors, and trends in the “big picture”.

This describes what web analytics is in terms of output and value (and process), not just in terms of execution. The reason I don’t like the wikipedia definition is because it does not touch at all on context or purpose, and to me almost comes across sounding like on-demand operational overhead, rather than a proactive, value-generating process. The context/purpose of web analytics is its service to a business: the identification and validation of business opportunities (both for the web and in other areas). I completely disagree with the notion that the output of web analysis is always web-centric, so I see no reason whatsoever to say that the purpose of web analytics is optimizing web usage. The output can be thousands of things from offline advertising, to pricing, to shipping carriers, to CMS re-evaluations, to compensation plans, to organizational charts and workflow and process, and on and on. Most often, the output probably will be web-centric, but defining web analytics as web-centric makes us far less valuable than we are capable of being.

Sorry…sometimes I get a bit over-passionate :)

It also includes the analysis of competitors, which Avinash has covered in incredible depth (listen to him!), and of course a constant ear on the rail of the big picture. The “big picture” really describes the greater ecosystem of both the Internet and your large-scale business tides. Without paying attention to the fact that the housing market is tanking, that twitter has exploded as a news source (or untamed brand trashing arena) in your industry, or that the price of production at your company has increased 20%, all of this “webby” stuff we bury our faces in all day really doesn’t matter. We are accountable to context, and this “big picture” view is where stuff like @comcastcares comes from, or should come from, at least. Juicy stuff.

Finally, saying that web analytics is for the purpose of improving/optimizing web usage or specific offline changes is really only a small part of the story. As I wrote in a Search Engine Land post, “The Real Value of Web Analytics,” making your site a better, more conversion-prone web asset is a wonderful outcome of web analytics, but the problem is that most companies are completely paralyzed by operational inefficiencies and departments that don’t work as a team. The best possible output of web analytics for most companies is what happens when they watch themselves struggle to actually execute.

Just like how doctors can put a dye in your blood to see valve issues and leaks in your heart, you can watch your company execute and see the issues in your processes and teams, which can teach you how to improve your company. When you can improve operations, you can improve your web site at the speed of light, and annihilate the competition.

Give it some thought. And write some of those thoughts here in the comments!


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6 Comments

  1. Evan,

    Interesting read, although I am not sure of the definition.

    How about:

    The process of measuring, analyzing and interpreting the results of interactions between users and websites in the context of specific goals and objectives.

    Swiped partially from this post!

    http://john.webanalyticsdemystified.com/2010/02/10/defining-social-marketing-analytics/

    Posted April 22, 2010 at 3:11 pm | Permalink
  2. It’s interesting that you bring this up because I feel the same about the definition on Wikipedia and even the official one on the WAA website. It’s something I have mentioned as far as 2007 at http://blog.immeria.net/2007/11/evolving-definition-of-web-analytics.html

    I touched again on the subject last August at http://blog.immeria.net/2009/08/definition-of-web-analytics.html and came up with the following definition:

    “The extensive use of qualitative and quantitative data (primarily, but not limited to online data), statistical analysis, exploratory (multivariate testing) and predictive models (behavioral targeting), business process analysis and fact-based management to drive a continuous improvement of online activities and improved ROI.”

    The whole explanation and logic is posted in the two posts mentioned above.

    I feel your definition is interesting but might still be too simple to convey the scope and complexity of true online analytics.

    Regards,
    Stéphane

    Posted April 22, 2010 at 3:16 pm | Permalink
  3. Thanks guys!

    My point is that the definitions we pose are arrogant and self-serving, and far too tactical to mean anything to the greater world out there. We aren’t defining web analytics for ourselves: we know what it is. A definition needs to convey meaning to people who are unfamiliar with (or misunderstand) either the purpose or potential of web analytics.

    While mine may be simpler, it is designed to mean more to any CEO, CMO, or CFO out there than one that tries to stuff all of our intellect and awesomeness into a bottle.

    A pilot can tell you that he flies a plane, or that he works rudders, throttle, routes, GPS systems, fuel systems, a radio, etc. etc. etc. All the world cares about is the plane flying part.

    Strangely enough, although the simple definition seems basic, it has a far wider scope and conveys far more value. Specificity and detail just puts property lines around the scope of our work, when the truth is we bend and stretch to nearly anything.

    Posted April 22, 2010 at 3:54 pm | Permalink
  4. Gents,

    I wanted to clarify that I’m not saying either of you are arrogant or self-serving. I know you both, and know that to not be true.

    Rudi:

    With your definition (and almost everything else on webanalyticsdemystified.com), I would just say, “to what end? So what?” I think the definition is fine, but doesn’t capture why the work is being done or what the value is. It’s a recipe for work, with no opportunity to taste.

    Stephane:

    I agree that your definition captures the scope of skills that it takes to get this work done, and does address the, “So what?” question, but I would say this is a great definition for our own audience, perhaps less for an executive audience. Also, I think in the outcomes/purpose, I’d add that there are many implications beyond ROI and online activities.

    Posted April 22, 2010 at 4:44 pm | Permalink
  5. I don’t have a problem with the definitions as they exist. I draw the distinction between the technical definitions and the practice of analytics. The problem you identify is one of communication, and the industry could benefit from more clearly stating its value. In my mind it’s all about knowing your target audience. The CMO and CFO have distinct interests, and the language you would use in a conversation with each of them would be different even though the underlying data may be the same. The industry could benefit from using clearer language. Framing the discussion as “ways to improve your business” instead of “web analytics” could elevate the discussion and engage previously disconnected executives. But I am hesitant to blame the definitions for alienating business people. The goal of a web analyst should be to make the data relevant, which is at the crux of your argument.

    Posted April 23, 2010 at 10:13 am | Permalink
  6. Great point, Benjamin.

    I’m working under the assumption that most of the people seeking a definition these days are the ones who want to understand the value of analytics, or the output/product. I worry that the definitions that are out there today don’t offer the world any real explanation of what they can expect to receive, and often lead businesses into making poor hiring decisions for these positions: people who are overly engaged in the statistics, models, research, etc., but who don’t “look up” often enough to see the world around them. Yes, these are requisite skills, but they don’t produce a usable output if the analysts aren’t in touch with reality (what’s happening in the real world, what’s being talked about at investor meetings, in boardrooms, and in the news, which is rarely web metrics).

    In that sense, I do think that these definitions are capable of doing harm, but maybe I’m just being dramatic :)

    Posted April 23, 2010 at 11:12 am | Permalink