What are the REAL web analytics tools?

Well, my grumpy old men streak continues: not only do I not love the definition of web analytics, I am also finding myself fussing about what we consider our web analytics tools; the things we use as web analysts that help us do the job. Tools imply two things: mechanical advantage and outcomes (hammers increase your power; the outcome is two things stuck together by a nail), and the tools we choose to wield determine what level of mechanical advantage and what outcomes we should expect.

The trouble is that I think the majority of us look inside our toolboxes and we are blind to the best tools available for the job at hand. And, you guessed it, both our mechanical advantage AND our outcomes suffer, making us lose focus on the job at hand.

That job is cash flow.


So let’s take a look at the various schools of thought when it comes to web analytics tools, and peer into the toolbox through their eyes.

School 1 (Bachelor’s Degree): Tools are Data-Gathering Thingies

Yes, all web data-gathering thingies are web analytics tools. BUT not all web analytics tools are data-gathering thingies.

There is a lot of attention paid to tools that are relentlessly created and improved to get you more and more insight into what is happening out there. These tools render thousands of reports at this point, they can tell you what people cut and paste from your site, what users do in flash, what their income level is, and whether they have an innie or an outie. These tools are like flashlights. When you crawl into the attic, they allow you to find more and more things that were already there to begin with.

Mechanical advantage is how much the tool can show you (and how easily you can knit a data sweater), and the outcome is awareness/knowledge/data puke, etc.

If you relegate yourself to this school and think that these are the tools in your Batman utility belt, it’s no wonder nobody asks you for any thought. If you think the tools at your disposal are just dragnets that you sort through and clean up in Excel to satisfy requests for reports, that’s all your output will ever be, and that’s all your value will ever be.

School 2 (Master’s): Tools are Reports, Data, Analysis to bend ears and drive change!

On the second step to enlightenment, you start to see some other tools in your utility belt. These are tools that can stun your internal enemies and help turn naysayers into advocates. Recognizing reports, analysis and insight as tools (rather than work product) means that your actual work product will be INFLUENCE. At this level, the analyst starts to realize that they wield some power and can use these tools to turn heads. As the tools have more polish (more complete and focused analysis and conclusions), they provide more mechanical advantage.

So at this level, the outcome is influence, and with more polish and reputation, you gain mechanical advantage in the ratio of effort in per influence out.

If you’re at this level, you are making a contribution to the company by getting people in other departments thinking. Oftentimes, those people in other departments are thinking about how to make your death look like an accident, once the flaws in their thinking are exposed, but hey, at least they’re thinking! You are gaining value, but other people are still doing the work. When things don’t work, you get to tell the organization that a correction is needed. But you don’t make that correction, and you don’t get the credit when the correction works, because what the correction was wasn’t your idea. Identifying what does not work is not equal to identifying what does work.

School 3 (PhD): Tools are other disciplines (UX, SEM, SEO, IA), ACTION

At the super ninja badass level, the best tools in your arsenal finally come into focus. The best tool is always ACTION. This means you have shone your flashlight on an issue, you have brought the right people in and influenced them, and now you’re about to whip out your mighty hammer of DO THIS. At this level, you are the general practitioner. You have done the rotations in the other disciplines, and you can send the majority of your patients home healthy without redirecting them to a specialist. But you also know when to not cross the line and take on an open-heart surgery.

This is what makes successful web analytics (and business) people: the realization that your real tools are not the the tools used to identify the trend, and they are not the tools used to communicate that the trend is a bad one that needs to be fixed; they are the ones used to actually solve the problem and improve the situation.

At analytics nirvana, your tools produce cold, hard, beautiful Benjamins as an output, and your mechanical advantage is brought about by your ability to synthesize information and ideas: drawing on all of the competing priorities that go into a finished interface or architecture, and recommending (or testing) the ideas that balance all priorities for the betterment of the user and the bottom line. Very, very few people in your organization will be capable of balancing competing priorities (your company’s compensation plan virtually guarantees it), so solving one problem while also solving / minimizing downside to others is an incredibly valuable output that almost nobody in your company can do as well as you can. The only way that you can see the problem from everyone’s perspective, however, is to own their perspective by knowing how to do what they do.

Getting your PhD

I don’t think you can call yourself a web analytics ninja without a decent degree of competency in the following disciplines:

  • Usability
  • Information Architecture
  • SEO
  • Various web marketing/advertising tactics (PPC, display, email)
  • Social Media (I do not classify this as web marketing or advertising, and I don’t believe you should, either)
  • Design (it’s okay if you suck at it, but put some effort into it so you have credz when you start drawing out ideas)
  • Copywriting
  • Making sites (HTML, .NET, PHP, SQL, Javascript, etc.)

If you’re missing skills, don’t fret. While it can take considerable time for you to learn about all of this stuff, you’re going to love it because you’ll immediately see new action tools popping up all around you. Hopefully, your organization is one where people love to cross boundaries and teach different disciplines about their own specialties (picture a medical school). I don’t see this much, but if you’re around these types of people, consider yourself blessed.

If you don’t work at a company like this, either go to a company that does, or you’ll have to try your best to get the med school mentality: if the cardiologist faints in the middle of a procedure, the remaining people in the room have enough working knowledge to get the patient out of the situation alive. If you can’t say the same for your organization, that may be a BIG problem.

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  1. Hey Evan,

    Killer post. I totally agree that unless you have a basic understanding of all the moving pieces it is impossible to create change. I wish I had the developer chops though, it definitely makes it a must to have technical people I can trust.

    One thing I think might be interesting to add to your PhD criteria would be sales skills. I have always felt that having a background in sales has made it easier to understand the important steps in the persuasion process, and therefore the most critical data to focus on. Sales skills also make it easier to sell your information up to the HiPPOs too….



    Posted July 19, 2010 at 11:16 pm | Permalink
  2. Alright Grumpy, I’ll bite.

    Communication skills; both verbal and written are critical (RE: Jim’s ‘sales skills’).

    Discipline. By that I mean; decide to make changes, advancements, tests or optimizations for strategic reasons and stick to your guns. Data you can’t wont use is a waste of analytical time ($). Always ask ‘why’ (in a productive way not in an ass way) so to be sure efforts align towards the goal.

    Leadership. Provide team members with problems/challenges not solutions. It’s the only way to get them to advanced degrees. (For example: This is crap, “Change the headline and button color to red!” This is leadership, “OMG! Our bounce rate is increasing!”)

    Don’t rely too much on technology. It sounds weird but experience is the real currency. As they say…a hammer cannot swing itself.

    Posted July 20, 2010 at 9:38 am | Permalink
  3. Excellent post!

    I was presenting on this topic at an eMetrics Marketing Optimization Summit in Munich. I explained that one really needs to know the over-arching business goals first and the individual department goals next, and the specific campaign goals next and it would really help if you know how each person you are trying to influence is compensated so you can show them how your analysis can help them.

    At this point, one of the attendees, looking rather incredulous, asked, “You mean, in addition to knowing all about web analytics, I have to know how the whole company works and how people do their jobs?”

    I replied, “Only if you want to be successful.”

    Posted July 22, 2010 at 7:00 pm | Permalink
  4. Ned Kumar

    Great post Evan. You definitely bring out the salient points to be successful in this space. But as Jim mentions,I think one of the oft missed point is that one of the most important factors has nothing to do with analytics but more about empathy & understanding.

    You can have the best tool, and can also be very good at sythesizing information but at the end of the day, one will have to do a lot of “talking”, “selling”, “persuading” etc. to prove to others how they can benefit from your Ninja status.

    Also, in many cases logic and rational sometimes does not make a dent :-), so one might also have to be well-versed in a little finance to prove the ROI from the web analytic efforts.


    Posted July 22, 2010 at 8:51 pm | Permalink
  5. Yep, no “might” about it! Sales, personality, enthusiasm, positivity, cultural fit, ability to adapt to the audience in front of you are all necessary, but I fear not all of these (among the other necessary qualities and skills) can be taught or learned. I’d love to be proven wrong, but that’s why I left them out. The ones here can be learned if you stretch your mind and appreciate other viewpoints, which is something we as an industry are strangely excellent at (it’s how we arrive at conclusions!). But you are right about finance, I missed that one big time (thinking it was tacit in cash flow).

    Charisma will go a long way, and that’s why hiring a good fit is so important, but charisma (and its spinoff plusses) can be tough to bring to those without it.

    Posted July 22, 2010 at 9:04 pm | Permalink
  6. Great article ! I completely agree with you.

    We need many tools and above all, other disciplines. It’s difficult here in France to create synergy between Analytics and UX, SEO, SEM, etc.

    I’m not yet an Analytics ninja but I’m working on it. Thanks to your articles, it’s easier for me 😉

    Posted July 26, 2010 at 4:47 am | Permalink
  7. Mishel Arden

    I think that there are great analytics tool out there, but only few can compete against the big guys (Omniture, Coremetrics, Webtrends) and I have found another one called Personyze. I think Personyze helps you do what the other do, but in much lower price overall, check it out: http://personyze.com

    Posted August 2, 2010 at 11:03 am | Permalink

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