Web analytics sucks, and it’s nobody’s fault

I keep having to come back to the same conclusion when trying to win people over or convince them of an idea: it’s not their fault.

Businesses are a tough animal. They’re tough because they have to live somewhere on this spectrum of control and fantasy, where one end is an organized, over-specialized, decisions-by-committee setup and the other is a highly-entrepreneurial, strategically-driven and trusting business. Most companies start on the second end of the spectrum, but as they grow, they get pushed toward specialization, process, and bureaucracy. And I’m not sure if that’s preventable.

Where the rubber meets the road in our industry is how web analytics, usability, architecture, etc. are handled. I got a job posting sent by a recruiter the other day, and these were the requirements and outputs for the role:

  • 3-5 years Omniture experience
  • Will create dashboards for departments
  • Host learning sessions and have 1:1 training with other potential tool users
  • Will maintain implementation of tool and work with tech on implementation for new content
  • Will find good candidates for A/B and multivariate testing
  • Able to collaborate strategically with other departments
  • Organized, detail-oriented, and focused

I actually hate job descriptions like this. I know that this sounds like a dead bullseye for a web analyst, but it’s not, because there is no ownership of outcomes. This is a handmade description for yet another propellerhead analyst who will sit around and run reports for people, get in arguments with other people (or those same people), “agree to disagree” with other departments, and will eventually call everyone else an idiot and will recede into their cave before ultimately quitting for a director-level position at a different, big, resume-enhancing company where the process will repeat itself. Why? Because in 9/10 meetings this person will have, they’ll be arguing logic against opinion: this role does not empower them to tell other people that in that particular case, they are just not right.

This job description is for a gear in a machine, and that’s why I hate it. It’s actually a pretty good list of responsibilities or list of things to learn for an entry-level or mid-level web analytics job, but for a passionate and experienced analyst, there is no pot of gold at the end of this rainbow. Where is the ownership? Where is the leadership? Where is the promise or opportunity to really leave some fingerprints on this brand?

You may say that if you do the above tasks, you will make a difference. But that’s hoping. They should be hiring a sheriff. They are hiring a deputy.

But it’s not their fault.

It’s not their fault because a good position for a web analytics person does not exist in the companies that can use these people most. The bigger the company, the more important a small difference becomes. For a site with 10,000 visits a month, an analytics person would have to improve conversion by double-digit percentages to scarcely pay for themselves. For Wal Mart, moving the conversion needle a tenth of a percent probably pays their lifetime salary in a week. But the problem at Wal Mart (and no, I have no prior experience with Wal Mart, so I’m just guessing) is that this person’s decisions have to go through 100 other people and their opinions before anyone ever even thinks about acting. And the job description is built around these limitations. So it’s not their fault.

The effective web analytics person knows usability, they know some design, they know information architecture, they know HTML, they are good communicators and can thusly write good web copy, and ultimately they are businesspeople who realize the purpose behind all of these crafts is cash flow: they probably know literally everything needed to make the ship move. But they aren’t able to move aircraft carriers. Rather than being careful, politically aware employees, effective analytics people are data-driven, quickdraw decision makers because they have two key assets:

  1. Cold, hard facts in the form of data (and I don’t mean just Omniture data)
  2. The ability to not have to decide: they can TEST

But there is nothing about big companies and aircraft carriers that gives a flying monkey poo about either of these. Big companies are ruled by coalitions of opinions, meetings, conference calls, and semi-educated executives. Data is actually a threat. Data is what gets people fired in big companies, not what gets them bonuses. Data is scary. But again, it’s exactly how it’s been built to ensure accountability and measurement. So it’s not their fault.  Honestly! It’s not the executive’s fault that he doesn’t understand the fundamentals: it’s how the system was built, and it’s built in such a way that disallows his education on what you consider fundamentals.

This might be throwing my arms up in the air, but I am just wondering about our future. My personal vision for web analytics is an entrusted resource that makes both subtle and quantum shifts in business. I hope that was evident in my definition of web analytics. But I don’t know if I see it coming. In reading Seth Godin’s Linchpin, I’m having trouble figuring out whether I’m the zealot or the Linchpin. Am I fighting the real world, or am I able to eventually break through and change it? Didn’t management consulting companies face the same skepticism? You’re going to come in here and tell me how to run my business better than I can?

Yes, we hope to!

P.S. People should make their own dashboards because the learning process involved is a hell of a lot more valuable than the dashboard ever will be. And that’s all I’ve got to say about that.

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  1. Evan,

    Great post! It’s hard to predict what the future holds for analysts. I have to hope that the market and the types of jobs out there will improve as more and more companies begin to better understand the difference in traffic reports and web analysis.


    Posted May 4, 2010 at 3:39 pm | Permalink
  2. This is a really great post !

    Posted May 5, 2010 at 9:24 am | Permalink
  3. Love it – and a little depressed at the same time …

    Posted May 5, 2010 at 10:14 am | Permalink
  4. Yeah, it is a little depressing. Hopefully we can get it to change, but I think the secret now is to just find the places that will embrace what we do and create pressure for the rest of the places who don’t.

    Posted May 5, 2010 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

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