Web Analytics – The Medical Metaphor

I’m a metaphor guy. Here’s hoping you like them, too. I think they do a great job of explaining things without sounding whiny and desperate, and that’s great because the world of web analytics is getting very whiny and desperate for the recognition and authority we think we deserve.

So, do we?

Web Analytics-ology

What happens when something hurts, you have a cold, or you’re a generally weak person according to Tom Cruise? You go to your general practitioner or internist to see what’s up.

When you get there, you’ll start talking about what you’re feeling, the doctor will hit your knee and look in your ear, and he’ll figure out what’s going wrong. If you have something seriously wrong, he’ll send you to a specialist, but most of the time, he can recommend a solution to your problem that will put your body back on course. If the internist sees something wrong with your ear and fixes it, the ear doctor down the hall doesn’t throw a hissy fit and slash the MD’s tires. If the internist gives you a splint for a sprained wrist, no orthopedic surgeon goes to their boss whining about how the internist is trying to do their job. They trust that the internist knows enough to treat the patient well. And they do, most of the time.

So let’s think about what a day in the life of a large web operation looks like. What happens when the web analytics person tries to make recommendations on how to change the color and location of the call to action on a landing page? Usability and designer folks go ape shit. What happens when they find that the paid search campaign is blowing budget on a non-converting keyword, recommending that we eliminate it from the campaign? Nuclear war with marketing. How about when they realize that there’s a major browser incompatibility and they recommend a few changes to the CSS and HTML? You’re about to get shivved by a programmer.

Where does this territorial nature come from? Well, for the first time, let’s stop blaming all of these specialists and look inward.  Do we really know usability? Do we really know design? HTML? The answer is probably sort-of, but we haven’t had the years of training that doctors go through, so the real answer is that we really have more opinions than knowledge, in all likelihood. And that drives these specialists nuts. The real truth is that the average analyst creates more work for these people, rather than reducing work that doesn’t require the full gamut of the specialists’ skill sets, like the internist does.

I’ve said before that web analytics people aren’t specialists, and it’s true. But I don’t think as a whole, we’re good enough yet to call ourselves generalists. We need training. We need to get out of the specialist mentality of training harder and harder at what we’re already good at, and we need to get into the mentality where we train our weaknesses, researching usability, design principles, HTML, PHP, javascript, etc. etc. We also need to study business fundamentals, marketing principles, branding, corporate communication, SEO, and more. Knowing a little about all of these things will make analysts much more valuable than knowing statistics, forecasting models, and all of that mess ever will. There are no shortage of specialists in the world that can handle that work, and we’ll bring them in when they’re needed. But there’s an enormous shortage of generalists who can direct traffic and questions to the right places, and clean the easy messes up themselves.


1 Trackbacks

  1. By n-spire - hysterical web on February 8, 2010 at 4:43 am

    Web Analytics in Business ……

    “So let’s think about what a day in the life of a large web operation looks like. What happens when the web analytics person tries to make recommendations on how to change the color and location of the call to action on a landing page? Usability and d…

6 Comments

  1. “You’re about to get shivved by a programmer.” – Amen.

    Coming from the developer/programer side I understand the frustration when you get requests like the famous, “It’s just a button”, but your right, there can be a lot of friction between the developers and marketers. What needs to happen is to work with the developers and help them understand the value of analytics. This is not an easy task, but one that is easily overlooked.

    -Rudi

    Posted October 21, 2009 at 8:58 pm | Permalink
  2. Jeff T

    Beautiful post. I absolutely agree with the call for more well rounded generalists. My favorite part is:

    “we need to get into the mentality where we train our weaknesses, researching usability, design principles, HTML, PHP, javascript, etc. etc. We also need to study business fundamentals, marketing principles, branding, corporate communication, SEO, and more”

    Only though systematically identifying and then curing our individual pockets of ignorance can we really become the type of analytics experts we all want to be.

    Jeff

    Posted October 22, 2009 at 10:20 am | Permalink
  3. Jeff,

    Thanks very much for the feedback. I think we’re getting there, but not pushing ourselves hard enough. While there are some analysts who truly get it all, they’re in the minority and the general sentiment of businesses is that we’re all a bunch of propellerheads.

    My goal is to get us to the same status of the financial analyst, as outlined on the “Web Analytics?” page here. Interested to hear your feedback on that, too!

    Thanks for visiting, and please follow on twitter – I’m @evanlapointe.

    Rudi – also great points. We need to make friends, not just complain about our current enemies!

    Posted October 22, 2009 at 10:51 am | Permalink
  4. It is a good analogy. What I find missing are the benchmarks for performance. When I see a blood test from my MD, it is clear what is good/no as good/bad on each of the readings. When I talk to web analysts, sometimes the feedback is less than clear.

    To maintain the medical analogy what is a good blood pressure? What is the blood pressure of a world class athlete? What, in your example is salty, fatty, greasy food (I would suggest flash) and what are green leafy vegetables?

    To take the politic and the emotion out of the conversation good analysts need to start by defining the performance tolerances and benchmarks they are driving towards.

    Posted November 3, 2009 at 7:02 pm | Permalink
  5. Todd,

    Excellent points. While this mostly focuses on our territorial nature from a collaboration standpoint, it’s a great point to note that some of what should signal the need for specialists is these benchmarks. Obviously when things are in the extremes, we know to call in the heavy hitters. When things are in the gradient between green and yellow, we may be able to diagnose and treat the issue without much need for the experts.

    What you’re saying is actually extremely practical for us to take away and use: let’s set up tolerances in our KPIs that determine when and how resources are re-allocated to treat the site.

    While it would always be my preference that the web analytics feedback is as clear as, “Here is the problem, here are three potential solutions to test, here is the expected outcome and timeline,” you’re unfortunately dead on that the feedback is more normally consistent with a pointing dog, barking louder at a problem but not really defining its nature, impact, or solution.

    I’m especially interested in your feedback on this post (pardon the silliness, but it’s the barking dog analogy):
    http://tinyurl.com/yllvdja

    And this one on Search Engine Land:
    http://tinyurl.com/ykfqbcf

    Posted November 3, 2009 at 7:19 pm | Permalink
  6. Hi, glad to land on this blog and enjoy your insights on the WA sector.

    Quite agree with your idea of becoming a generalist. The knowledge on IT, SEO…are important, but the skills on statistics and modeling are of the same importance, if not more-that’s what I feel, for I’m a guy knowing something of everything, but not the statistics and modeling skills,this really become my bottleneck to progress in WA.

    In other hand, I’d more like to compare a WA (web analyst) to a BA (Business Analyst), who have an overall vision of business, and WA could be part of his job.

    Posted November 4, 2009 at 6:42 am | Permalink