How To Choose A Web Analytics Solution

Choosing the analytics tool you will use to track what’s happening on your web site can be a time-consuming, expensive, and incredibly frustrating experience. There are a number of good candidates to choose from and each touts an impressive feature set that promises to significantly improve everything about your web site. But while there’s a lot of hype about what these tools will do to improve your life, it’s important to remember that you’re not actually choosing an analytics provider, you’re choosing a reporting and data gathering system—in other words, a very pretty database. I can’t stress enough that there is no such thing as a tool that does analysis for you, so while it’s wonderful to focus on features, don’t forget to hire a few smart people, too.

Where to Start

If I were going help a client choose a tool for their site, I actually wouldn’t start with the tools themselves. We would start by thinking about the types of things they need to know about their site to fuel better decision making:

  • What are the types of things that people disagree about internally?
  • What types of key decisions are made on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis that impact the look, feel and behavior on the site?
  • What information do salespeople, customer support teams, and IT departments need to make their lives easier?
  • How is content designed, and on what basis is it revisited to see if it can be improved (if this has been defined)?
  • What are the business’s financial incentives for performance—what motivates the employees who will be working with or benefiting from the tool?
  • How technically skilled are the people in charge of the web site?
  • At what level in the organization is web analytics going to be managed (a polite way of asking whether the organization plans on taking web analytics seriously)?

Once we start asking these questions, it starts to remind us why we’re looking for a tool in the first place—to add value, not reports. When we get a demo of a tool later, we can ask things like:

  • “Can you show a way your tool can help me improve conversion rates for my PPC campaign?”
  • “Can you provide me an example of how this tool helps me decide how my budget should be distributed between display, email, and SEO?”
  • “My bonus is based on improving the number of average page views per session—can you show me how the tool will help me identify opportunities?”

Now we’re getting clear answers that reveal which tools can help answer these questions quickly and accurately, without a lot of customization or expense from ad-hoc reports. While the tool might not answer the question directly, you’ll be able to tell how helpful it will be by what you’re shown and how uncomfortable you’ve made the salesperson—and who doesn’t like making salespeople uncomfortable?

Every tool essentially shows the same basic reports to a user. The value of the best tool for you is in how it is able to combine different pieces of information, giving you a “mechanical advantage” over the data. Each tool has been developed with a different philosophy about how data should be correlated and how flexible these “cross-section views” are, meaning that each tool provides a subtly different experience. By asking these types of questions specific to your business, the right analytics tool will be revealed very quickly.

Narrowing it Down and Choosing Your Analytics Tool

Once you’ve seen demos from a few providers, the next step is to make a decision. What you’re probably going to realize at this point is that there is no “perfect” tool (and you’re much better at making salespeople uncomfortable than you originally thought). You’re going to ask some questions that no tool can answer easily. You’re also going to find that some of the free tools will surprise you with how robust they are. I urge you to seriously consider using them at this point, graduating to the more sophisticated tools as you’ve proven the need for them.

One big argument against this two-staged approach may be that you won’t have your historical data all in one tool, but let’s not forget why we’re getting an analytics tool in the first place: we want a cost-effective way to improve the site. Make a decision based on what’s going to improve your future, not what’s going to store your past. You can always hire interns to climb up into the attic and make spreadsheets of your dusty, old data—and you might find that you never needed all of those extra bells & whistles to begin with once you’ve spent the savings on a truly talented web analytics person.

The Importance of Implementation

Dare I say it, the implementation of your chosen tool could be 10 times more important than the tool itself. A good analyst can get more value and information out of a 5-year-old, free tool than a shiny, quarter-million-dollar tool if the former is implemented properly. It brings me no joy to say that in auditing dozens of implementations of very expensive tools, I am yet to see a single installation that didn’t benefit from major surgery. There is no question that implementation quality is the single largest preventable barrier to deriving greater value from web analytics, costing companies hundreds of hours in reconciling data, arguing in conference rooms, and lost sleep.

Key: Make the Tool Work For You

Web analytics tools are like universal remote controls and your employees are like retirees. The temptation is to call the grandkids every time they want to change the channel, but the truth is that these tools are actually pretty easy to use after putting a little effort into learning them. Make sure to provide employees at all levels the basic training they’ll need to be self-sufficient. Nothing will halt the pace of value creation faster than a tsunami of report requests that your “web analytics people” have to fulfill. These tools are designed to let people get what they need quickly, and if they need it frequently, automatically email it to them however often they want. Make sure that the tool is saving your organization time, not drowning smart people in rote, valueless work.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Analytics | How To: Analytics | SEM Tools: Web Analytics

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About The Author: is the Director of Client Performance at Search Discovery, an Atlanta-based search marketing and web analytics agency. Evan is a fierce believer in the power of web analytics and the impact it can have on the performance (and lovability) of web sites. Evan also writes a web analytics blog called Atlanta Analytics and can be found as @evanlapointe on twitter.

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  • http://www.brickmarketing.com nickstamoulis

    Excellent information, I think it is very valid and interesting how you started the list with what people disagree about internally…

    I have found that for most simple websites Google Analytics does the track for more complex sites, reporting, etc, I normally recommend other tools such as Omniture…

  • Tirtsa

    Interesting piece, thanks. Nice to see you mentioning the things people want to know about their site first, before actually deciding on which analytics tool to use.

    Nick, you are right in saying in GA does what most simple websites want out of their stats, but I have always found that not actually ‘owning’ the data and not being able to update the stats as often as you like to be GA main issues. Whether you have a simple website or a more complex one, then doesn’t make much difference I believe. Logaholic Web Analytics offers some great features, but is not as expensive as Omniture and others.

  • http://www.AtlantaAnalytics.com Evan LaPointe

    Great comments, Nick and Tirtsa. Thanks for reading and chiming in.

    I think you both bring up great points: that the tool you choose has to be right for your needs. There are some F500s who could easily get more out of Google Analytics than Omniture, and others who absolutely have to have 60 eVars and 25 metrics to run against whatever dimensions they please. And of course, having a log-based solution gives you a lot of flexibility if you want to reprocess data to see things in a new light.

    I think what it all boils down to is if you ask the right questions of your business, the tools will narrow themselves down. Most people tend to feature on the features of the tools first: does it report x? Does it correlate with y? Can I get z vs. a comparisons? Well, most of the tools will do all of these things without breaking a sweat, but features are seldom the answer to complex business questions about prioritizing media budgets, ordering IT tickets, developing new product and content sections, and where to find the next swell of audience. If you ask the vendors how they can help with these questions, the conversation gets much more interesting.

    Thanks again for chiming in and please hit me up on twitter @evanlapointe.

  • http://www.AtlantaAnalytics.com Evan LaPointe

    sorry – typo: FOCUS on the features, in the second paragraph.

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