Is Web Analytics Easy Or Difficult?

Two rockstars have emerged in the web analytics field to date. We all know who they are: Eric Peterson has demystified analytics for us, while Avinash Kaushik has helped us take it one day, or dare I say, “an hour a day,” at a time. And one of them says web analytics is easy while the other one says web analytics is very hard. So who is right?

Why web analytics is easy

Yes, it’s true. Web analytics is easy, according to Avinash Kaushik. It’s actually incredibly easy. Assuming that the desired outcomes of web analytics are changes that will positively impact your site and your bottom line (what other purpose can you think of?), you’ll find that even complete beginners can drive surprising value.

Web analytics is this easy because your web site has more issues than you’ll see in a month of Dr. Phil episodes. Starting with some of Kaushik’s favorite metrics like bounce rate by landing page, it’s a virtual walk in the park to identify a host of obvious issues with your site, your marketing, your calls to action and more.

Bounce rate / percent of single page view sessions (times where users enter your site and leave almost immediately) is the online version of your significant other saying “hell no” when you walk up with that new striped shirt you thought was so snazzy. Don’t take it personally when people reject your content, especially when you thought it was great. It isn’t. Just get over it and change it for the better. Test it using website optimizer. Your site is there to make you money, not generate pride.

Web analytics is also easy because you can learn as you go. Almost all valuable insights you will come across in your web analytics quest are a result of you saying, “Huh, that’s interesting.” Then you dig a little deeper, find some answers, and come up with a new way of doing things. It’s rare to be unsurprised by your findings when you’re digging through Google Analytics or Omniture SiteCatalyst or any other tool, because what you’re really looking for are things that you don’t expect.

Whether you’re a seasoned veteran or a complete newbie, you’re going to have to dig in and figure out what’s causing that drop in page views per session or conversion rate or video completion rate or whatever else you’re measuring, and it’s almost always going to be a learning experience. The conclusions and efficiencies that come from the seasoned veteran may be superior, but the newbie can definitely hold the fort, much more than we often give them credit for.

Here are some typical problem areas where you can take advantage of “easy” analytics to gain insights and improve your site:

  • Landing pages with the highest bounce rates
  • Landing pages with the lowest conversion rates
  • Referrers with high bounce rates
  • Referrers with low conversion rates
  • Paid search: keywords with high CTR and low conversion (money fires)
  • Natural search: top keywords for major landing pages (are we satisfying those searchers?)

So keep in mind when I say web analytics is easy, my standard is how sophisticated you need to be to drive performance-altering change on your web site. And you don’t need to be that sophisticated to pinpoint a basketful of site issues that need addressing.

But web analytics is hard!

Very hard, according to Eric Peterson. So, web analytics does have a dark side. It can be hard, but also not for the reasons you might expect.

Web analytics is not hard because you need a statistics degree. It’s not hard because you need to make some sort of model that looks like you’re trying to land something on the moon (or blow it up). It’s not hard because you have to be some Excel whiz or know how to run a multivariate test. It’s hard because people believe that analysts are automatically good when they embody these characteristics, which is completely untrue.

The best analysts are good communicators, not NASA engineers. In fact, engineers are usually the most frustrated and unsuccessful analysts out there (in the long run). While they’re trying to explain that the hypotenuse of a thermodynamic econometric assimilator is equal to the perennial habits of in-market visitor segment recency, the clear communicator is explaining that a shift in budget from paid search to an email campaign is expected to generate $2.6 million in incremental revenue. While the NASA analyst is trying to explain this:

Peterson's Engagement Formula

… the articulate analyst is in the CFO’s office talking about the tech support and IT prioritizing savings driven by their investment in Tealeaf, in real dollar terms.

This isn’t to say that formulas like this (it looks like Pac Man, math edition) aren’t downright brilliant. They are. They’re just not universally useful in a business environment. They’re very potent research tools that should be used to make complicated data more malleable for the analyst, but they should never see the light of day in the rest of the organization. While the NASA analyst may think this formula will make him look smart and impressive, the executives just see another propellerhead that will waste time with technobabble. No matter how valuable this technobrilliance is, it’s always going to sound like Urkel to the CEO.

Web analytics is very hard, in essence, because we deal with very complex data sets, statistical analysis, trying to tie online and offline data together, seasonality, and more. It takes a very smart person to do this well, without making mistakes. But the most important—and hardest—thing to do is tie it all back to the two very simple metrics that drive all business value: revenue and profitability. This is the language of business, which is different from the language of the analyst. And while the NASA analyst may think these two basic elements of business oversimplified and unsophisticated, the entire history of business demonstrates that these are the only two things that matter.

Something else we can relate to

The same can be said of SEO, for example. Is SEO hard? No, of course not. You can spend an hour on this site and learn enough to make a huge difference. Is SEO easy? No, of course not. Even if you spend 100 hours on this site, you’ll still be making huge mistakes and missing out on nuances that can cost you valuable real estate in the search results. That’s why there are specialists. But don’t let specialists tell you that it’s so hard that you shouldn’t learn the basics and employ simple recommendations that can make a huge difference.

Our industry is rife with smart people who are on border patrol. We tend to get so caught up in how smart and sophisticated our ideas are, we push lay people out and purposefully alienate them with our big words and complicated explanations, telling ourselves that if a CEO doesn’t understand a simple chi-square test, he’s a dumbass. The truth is, we’re the dumbasses when we can’t reduce the outcomes of that test to simple, explainable tactics that will produce either a revenue increase or a cost reduction.

So if you’re the expert, make it simple for people. Make them comfortable. Don’t make it hard. If you’re the beginner, keep it simple, find clear opportunities, ask smart people for advice, and enjoy the ease of web analytics!

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

Related Topics: Channel: Analytics | Search & Analytics | SEM Tools: Web Analytics


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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    I have read the engagement score of Eric Peterson and the famous long equation listed on your article. To be honest, I love the name you give to Eric, a NASA Analyst; though I think it is a bit far. He is until now far from qualifying this post.

    Eric try to show his “brilliant” to a population which on general doesn’t work with this type of formula, even this is a quite simple and poor one. But when to his model, it just makes no senses. The simple addition of different metrics just give nothing valuable except a self-satisfying ratio to advocate oneself, one who never forget to marketing himself even when writing for his peer’s book. I follow Avinash’s belief, I hate ratio which give no sense. What we need is to drive action, to generate value!

    Web Analytics is relatively easy. One can enter in this field quite easily and to be a “junior” analyst, but the integration of web analytics in the marketing and business is difficult and demands specific competence. But not try to make barrier to this field, it should be a live place with experienced head, and young eager mind.

  • erictpeterson

    Evan: Neat post, and thanks for referencing some of my work. But I think you’ve missed the point on my statement that “web analytics is hard.” At the risk of sounding repetitive, I point this out to people because I believe it sets expectations more honestly than the converse. And I have conceded that initially web analytics can “seem easy” — Google Analytics is an incredible product, the initial set-up is wonderfully simple in it’s most basic for, and it’s reports are so wonderfully presented it’s no wonder that folks believe web analytics is easy.

    The problem comes when companies actually try and action the data they’re getting. They run into data validation questions, they struggle to understand what they’re seeing because they’re under-resourced, they struggle to justify the high cost of dedicated analytics resources, they have to fight to get a seat at a table where offline data analysis has sat for years, and so on. Some of the best analysts I know agree that web analytics is hard simply because they KNOW they’re producing excellent research and analysis, only to have that work fall into the proverbial “circular file” (which is hard to stomach when you’re doing what you love …)

    To your comment: “when I say web analytics is easy, my standard is how sophisticated you need to be to drive performance-altering change on your web site. And you don’t need to be that sophisticated to pinpoint a basketful of site issues that need addressing.” I agree, but it turns out that in many, many businesses knowing that your site sucks, and getting permission to make that performance-altering change” are disconnected.

    Easy to get the data, hard to take advantage of it. So rather than setting the bar low for our industry (as the “easy” argument does IMHO) I prefer to set the bar realistically. This way when sales walks in and says “we’ll have you tagged in two days and you’ll be making actionable decisions next week” my clients are smart enough to say “bullshit, we know this is more complex than that …”

    In terms of the engagement work … as SHITTERC demonstrates aptly that work is not really for folks new to the industry. To leverage this work it takes a particular set of technology, and more importantly, a refined sense of where basic metrics like bounce rate ultimately fail to provide sustained business value … a point clearly lost on some folks. I do have to admit I am constantly surprised at how frightened some so called “analysts” are of the really, really basic math the equation uses … but such is life!

    Anyway, I am in complete agreement with you when you say “If you’re the beginner, keep it simple, find clear opportunities, ask smart people for advice, and enjoy the ease of web analytics!” I would only add that, when you eventually hit the wall and find yourself with questions you cannot answer, data you cannot reconcile, and expectations you cannot meet … don’t say I didn’t tell you so.

    All the best,

    Eric T. Peterson
    Web Analytics Demystified

    P.S. In terms of statistics and the future of web analytics, your more advanced readers might be interested in my recent white paper on the coming revolution in the sector (download available at Likely it will frighten your more junior readers but I welcome your (and their) feedback in my blog:

  • Evan LaPointe


    Thanks so much for chiming in. I agree with what you’ve said here wholeheartedly. In my experience, the “hard” part has been caused just as much by a resistant corporate culture as it has by lack of ability, and it’s sometimes hard to distinguish which of the two is preventing the action you reference. And, of course, the two problems have wholly different solutions (or at least applicable tactics).

    You’re right that we don’t want to set the bar too low; I just see too many people ignoring the bar altogether because “experts” scare people away from it and make them feel incompetent. People have to get their hands dirty by trying, and I don’t think that trying is going to take as long as people make it out. Without executives using and trying to understand analytics, even at a surface level, they have little sympathy for the issues you outlined and the corporate culture will reflect that. While I acknowledge that most executives won’t have time to get into a web analytics tool, we should bridge the language to make it simple for them and make them feel empowered in the conversations they ARE a part of, rather than trying to intimidate them.

    I think that web analytics is easy because, despite the barriers you mention, we CAN drive change. I think that too many people are just guilty of never trying because they can see the potential barriers and they don’t want to get into what they feel may be a fruitless effort. But if that were our collective mentality, women wouldn’t be voting and we’d have one hell of a tax on tea.

    As for SHITERC’s comment,

    I don’t think that this is a forum for beating anyone up. Was Eric trying to show off with his formula? Maybe, but I don’t necessarily think so: I think he was saying, “Let’s not dismiss an idea, let’s see if an [even complicated] formula can help us codify complex information.” It might be simple, inaccurate, or leave some things out in your opinion, but he’s to be respected for putting the effort forth where few others have. I don’t think that Eric would have any issue whatsoever with people picking up his work and continuing to improve it. I also think that Eric understands that this formula is practical only to a certain extent. It doesn’t replace the hard work of digging.

    Collaboration is what we seem to lack in this industry; we too often see ideas dismissed and ridiculed rather than built upon. I’d love to see your thoughts on this formula and ideas you have for making it better, and I’m sure Eric would, too!

    Is this formula the Godsend (or another version of it?) I don’t think so. Could it help? Maybe. Should an executive ever see it? No way in hell. Should we, as a community consider it and talk about it? Definitely.

  • BClifton

    Great balanced article Evan – at the end of the day it is neither one or the other – its both, depending on what resource is available from the client.

    Some clients have senior buy-in to understand their website and from there, resources flow (easy). Others just don’t. Yes being a great communicator helps achieve that buy-in, but sometimes, you cannot take the client with you and it becomes hard. I am speaking as a consultant, but equally that experience can apply to internal staff trying to move the company forward.

    For example: I run my own websites on my own servers and I have a solid background in PHP and JavaScript. So for me, web analytics is EASY. However, I also work for global clients that have multiple offices around the globe, communicating in different languages, working in different markets with differing priorities. In total, they can have 100+ websites. Driving a unified web analytic strategy in these circumstances is HARD…

    BTW, its disappointing to see such criticism of a respected contributor to the industry. Whether you like Eric T or not, he works hard to promote web analytics and always presents his ideas after giving them a great deal of thought – and for free! That has to be respected…

    Brian Clifton
    Author, Advanced Web Metrics with Google Analytics


    Hello, guys, I admit I’m wrong to launch such critics not noble at all. Sorry and apologize for Eric. Honestly I’m a passenger in WA and prefer math more than anything else. But I’m also realistic and hate the abuse of math. I have to take some thing wrong in this deal. Anyway, I advise more stats to wa.

    I appreciate that Eric put his work for free, but when to the formula, I really can’t understand, what it stand for, how to use it, when to use it, for whom?

    After all, my bad manner makes the discussion sound a quarrel, sorry for that. Evan, if you like, could you please delete my comment please? Thanks!

  • Evan LaPointe

    Unfortunately, I’m unable to moderate comments myself, but I think that your name is probably not SHITERC, so you’re in good shape :)

    I think it’s fine and healthy to have these types of debates, and you shouldn’t be ashamed of calling out what you think is right. This isn’t the first time Eric has heard this type of criticism, and he’s a big boy, so he can take it. All of it, positive or negative, tells us that we haven’t reached perfection yet and we need to keep working hard.


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