I’m going to start the week by running the risk of bumming you out. At least we’ll have the rest of the week to recover, right? I was looking at some analytics data this morning and as I looked at it, I realized that much of it is wrong. So is a lot of the other information this client is using to make decisions. Yours is too, by the way. I’ll explain why but along with the realization came an insight that I think will be helpful to your business.
When I began in digital we used server logs to track traffic. They were pretty accurate although pretty limited as well. Web analytics came along and the quantity and quality of the information we got about who was coming to our web sites, how they got there, and what they were doing improved quite a bit. As business people, we were able to make content and marketing decisions based on the data we were getting.
Things have grown quite a bit more complex over the last 20 years and that complexity has obscured much of the good, useful information. Anyone who knows analytics will tell you that much of the referral data you see (where traffic comes from) is wrong. “Direct” traffic is way overstated. “Referred” traffic is encumbered by referrer spam. A lot of so called direct traffic is really dark social traffic (I send you a link). Transfers from HTTPS to HTTP sites report as direct as well. Keyword data is “not available.”
I’m not trying to make your head hurt nor to get really wonky. The point is that if you’re relying on that data to make decisions, you’re really just guessing. It’s the same with much of your ad data. I’ve written before about the lack of transparency in the programmatic ad markets and that opaqueness obscures the validity of the data as well.
I can add search data, email data, and more to the list of what probably isn’t what you think it is, but all of this fostered a thought: what do we really know that’s truly actionable?
I can answer that. We can know how our products and services are really differentiated and how much better we are at solving peoples’ problems. We can know (yay review sites!) how good our customer service is. We can know how our revenues and costs and changing and we can ask why.
I’m the last guy to say we should ignore that large and growing amount of data every business gets each minute. But maybe the time has come to act on what we KNOW and less on what we really don’t. What do you think?
Ever encounter a situation where things seem backwards? Maybe you’ve seen a parent being told what to do by a child or a customer being berated by a service rep. It makes you wonder who is in charge or who is working for whom. I have another thought along those lines today, and it has to do with data. There was a post from AdAge by their data reporter, Katie Kaye who wrote the following about the NY Times piece on Amazon:
The article should inspire us to question the value of decisions based entirely on data to create business efficiencies at the expense of human empathy and the arguable imperfections that can benefit any organization or project.
I like that. It makes you ask who is in charge here: the humans or the numbers. We all ingest more data than we can consume, and, unfortunately, some of us allow that massive intake to be regurgitated as unconsidered decisions. That’s a bad idea. The data is there to serve us, not the other way around.
I’m the first to say that we need lots of data. Without impartial feedback, we’re flying blind, and data can help us make better decisions. The key there is “help US”. Data without the context of a plan is useless. Data that’s not actionable is useless. Data that causes us to overreact, however, is dangerous. If you watched any election coverage last night, you probably heard a lot about early results and the need to wait for data from key precincts. How many times has someone in your organization overreacted to an early piece of data, only to find out that it was not at all typical of the overall results? We need a plan, we need context, and we need a little patience.
When we chase after outliers, we’re working for the data. That’s backward. Data, and all the other technological tools in our arsenals, needs to work for us. Make sense?
One of the more interesting experiences is my first trip through a new client‘s analytics. Much of the time I will have asked them before I look what conclusions they are drawing from what they’re seeing. They are often very detached from the reality of what’s going on, usually because of a couple of reasons. Given the emphasis on data these days, this is a problem, so let me mention a few things and hopefully you can ask yourself if they’re true about your data.
The first reason is faulty setup. One client was all excited about their volume of traffic and the depth of visiting until I told them that they weren’t filtering out visits from their own office. Once we did that the traffic declined quite a bit (but was obviously more indicative of what was going on). Another reason is that there is no filtering in place for spam links. I’m not sure why these companies (whose names I won’t cite here to give them any more visibility) refer traffic to so many sites, but it has the effect of ballooning bounce rates, decreasing time on site, and distorting a few other things.
Another reason the data is less useful is that they haven’t set up site search to report. Most sites of any size have a built-in search box. Analytics can report on what is searched for. This can help spot problems in navigation or topics that need to be given more prominence – maybe promoting them to a main navigation tab, etc. Sometimes the client has an app that replaces their mobile web experience but they’ve failed either to install analytics or to link them to their web reporting. Both are huge data fails
Finally, and this one is a bigger problem than most of the others, clients fail to figure out why they have a website in the first place. What is it that they want users to do? Buy something? Fill out a form? Visit a particular page? Those should be set up as goals and successful completions should be counted. They fail to link all their other tools such as Webmaster Tools or their paid search such as AdWords into the analytics suite. All of these things allow you to figure out the most cost-effective ways to use marketing and your site to drive revenues.
It’s funny to hear people talk about big data when the reality is that they still haven’t figured out the little data. Once you’ve got the little data under control, you’ll be well-prepared to add additional layers to the complex views that result. Got it?