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EWB Analytics Blog

How to Tell If Your Data Stinks

Elizabeth Brady

Earlier this summer, as a conference panelist I was asked, “What is the most common mistake companies make in interpreting their website analytics?”  I responded, without hesitation, “Not understanding how configuration issues might be impacting the data collected.”  Missing or inaccurate web analytics tags can cause, among other problems, inflated visitor counts, an exaggerated percentage of ‘direct’ traffic, self referrals, mislabeled entry pages, and inaccurate bounce rate, time-on-site, and pages-per-visit metrics.  Inaccurate data leads to incorrect analysis, and may drive the business to take the wrong – or at least unhelpful – actions.

There are some straight-forward non-technical indicators of a potential data configuration issue.  A simple ‘sniff test’ can reveal something that seems a bit ‘off’.

  • A sudden drop (or surge) in any metric without a corresponding valid business explanation
  • ‘Illogical’ landing pages
  • Any instance of zero in the data – from personal experience a zero indicates a data issue 99 percent of the time
  • Suspicious success event attribution – for example, if only a very small fraction of visit from a key source of traffic are converting, this need to be investigated
  • A large percentage of ‘direct’ traffic for a site with very little brand recognition

Any of the above issues warrants investigation.  Using an http debugger tool (Fiddler is my tool of choice), I walk through a visit to the site from the leading traffic sources (search, e-mail, leading referral sites) through to the major conversion events (registration, click events, placing an order) to watch page by page, click by click, what the web analytics tool records as the domain, page, source of traffic and other details to diagnose the issue and recommend code adjustments.

I have several clients quite skilled at interpreting and monitoring their web analytics reporting.  When they reach out periodically to point out an anomaly and ask whether there might be a data issue, I reply, without hesitation, “Let’s check,” and get to work.