Visual Reporting Tools: Hype or Help?

I was talking to a U.K. Web analytics systems vendor the other day. They were bemoaning the fact they’d lost a pitch for a potential client to another company. The main reason they’d lost was they don’t currently offer a click overlay report.

In a click overlay report, the number of times a particular link on a page is clicked is superimposed on the page itself in the browser. It’s a very visual way of showing where people are clicking on a page and has become an increasingly popular feature of Web analytics systems.

Talking to this particular vendor, I thought it odd this particular prospective client had made its decision based on the fact the vendor didn’t have a particular report, despite being a good fit on a number of different dimensions.

I know a picture says a thousand words. I’m a great fan of reporting data visually into core components to reduce complexity. However, I was left wondering whether the way Web analytics data are being reported is becoming more important for some people than the accuracy, validity, and potential usefulness of the data themselves.

As is the way with these things, I then had a conversation with a digital media agency I was advising. They were working with a client to put a measurement program into place. The agency was going to recommend its client go with one of two potential systems, and we were discussing which one they might recommend. One agency executive felt one system would be a better fit because it had nicer-looking reports and graphs and would be easier for the client to work with.

These two conversations set me thinking about the real utility of some reporting capabilities of Web analytics systems that have been developed over the past couple years. Most systems have such reporting features as click overlays and dashboards. I began to ask some questions:

  • Are visual reports such as overlays and dashboards actually beneficial, or are they a triumph of design over utility?

  • Are end users getting sidetracked by how pretty a report looks, rather than focusing on what insight they get from it?
  • In the struggle to get executives to engage with Web-generated data, are systems being developed that generate more eye candy that insight?

Click overlays are somewhat overhyped as a tool. They can provide a simplistic view of visitor behavior on a site. Sure, they have real applications and benefits in certain areas, such as navigation analysis, usability, and understanding online merchandising effectiveness. But they are also being used as a general reporting tool for executives because it’s believed they make it easier for executives to understand the data. Making data prettier doesn’t necessarily make it easier to understand or to do anything about.

I decided to ask John Marshall, CEO of ClickTracks, what he thought. A few years ago, ClickTracks was the first tool I came across that offered click overlays. As Marshall could be considered to be the inventor of click overlays, I asked whether he thought click overlays are increasingly used beyond their brief.

“Overlays are not very useful when looking at the average visitor,” Marshall told me. “Seeing what people click on helps a little, but it’s not enough to drive a decision from because it’s usually pretty obvious.”

So what’s the point of overlays?

“Useful overlays come about when you segment visitors and can view those segments simultaneously,” he said. “For example, viewing the average visitor in the overlay; another example would be the ability to split PPC [pay-per-click] traffic versus organic search traffic”

Marshall seems to be acknowledging click overlays have limited use as a general reporting tool. Their power is as a diagnostic tool for analysts to understand different types of visitor behavior. Though they are easy on the eye, they potentially fail to deliver any meaning unless you drill down into the numbers.

I also sometimes wonder about the value of dashboards. Again, don’t get me wrong: I’m a great believer in the visual representation of marketing data. I just wonder whether a “fuel gauge” is the right way to do it.

Good dashboards bring the relevant data together in a meaningful way. They provide insight into the patterns and relationships between various metrics. Poor dashboards are more concerned about how they look than what they say and how they can help executives better understand business performance. It’s a bit like 3-D line charts in Excel: they look great but it’s impossible to fathom what they’re saying.

Look beyond the eye candy. Understand what these types of reports can really deliver to you. Overlays and dashboards are great pieces of functionality when used appropriately, but you must ensure they are used in the right context for the right purpose. A picture might say a thousand words, but they must be the right words!

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