The Null Terminator

Ethan Ram’s geeky blog on the seam of technology and product management.

Web analytics and BI reporting services review: Google Analytics and SiSense Prism,

A Review of Services I’ve used in GameGround – Part III – Marketing tools

This is the 3rd part in a series of blog posts reviewing several 3rd pty products and services I’ve used in GameGround and my take on them. The basic approach I’m taking here is the applicability of the product for a lean-startup that wants to move fast. In the last post I wrote about Community engagement tools for the marketing team: sending emails and engaging customers in a conversation. This post is about Analytics and BI Reporting. Next up – OPS tools and of course, development infrastructure.

Google Analytics

This extremely popular free SAAS service by Google has become the de-facto standard in website traffic analysis. 10 Years ago I used to download my http server logs and run a simple analysis tool that gave me most of the basic analysis features I needed, but this SAAS has some excellent analytics features like measuring page view time, campaign origin tracking, goal tracking, integration with AdSense etc. There are a few BUTs here, which make me think twice before I choose this option again:

  1. The service was built in the times when every website page had a unique URL. This is no longer how the internet works today – we use several widgets that load asynchronously into one page, we change the content of the page using Hash Navigation and AJAX. Especially with mobile content we don’t use the old website concepts anymore – it’s becoming ever more popular to have a single-page website that loads a JavaScript application that makes it all tick. An App, in short. Google knows this and allows you to report “manually” about any URL you are loading. So you can report on any action taken on the screen and on any widget loaded – call the service API with a different fake URL. The problem is that you lose most of the abilities to track the flows users have taken in your application, the count of page views and time spent on a page gets totally skewed. No remedy here.Google Analytics is Useless
  2. You want analytics not only about page views. You want to know about downloads ppl have made, about clicks to the cancel button on the registration page etc. All that is not well supported with Google Analytics APIs. The Events API does not work with the goals feature and calling the APIs on page events (.g. clicks) reporting fake URLs is skewing everything and the numbers just don’t add up.
  3.  The tool is mostly good for the product managers to see how the crowds are using the product/website. A few other causes are not well served: your sales manager would like to get information of sales progress from analytics on individual potential customer – integrate the analytics goals with SalesForce and alert sales staff to contact potential customers. Engineering would like to know of faulty pages (500s), broken links (404s) etc. Security officers would like to know of traffic spikes and login errors to track potential invaders and hackers. You’ll need other tools for those tasks. p.s. check out the friends at Totango for an excellent analytics tool specific for SAAS sales managers.
  4. Much of the analytics data is delayed. You get much of your statistical views update daily. So you upload a change close to the end of your working day. You come in the morning – still no significant results. You have to wait another day before you get some results. And that is IF you’ve managed to write the fake URLs thing correctly. In many cases you’ll need to fix it a bit and repeat the test. This is way too slow for a startup…
  5. GA is a basic website traffic analysis tool. Traffic alone is good for SEO tasks, understanding traffic sources, goal achievement etc. For Business Interlace you’ll need something much stronger with access to the business data stored in your database (see below).

In short – For modern websites and apps GA is almost useless – it will only give you the big picture. Forget about the details …Or check out a better service that was designed for it.

Two insights on the development management side of things: Plan the analytics of every feature as part of the design of the feature itself. Having a feature that one cannot analyze and understand user interaction with is usually worthless. Plan to spend more time than you initially thought to support Google Analytics efforts (probably true with any analytics.)

SiSense Prism

SiSense is a startup developing a very interesting reporting product that is based on unique Columnar Data Storage technology (as opposed to the “regular” OLAP-cubes or other in-memory solutions) that enables large-scale data-sets analysis. The product has an easy-to-use interface that allows creating of beautiful web-based reports for business intelligence, website analysis fort any where managers need a dashboard with stats. It can connect to multiple data sources including most common DBs and even cloud services like Google AdWords, Google Analytics and Amazon S3 logs. This means that the cost of creating and operating excellent reports is much lower than with some other popular products by IBM, Omniture, Microsoft, Oracle and so many others.

I liked using their product a lot. In GameGround the product was mostly operated by one of our QA guys (in addition to his QA roles) that had some basic knowledge in databases and SQL and assisted by our DBA occasionally.

A few notes for everyone thinking of building a BI suite using SiSense and the like:

  1. Lean start-ups – abort here! The establishment of a BI product is lengthy, expensive and has a high learning curve. In most cases it would involve bring in an expensive contractor just to help you boot-start the thing. If your data includes a few thousands records you’re much better off with Excel. Excel can connect to most Databases and you can create filters and graphs and send them by email to the marketing/sales daily. It may sound “ugly”, but the time/cost it would take is a fraction of the time it takes to build a proper BI suite. BI reporting suites are not meant for lean start-ups! Starting thinking about a BI suite when you have some real customers and Excel’s abilities of crunching data are too low (over a couple of hundreds of data rows Excel starts slowing down to a crawl!)
  2. In many (read: most) cases the information you want to investigate does not exist in the Database. To create a report that shows you how many ppl clicked on ‘like’ and how many ppl uploaded a picture every day you’ll need to add code to collect the data. In many cases this involves code on both the website, the back-end services and changes to the database.  No magic here – BI needs are met with development costs even if the BI person is part of the marketing team.
  3. The most important thing with BI is knowing the right questions to ask. In most cases the basic question of “if I give you the data you requested what would you do with it” is never asked. Ask questions that gets you actionable data. The harsh reality is that in too many cases reports were requested and were never utilized.  Still producing those reports took a lot of effort.
  4. As a manager, if you ask for very detailed reports you’ll find that you drown in details and cannot get the whole picture. The whole point of having BI dashboards is that you can get the interesting point in 5 seconds. So, start by asking for basic stats that can be visualized over time. Then ask to get details on specific actual things you see.
  5. Building a good BI dashboard is, thus, an evolving process, not a project. The project would be to get to the point where you have the first 3 reports in place. Then you’ll want to continue develop more reports and improve on existing.

A few notes specific to SiSense Prism:

  1. They are still a startup themselves. Investing in a BI suite that may not be there in a couple of years is risky. Still I give the team at SiSense a strong plus. I’ve seen the work they’ve done with wix is pretty impressive.
  2. They prefer you to take a monthly paid subscription to use the product instead of paying a one-time. This is cool and allows you to pay-as-go and pay-as-you consume. It also reduces the cost of boot-starting a BI solution that mostly involves buying a strong server, paying for a contractor to help you out getting the thing to work etc.
  3. Their pricing plans are a bit problematic. Their most basic feature – viewing the reports in a browser – is only available in the most pricy plan.
  4. Their customer support had some serious issues at times. We got no response for a bug we had with their reports viewer software (we did not use the web-based version), and reverted to use a 500MB server software on each of the managers’ laptops…

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One response to “Web analytics and BI reporting services review: Google Analytics and SiSense Prism,

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