Thursday, 6 October 2011

The Emerging Role of the Analyst


It was not that long ago that Internet Profiles Corporation (I/PRO) launched the first ever commercial log file analyser, LogAnalyzer back in June 1994, and the web analytics industry was born. Since then, technology has been advancing at a phenomenal pace. Finding the software and the staff to keep pace with it, and to keep measuring it, has become increasingly challenging. After all, software designers, web designers and JavaScript programmers rarely think about how usage of their technology can be measured when they develop their products; they’re far more interested in beating the competition and providing the best visitor experience (hopefully doing both at the same time).


This means that the role of the analyst has had to come a long way, and there have been various pitfalls to avoid along the way. For example, I/PRO went through mergers and takeovers along its way, and almost exactly 10 years after it was founded, I/PRO was declared insolvent. Hopefully most analysts will last longer than that (I/PRO was saved by another buyout, and its history has become lost in various name changes and mergers). One of the key pitfalls for current website analysts is to avoid being just a counter and a report.


Back in the mid-1990s, when website analysis was in its infancy, the analyst was probably just a counter and a reporter, and that was all that was required of the role - in itself, converting log files into meaningful data, and then information, was hard enough. The ‘analysis’ came from making sense of log files and translating them into counts and numbers, and was much more connected to computer analysis. To an analyst in the 1990s, qualifications in computer science would be more beneficial than those in marketing or mathematics, and the ability to assimilate large volumes of computer reports would be more use than intuition and curiosity.


However, with time, other players entered the website analytics software market, and the skill set required to be a website analyst started to shift, as the mathematical and log-file heavy lifting was moved from staff to software. Staff – i.e. people – were hired to translate the numbers into words and pictures (as business will always love a good graph) instead of converting the bits and bytes into numbers. More demands were placed on the staff, who became able to do the number-crunching instead of the log-file crunching.


We’ve seen a technological revolution, where the software providers have had to keep pace with business requirements, and business requirements have expanded to exploit the expanding capabilities of new web analytics software. Log file analysis was replaced with 1x1 transparent gifs, then JavaScript tags. We used to put counters at the bottom of our pages, and we would count hits and page views, now we count visits, visitors, and analyse click paths, and following integration with other data sources, we even measure revenue and sales.


Depending on your perspective, the role of the website analyst has now emerged from the shadows of a counter and reporter to a business-critical source of data and recommendations (in terms of business role); or from the computer science engineer to a data-savvy marketer and key decision influencer. We’re able to represent the website data in an understandable way – either by writing reports, e-mailing recommendations or presenting our analysis face-to-face.  We can up with ideas for testing, with supporting hypotheses.  The role of the analyst has emerged from a role of supporting existing projects (“This is what we’re going to do, see if it works”) to being a key consultant at the planning and delivery stages (“What do you think we should do here?”).  The questions have moved from closed questions to open questions, as web professionals have become more open-minded, and analysts have been able to get onto the front foot more often.


It reminds me of a scene in an episode of Star Trek Voyager (“Relativity”). One of the characters (“Seven”) consults the medical database and decides, after reviewing her syptoms, that she has a serious, degenerative illness, and consults the Doctor to explain her reasoning. The Doctor is a hologram, programmed to identify and cure sickness and disease in the crew, based on the data in the medical database. Seven and the Doctor then go through her symptoms, and the Doctor explains what he finds to be the problem, and gives her the necessary treatment, with an immediate improvement. He returns to his sickbay, and, as he leaves, says, “Remember, next time your human physiology fails, you don’t consult the database; just call me.” “You are the database.” “With two legs and a bedside manner!” As analysts, we’re often called on to represent our data, to make sense of it and to turn it into words. That, for me, is the emerging role of the analyst – from the number cruncher who follows along behind the web team, to a leading position in informing future decisions about a website.


This article has been written as part of the first ever web analytics Blogarama, with analysts sharing their views on 'the emerging role of the analyst'. 

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