Why Web Analytics Key Performance Indicators Often Fail
By Lindsey Anderson
Almost all eCommerce sites share at least one common goal. They want to improve the customer
experience, increase revenue, improve customer retention, increase the ROI on their advertising and
marketing expenditures, provide the product information their customers want, and/or understand
who their customers are and why they buy.
Since you cannot manage what you cannot measure, most eCommerce sites have a web analytics
package to help them measure site performance. Many of these sites have identified certain site
measurements, like the number of new visitors, as Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). Most web
analytics packages, through the creation of dashboards, encourage the anointment of various
measurements as KPIs.
However, many sites are finding that their KPIs aren't helping them achieve their site goals. An
indicator of this failure is the large number of users who have stopped using their web analytics
package altogether. Jason Burby1
, a ClickZ columnist, reports that a company spending over
$150,000 per month on its analytics tool had, at installation, set up over 50 user accounts. But when
analyzing who was actually using the package, Jason found over 85 percent of those users hadn't
used the tool in over six months. This is not unusual.
So why are web analytics KPIs failing to support site goals? There are several reasons but the main
one is because there is no automatic, direct connection between KPIs and site goals. Web analytics
provides data. Someone has to look at that data and have an insight that leads to a decision that will
positively affect site goals. The missing links are insight and decision-making.
Far too many sites look at some available reports, identify some interesting data and declare it a Key
Performance Indicator without giving enough thought to what insights the data provides and how
those insights might enable decision making. At first, site managers will look at these KPIs on a
regular basis, but as other business pressures mount, they start looking at these KPIs less and less
until they are only occasionally viewed.
These site managers have picked the wrong KPIs. Bottom line, if it doesn't have an impact on your
performance, it is not a Key Performance Indicator. What site managers should do when establishing
KPIs is look beyond what data appears interesting and identify what insights the data provides and
what kind of decisions that insight impacts.
The reason many sites don't do this is because it is very difficult. Web analytics packages generate
an overwhelming amount of data and site personnel have limited experience interpreting the data.
The link from data to insight is not always obvious. Establishing this link requires a special skill set,
a facility with detailed data and a strategic vision, which aren’t usually found together in the same
Web analytics is relatively new and site personnel are still feeling their way. People aren't getting
enough training on how to use their web analytics package or on how to interpret the data.
Experienced, knowledgeable web analytics specialists who already have the training are scarce and
consequently are hard to find and expensive to hire.
There are other challenges to establishing KPIs. You can only make effective decisions if you have
the right data. This reflects the old adage, garbage in, garbage out. Unfortunately, many sites were
not properly set up initially for web analytics. By its very nature, installation comes at the very
beginning when site managers know the least on how web analytics can help achieve their site's
goals. It is easy to make mistakes during installation about what data to collect.
Furthermore, what is important to one person may not be important to another. Web analytics KPIs
don't come in one-size-fits-all. Different functions on the site have different goals and consequently
need different KPIs.
Another challenge is that there are positive and negative site goals and consequently positive and
negative KPIs. Increasing revenue and customer retention are examples of positive goals; things you
want your site to achieve. But most sites also have negative goals; things they don't want to happen.
They don't want customers to submit an order and not have the order confirmation page load. So
sites need negative KPIs or red flags as well as positive KPIs. These are like the oil light in your car
dashboard. As long as it is not lit you don't pay any attention to it, but as soon as it lights up, you
focus on it immediately.
Does every site need KPIs? A static web site probably doesn't need any positive KPIs because very
little is changing over time. But even a static website needs red flags to minimize system failure.
Dynamic sites, on the other hand, need both positive and negative KPIs because the site is constantly
Change highlights the value of KPIs. It's all about driving performance. The key to improving
performance is trying new things. Leading site managers are constantly testing new ideas and using
KPIs to determine what works and what doesn't.
Working with web analytics is difficult; so how can you avoid failing KPIs? Start by acknowledging
that it is hard and follow this methodical approach:
Work backwards. Don't start with a report. Start with your goals in mind, both positive and
negative. What kind of decisions will you be making to achieve your goals? What kind of
insights do you need to make those decisions. Then what kind of data do you need to get
Make it a team effort. This will help you address the skill disparity between detail and
strategy, but you still need a professional web analytics person on your team, either as a full
time employee or an outside consultant. You need their in-depth understanding of the data.
Make it a cross-functional team because different functions will need different KPIs.
Have regular team meetings and begin each meeting with a review of your site goals. This
will keep your goals on the top of everyone's mind on a day-to-day basis and thereby
stimulate creative thinking on matching KPIs to goals.
Don't start the installation process until you've clearly identified your goals and don't try to
do it all at once. Start small with just 2 or 3 goals and add more as you become more
Make sure your team is trained on how to use the web analytics tool. Training shouldn't be a
one shot deal. Your team should get periodic refreshers that include insights into how to
interpret the data. As you do more advanced training, it should focus more on interpretation
and building the links to achieving site goals than on the mechanics of using the tool.
Create before and after reports on each site change you make. This will identify what you've
done and how it has affected the site, reinforcing the relationship between metrics and
While methodical, this process is hard work. But through it you should be able to establish 2 or 3
useful KPIs. Once you’ve had some success and understand the process for creating meaningful
KPIs, you'll find it easier to create additional ones.
1. Sharing Web Analytics Insight Throughout an Organization by Jason Burby