A reflection on Google, Microsoft and Yahoo Web Analytics Dashboards

This is by no means a scientific study or an in depth view of dashboards provided by Web Analytics vendors, this is merely a reflection on the meager level of three select vendors. Google, Microsoft and Yahoo of course represent the somewhat cost free side of the industry, and my comments are by that fact likely to be skewed a bit toward the tail user and not the enterprise user. But with my frequent access to Omniture, Webtrends and CoreMetrics – I unfortunately have to conclude that the enterprise vendors are not necessarily that much better. I will leave the paid for vendor commentary for another post.

Before we move forward, I am of course forced to conclude, exactly how I define a Dashboard. And for that I actually believe that we can use any of the more reputable definitions out there. I am personally a fan of the clarity provided by Stephen Few, in his definition, as provided in his 2004 book on Dashboards.

A dashboard is a visual display of the most important information needed to achieve one or more objectives; consolidated and arranged on a single screen so the information can be monitored at a glance.

With that definition in mind, a general understanding of how to visualize quantitative information, and finally a look at the below screenshots of the Dashboard of Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! – we can partly conclude that:

1. Unique Dashboard
A dashboard is unique from company to company and from function to function and it is acceptable to have different dashboards for different objectives. That said, providing me with fixed preset dashboards is rarely of much value beyond making the tool look good. Glitter! The dashboard should, if we are aggressive thinking, be delivered blank, forcing the user to set it up.

  • Random Dashboard – Google
  • Random Dashboard – Microsoft
  • Blank Dashboard – Yahoo!

Being completely fair though, at the tail-end of the market a preset (random) dashboard to get started on, might not be that bad an idea, for support, education and other purposes. However, we have to agree that it is not a dashboard then, but just a report collage. It might turn into a Dashboard at some point.

2. Dashboard Data and Visualization
Whether we have a preferred blank dashboard or a preset one, the most important part is that we can do two things; choose WHICH data to visualize (including context) and HOW it should be visualized. And data should in a perfect scenario be any of the metrics or dimensions you collected.

Such as revenue from paid search, compared to revenue from email advertising for the last 30 days running, displayed as a trend graph. Looking at the tools today, Yahoo is the only tool who partly understood that request, and I know I am being unfair here, as IndexTools, pre-acquisition, used to cater to a different market.

You can apply gadgets to the Microsoft Dashboard and there is a similar element in Google, but not the two step freedom in customising every item on the Dashboard. It should noted that Yahoo actually limits the metrics and dimension dependant on the chosen visualization.

3. KPI Context and comparison
You have to make your Dashboard actionable (otherwise and according to our definition from above, it is NOT a dashboard) – and if you cannot compare data or generally put it in context, there is little idea in presenting the data to begin with. Of the three Dashboards, Google probably provides the best context right out of the box, by focusing on trend lines and by applying the very insightful Sparklines in front of KPI’s. Whereas Yahoo provides the user with the opportunity to compare data columns and also define what is success and what is failure. Such as visualizing a conversion rate for a given segment where you determine below 4% visit to sale conversion is bad – and you want that marked.

Look at the Microsoft Dashboard below and tell me if things are OK? – you cannot! It is pretty much empty for comparison and provides little to no context.

4. Data/Ink Ratio
Neither of the three succeeded in displaying the information on a single screen, and that even with me using a huge 1920*1200 pixel screen. What is most noticeable though, is that all of them spend a unmerited amount of space on information that is not about presenting data. This is fair space when navigating the reporting tool and performing your day to day analysis, but a sin when developing a dashboard.

Screen real-estate used for data presentation in the below screenshots – bigger percentage is better.

  • 54% – Google
  • 43% – Microsoft
  • 45% – Yahoo!

Essentially concluding that all the mentioned vendors waste half the potential data visualization space on items such as Vendor logo, Top menu, Left Menu and other navigational fluff. Yahoo could have increases the data/ink ratio and moved much closer to Google by deleting the somewhat useless drag and drop tip alone.

As a positive note, I would like to mention that Yahoo do allow users to remove the left menu, by clicking the hide button. It’s not default, but good thinking. It does not change the data/ink ratio as dashboard items are not resized to use the extra space though.

Finally, all of the vendors have an unnecessary tendency to clutter the dashboard items with Glitter. Some quick comments are; why the prominent borders? (1 point to Google for partly removing them), Why the dark headers? (1 point to Microsoft for not highlighting them), Why the dual data presentation (both visually and text wise).

Please have in mind that I in no way have tried to digest the actual information provided on the Dashboard, as in whether the right KPI’s that are presented OR whether the tool in question can track digest and segment that on the Dashboard.

AND the above is no complete list, far from, neither is it intended to be, but merely enough pointers, for you to agree with my conclusion.

Conclusion

Google, Microsoft and Yahoo Web Analytics Dashboards are, at worst, unfortunately just a report collage – and, at best, an aspiring opportunity for tail users to have an easy ascent towards true Dashboards. Yahoo is proving the best flexibility in what data to show and how to visualize it, but Google provides the best understanding of how to visually communicate quantitative data, where the Microsoft Dashboard lack both data flexibility and understanding of how to visualize it. Which leaves us with the question of whether Web Analytics tools to begin with, should even consider themselves Dashboard tools, or if they should comfortable acknowledge that they are meant for report collages.

I am however, personally, confident that we are moving in the right direction and that more true dashboards will evolve over time. Disclaimer: If you are not aware by now, by reading this blog, I am the Director of Data Insights at Yahoo! and working directly with the IndexTools programme.

Cheers :-)
Dennis

N.B.
YOUR book fame (a.k.a. contribution) opportunity starts here. I am dedicating a whole appendix and separate insert in my Yahoo! Web Analytics book to Dashboard’s and am very keen to include any dashboards, good and bad, that you would suggest for this section. Feel free to contact or connect with me and share some success or horror stories in the form of screenshots you believe need to be retold to a wider audience.

Appendix:

A: Google Analytics Dashboard screenshot

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B: Microsoft AdCenter Analytics Dashboard screenshot

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c: Yahoo! Web Analytics Dashboard (IndexTools) screenshot

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D: An almost perfect Dashboard
– (using Microsoft Excel and BonaVista MicroCharts)

Find a few links on the dashboard subject that I personally think are worth your time, should the subject be of your interest.

  • http://www.morevisibility.com Joe Teixeira

    Great Post Dennis – I am very excited for the public release of IndexTools from Yahoo. Hopefully this will come out sooner rather than later :)

    I’d like to make a comment if I could on your “Almost Perfect” dashboard image. I understand that each person given a task to “design your dashboard” would probably come up with something totally different from one another. For me personally, that is a lot more data and info than I expected to see in a Dashboard. Perhaps I have been “watered down” by the GA and MA dashboards, but in reviewing Stephen Few’s very excellent definition of a Dashboard:

    “A dashboard is a visual display of the most important information needed to achieve one or more objectives; consolidated and arranged on a single screen so the information can be monitored at a glance.”

    …I think that your dashboard is…well… Almost Perfect! For me personally, it meets all of the criteria of Stephen Few’s definition, and it is a very good dashboard, except for the very last part: “…monitored at a glance”. It took me much more than a glance to really digest all of that. This is something that I like about the GA Dashboard (post-customization) – I really can quickly glance at it and in literally 2 seconds I can, at some level, consume the “most important information needed…”. Then if I want to (or have the time to!), I can dig in deeper and really consume data and try to obtain some kind of insight(s) at my choice, versus having a lot of data served up to me. I think that sometimes it’s good to start out by “reading the headlines”, instead of getting the whole story or most of the story right away.

    Would like to hear your feedback about that if possible. Thank you!

  • http://visualrevenue.com/blog Dennis R. Mortensen

    Hey Joe,

    First Thanks.

    And you know what? the “almost perfect Dashboard” (perhaps you and I should trademark that) does indeed have a minor flaw, which is exactly what you noticed – it is just slightly cluttered and might miss one or two bigger conclusions drawn out from the rest. This is of course an element that we try solving through the 6 red markers.

    Your GA use, as described, is essentially what one would hope for, when debating Dashboards.

    Cheers… and watch this space for launch info my friend :-)
    Dennis

  • http://www.foviance.com Sean Burton

    Hi Dennis,

    Hope life a Yahoo! is treating you well – certainly seems to be keeping you busy!

    Great post (as always). I’m also a fan of Stephen Few, and the completely agree with the above post that often less is more – dashboards have a tendency towards organic growth over time. True dashboards requires ruthless management to ensure that they are highly focused and quickly actionable. In my opinion a good test of an online dashboard, is to put it on your screen and walk about 10 paces away from your desk. Can you tell from a distance what the dashboard is telling you? If not, then it’s back to the drawing board.

    Colour coding can be extremely helpful, but often red is used to signal trouble. This is fine in principal but its worth noting that ~6% of the male population suffer from red/green colour blindness!

    That said, we do use red/green, along with other colours, to indicate comparative states but also include arrows and shading (e.g.: http://www.webabacus.com/images/screenshots/summary.png).

    The ‘perfect dashboard’, as shown in appendix D, highlights only significant problems using a red blub which makes scanning very easy, and allows for increased data to be displayed.

    Cheers,
    Sean.

  • http://www.theartofwebanalytics.com/ Christian Vermehren

    Hi Dennis,

    I very much like “report collage” as a horror-term for what you shouldn’t do!! You are completely right: We, the web analytics vendors, have done a lousy job conveying the real benefits of a dashboard as an alternative to traditional reports. All relevant information MUST be fitted into a single screen, as Stephen Few says. The beauty is that with micro-charts such as Sparklines, this actually becomes possible.

    Nice work, and thanks also for referring to my post on Designing Web Analytics Dashboards :-)

  • http://visualrevenue.com/blog Dennis R. Mortensen

    Hej Christian (..and where in Denmark are you located, feel free to throw me an email)

    Thanks for commenting. And I DO like the newly invented term “report collage” and it goes very well in hand with another sin, that I call report surfing.

    Cheers
    Dennis

  • http://visualrevenue.com/blog Dennis R. Mortensen

    Hey Sean,

    Great input! I really like your “walk about 10 paces away from your desk” comment :-)

    And you are absolutely correct that color in general is so often misused in Dashboards, and that typically starting with not taking color-blindness into consideration. I personally suggest one use hues instead or as you suggest incorporate a symbol in to the coloring.

    Everybody, go click on Sean’s link to see a very different (compared to the above three) interpretation of Dashboards in Web Analytics Tools.

    YES! – Yahoo is indeed keeping me busy :-)

    N.B.
    if you send me a high-res picture and a set of comments for the Dashboard Sean, I can add it to the pool of screen-shots considered for the Book.

    Cheers
    Dennis

  • http://www.xuru.com Jeremy Luebke

    So are we going to see some info on how to export or integrate IndexTools data into Microsoft Excel and BonaVista MicroCharts?

  • http://visualrevenue.com/blog Dennis R. Mortensen

    Hi Jeremy,

    If it wasn’t for the Book project, you would see a whole lot more posts from me. But in regards to Excel, I actually did play around with its XML support and the IndexTools XML web services API. You are likely to see more about that later.

    Cheers :-)
    Dennis

  • http://www.webanalyticsbook.com Sebastian

    I think the “almost perfect dashboard” is something were Yahoo Analytics should place themselves.
    A high-end solution with reportbuilder. made for everybody.

    MS Analytics made a major mistake by placing themselves to close to Google Analytics, instead of coming up with their own interpretation. Demographics data is nice, but just isn’t something that makes people switch their Analytics provider.

    Cannot wait for the launch either!

  • http://visualrevenue.com/blog Dennis R. Mortensen

    Hey Sebastian,

    It will take some time before we (The WA vendors) move closer to the “Almost Perfect Dashboard” – BUT I am working it! Hard! :-)

    Cheers… and if you are at WAW tonight, do come up and say hi.
    Dennis :-)

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