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Analytics implementation super hero: look for more than shiny clothes

I was discussing about the skills required in digital analytics with David Iwanow, consultant at amnesia Razorfish in Australia. David, being on the marketing & business side of things, he inquired about ways to filter candidates for a very technical position of implementation specialist for Google Analytics.

Here’s how I would do it if I wanted a really good Google Analytics implementation specialist.

There are two schools of thought: Joe Hall at Marketing Pilgrim says “Don’t Waste Your Time Learning To Code” while Michael Jaconi explains “Why one company is making all its employees learn how to code” at VentureBeat. See my take at the end!

Anyone can pretend to be a hero

While vendors claim you can easily copy & paste of a couple of JavaScript lines on every page, anyone who has done advanced implementations knows this is false. Can anybody create a free Google Analytics account and copy the classic tracking code – after all, understanding HTML and basic Javascipt is easy, right? Or is it? Really?

Either you get it… or you don’t

We are not seeking the usual junior or occasional developer – we are seeking a real super hero who gets it; someone who fully masters the ins & outs of JavaScript and already have a certain level of Google Analytics implementation experience. The following can serve as an example for those on the technical side who wonders if they have what it takes!

Step 0: Here, we take for granted the usual HR filtering has been done and there is a good personality and cultural fit, soft skills such as listening abilities, problem solving, and communication have been validated. We are going deep on the technical side.

Step 1: A real super hero is always ready to jump straight into action. When seeking a very good implementation specialist, look for web development skills along the lines of:

  • JavaScript programming;
  • Knowledge of DOM (Document Object Model), jQuery or other libraries;
  • Adobe Flash/Flex programming – as appropriate;

More specifically, we want to test knowledge of how Google Analytics tags work. Ask the candidate to explain what this code does:

<script type="text/javascript">
var _gaq = _gaq || [];
_gaq.push(['_setAccount', 'UA-9999999-1']);
_gaq.push(['_trackPageview']);


(function() {
var ga = document.createElement('script'); ga.type = 'text/javascript'; ga.async = true;
ga.src = ('https:' == document.location.protocol ? 'https://ssl' : 'http://www') + '.google-analytics.com/ga.js';
var s = document.getElementsByTagName('script')[0]; s.parentNode.insertBefore(ga, s);
})();
</script>

This should cover:

  • Understanding of GA basic call structure:
    • What is an account and a web property (the UA)? You want someone who don’t blindly put tags on a page – but also understand how this code will impact the tool.
    • How the page is going to be tracked? This is also a good opportunity to ask about other types of Google Analytics calls like events, social, custom variables, cross domain, etc.
  • Understanding what is _gaq
    • What is _gaq? This should cover JavaScript concepts such as FIFO (First-in/First-out) array where we push() Google Analytics calls;
    • Is there a way to do a single _gaq.push() instead of two? (hint: yes!)
  • Understanding Google Analytics async concept:
    • What does it implies in terms of performance impact? Does it matter if the code is at the top or bottom of the page?
    • Why is there http & https in there?
    • What does the createElement, getElementsByTagName and insertBefore do here? Those are all standard DOM (Document Object Model) JavaScript calls.

Step 2: Is your pretending hero still with you or ran away screaming? The 2nd test level is more holistic and will stump all but those who really have the right profile. Ideally, you want to give them a specific page that includes jQuery but no GA tags. Ask them a) what they would track and b) how they would do it (the actual code).

The page elements you want to cover might be:

  • Page tracking: What is the GA call to do page tracking? (Covered from Step 1 above)
  • Social interactions: How are social media interactions being tracked? You can put addThis, shareThis or similar on your test page.
  • Cross domain & outbound links: Include a checkout link to a shopping cart hosted on another domain (should identify cross domain issues) or at least a link to a 3rd party shopping cart like Paypal which should be tracked as an outbound link virtual page view or event.
  • Internal promotions: You could also specify there’s click on an internal promo-banner you want to track (an event).
  • Events and custom variables: You want to track user logins – a simple page view on the logged in page, an onclick event on the “login” button or link, something else?

Limit the time to about 30 minutes, but allow them to use the web and if you can, record the session. Alternatively, simply discuss those points and see how the candidate is able to answer.

Step 3: Other discussion points might involve the following – they are aimed at having an open discussion and evaluate the candidate ability to communicate effectively, do problem solving and ultimately, admit what they know… or don’t know:

  • Even if you don’t have a fully working ecommerce demo with a “thank you” page, ask the candidate about what should be tracked from an ecommerce perspective and conversely, the challenge of tracking 3rd party ecommerce conversions (Paypal or others).
  • How does internal promo differs from tracking inbound campaigns? Is it good to use regular campaign parameters for internal promotions? (hint: no! this will screw up your campaigns data!)
  • Suggest using the login username (suppose it’s an email) and storing it in a custom variable. Ideally, the candidate should have already mentioned the possibility of storing the user id in a custom variable for back-office integration. It’s a good opportunity to touch on privacy – the candidate should clearly explain why storing the email in a custom var would be bad (hint: compliancy to GA TOS, DAA code of ethic, and overall bad practice!)
  • Ask something that is impossible and see how the person react. Here’s my story:
    Several years ago, during an interview I was asked how to find the missing ball from a Bingo cage. I don’t think there are many ways… retrieve balls one by one, sort them, and you get the missing one. Right? Do you see any other ways? I didn’t… until*…

All super hero stories have a moral

You don’t want a robot spitting out fancy JavaScript code from the darkest corner of the office.

Human skills trump any technical ones.

Ultimately:

  • look how the candidate reacts to more difficult questions or things he/she doesn’t know;
  • the candidate should ask questions and not take everything for granted – look for communication skills;
  • be aware of problem solving skills – a good developer is a problem solver, someone who is creative enough to find solutions and not merely use Google to search canned answers, such as I highlighted in “Undermining our future as web analysts”.

My take: should everyone be a coder?

I get the nerve when I hear non-technical people underestimating the true skills required to do proper analytics implementations. Too often, I see sites that have been tagged by people who lacked understanding of advanced implementation techniques, unknowingly putting the organization at risk of taking disastrous decisions based on bad data.

Marketers can learn HTML and basic JavaScript relatively easily – just as developers can develop their marketing skills. However, I don’t believe you can easily master both ends of the spectrum. Knowing a little can make more harm than good – if it’s to ease communication, I’m all for it – if it is to pretend being able to make one’s job – I think it’s a recipe for disaster.

* Facing the insistence of my interviewer, it suddenly struck me: “well… I’ll ask the person who took the ball!”

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  • http://www.adrianspeyer.com Adrian

    Great points Stephane. I agree it takes more skills then most people think for implementation. That’s why an organization really needs to know what kind of web analytics analyst it needs. An interesting take on this was in this recent article http://www.optimizationtoday.com/web-analytics/3-roles-in-web-analytics/

    • Stephane Hamel

      There are many ways to look at the analyst role. Just think of what happened to the so called “webmaster”! Where we had a Jack of all trades knowing tech, copywriting, design, server admin, marketing, and so on… there is now a whole bunch of people specialized in those areas (and many more!).

      I think the same is bound to happen with web analysts – some will become implementation super heroes while others will be Reporting Super Squirrels, others will be Ninja Analysts, and of course we will need the Strategic Monk sharing his great wisdom with management, and so on… (boy do I hate this terminology of ninjas, squirrels, monkeys, squirrels!)

      • Pally

        Hi Stephane,  Could you suggest few good sources to learn about GATC concepts of implementation in depth, other than the usual GA sources?? 

        • http://twitter.com/SHamelCP Stephane Hamel

          Of course you will find plenty of info on the Cardinal Path blog. Justin Cutroni – who used to work for us but is now working for Google, also as a pretty good blog at 
          http://cutroni.com/blog/.

          There are plenty of other resources – but be careful because some info is either outdated or just plain wrong!

  • http://jacksonlo.com Jackson Lo

    Great post Stephane!

    I like the glassdoor interview questions. I reminds me of this post on Mashable where employers like Google and Facebook examines how their candidates react to unfamiliar situations on the spot - http://mashable.com/2011/12/27/glassdoor-interview-questions-2011/

    • Stephane Hamel

      Thanks for sharing that link – I like those! During the same interview I was asked how many gas stations there were on the island of Montreal. I was also asked where I would put a city if I was a explorer to the new world… I jumped right in, explaining in details what I would do. The person interviewing me was stomped! “What? I played SimCity!” :)

  • http://twitter.com/jfmonfette JF Monfette

    Very interesting post Stephane ! Personally, as an analyst, I think it’s good to know coding up to a certain level, but also to know where my limitations are and hire external help for this. I also think that since many people are looking for the same hacks over and over again on GA, they should make it easier to define what you want to do and provide the right code for it, or integrate it directly in GA. For exemple, the GaAddons tool that you made to autotag external links and downloads is such a time saver that would benefit so many users if it was standard in GA.

    • Stephane Hamel

      You raise a good point JF – all vendors should make it a lot easier to tag common “patterns” (such as downloads, external links, forms, etc.). Can you believe that when I worked on http://gaAddons.com , some agencies told me that on one hand, they liked what I did because I made their life easier (they didn’t have/couldn’t find the right skills), on the other they were complaining I was making implementation to easy so they would not be able to charge more bucks to their client! Couldn’t believe it!

  • Martin

    Hello Stephane,

    As a digital marketer I have always won trust from web developer after right clicking on their page and try to read if simple stuff adds up. Then they do the talking and I listen to learn more.

    Interviews are tricky in web analytics because it’s like languages: it’s not because you are a fluent speaker that others understand what you are trying to say! Throw them in the water by meeting the CMO, CFO and why not CEO because if they don’t buy the packaging forget what’s coming out of the box later!

    In my career I was often side tracked by questions from people who had no clue what marketing buzz words meant in a business strategy and what saved me 99% of the time was that I at least knew some of their jargon from the Dark Side (sales, operations and IT).
    Once I read a book about Trusted Advisors in a sales operation and gave it to the Sales Director. He made a 2 year training program out of it for his sales team.

    Conclusion: an all rounded web analyst knows his or her stuff you mentioned already. Then they must master the skills of talking to other business decision makers in plain English. Once I met a web analyst who had not spoken to Marketing in two years and wondered why they kept by-passing him for reports.

    Wishing you nothing but success

    Martin

    • Stephane Hamel

      Totally agree – technical skills are great, but at the end of the day, you want someone who will be truly engaged toward the goals of the company and understand how their contribution fit in the grand scheme of things. In my post, I was “assuming” the typical HR process is correctly handled – which includes cultural fit with the business and proper communication abilities with the stakeholders (colleagues, marketing, CMO, CXO, etc.)

  • http://thecakescraps.com TheCakeScraps

    They way I like to tackle a new implementation is to give a framework for the developer to follow and then collaborate with them to make improvements.  Implementing is one thing, but implementing in a way that will make it easy to answer the business questions is a much more difficult skill-set to master.  As the lead analyst, I’m in the best position to know how I’m going to want to look at the data.  I don’t really think that should fall on the developer’s shoulders (although it is great if they are committed and have an interest in it!).

    Having been in the trenches of analysis for 4 years, I’m going to be getting my MBA at Cornell with the goal enhancing my understanding the business value digital analytics needs to provide to get the budget allocation it deserves. Taking the holistic approach of understanding the business goal, the analysis approach, and the implementation process is really what people need to focus on to be a super hero!

  • Alexandre

    Hi,

    Is it still an issue to track internal campaign with UTM parameters with the new Attribution Model feature from GA ?


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