David Housman

The Relative Truth About Absolute Numbers


Remember that game at the county fair, where you had to guess the number of marbles in a jar?

When the marble jar game was over, someone reads out the number of marbles… And that’s it. There is no learning. There is no insight. A marble jar is not actionable. The only thing you get from the marble jar is one of Aunt Bea’s famous pies, if you are lucky.

Absolute numbers don’t do much. Let’s say your site got 400,000 visits last week. What does that tell you? Should you be celebrating or looking for a new job?

An absolute number is like perceiving the world at face value. When my stakeholders ask me questions, they want more than a guess, and they need more than yes/no feedback. They have a lot more on the line than delicious cherry filling and a golden flaky crust.

I like relative numbers more than absolute numbers because they describe relationships. Relative numbers mean that the analyst has thought about the question he needs to answer. Also, good web analysts realize that the absolute numbers in their systems are meaningless due to data collection limitations. The only numbers that are helpful to web analysts are relative numbers. Absolute numbers are like clay: they have the potential to be something.

  • We had 400,000 visits and 800,000 page views last month.

Boooooooo. BOOOOOOOOO. If I was Roger Ebert, I’d give that two decomposing thumbs down. Then I would shuffle my rotting corpse across the room and eat your brains. Why? Because that is what you get for generating weak statistics. And because I wanted a snack. Hey, zombified film critics gotta eat too, right?

Interesting findings emerge when you start sculpting:

  • Time: We had 40,000 more visits this month than last month
  • Rates: We have 2 pages per visit on average.
  • Proportions: We had 1.2x as many visits as we had the previous month, and 40% growth YoY.

Want to see the forest from the trees? Burn the forest to the ground and analyze the ashes.

If you’re spending time looking at absolute numbers and mentally calculating the things you’re trying to absorb, you’re going to miss the big picture.

When I analyze, I do the math on spreadsheets so that the only thing I feed my brain is simple data points. I spend less time doing math and more time thinking about what the numbers mean. When you have taken this approach, you can take your data points and synthesize a work of art.

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