What to pay attention to when implementing web analytics in Google Sheets

In response to this question on Quora

I find that many early stage companies are using Google Sheets to track their customers, perform growth and retention reports, and much more. If you're used to using a sophisticated data pipeline, this may be a little bit shocking. However, I firmly believe it can be the right choice. It's fast to set up. You don't need to know how to code. Your excel skills are plenty.

In fact, in the pre-product-market-fit stage, you can make the argument it's irresponsible to spend much time at all building a "real" analytics system.

And, depending on your use case, this system could last you quite awhile. If you’re successful and grow, you’ll eventually have to implement a slightly more sophisticated stack. I’ve used both approaches numerous times!

I have a couple of suggestions for those using Google Sheets this way:

  1. Put the cleaned, reconciled, consolidated data into a database before exporting it to a Google Sheet. This isn’t for today — it’s for tomorrow when you ask / hire a developer to build out something more sophisticated, if you ever need it.
  2. Keep the data as clean as you can. Use a consistent format for things like dates, and store them at the highest granularity you can. For example, don't mix 1/12 and 1/12/2017 and Jan 12th in the same column. Make them all /12/2017, or better yet 01/12/2017 (note the leading zero). Format the whole column and forget about it. You can always extract things like day of week, year, etc into other columns if necessary using formulas.
  3. Include a unique identifier for each row. If you export from a database, you can just use the primary key. Same reasoning — it makes later technical work much simpler.
  4. Practice separation of concerns. More sheets in the workbook isn't a bad thing - it can ensure that if/when you do need to put that data into a database, you can do it in an iterative fashion.
  5. When you eventually build your fancy analytics system, you will need to sanity check the new system with the existing google sheet. Keep the data around. Don't delete it -- just hide it from users who may need their habits changed.

Google Sheets and Excel can take you quite far in your analytics. Don't assume you need a sophisticated solution right away.

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