nate silver and the rise of analytics: what it means to you.

As the election drew near, many political and stats junkies (like me) became fans of Nate Silver, aka @fivethirtyeight, the shrewd political number-cruncher and blogger for the New York Times. His way of aggregating the most reliable presidential polls into megapolls, and factoring in those polls’ historical accuracies, was considered by some to be as revolutionary as the introduction of “Moneyball” — or use of undervalued stats — on baseball.

Like anyone who develops a following, Silver soon drew his shares of detractors. Newsmen, pundits and politicians alike scoffed at his methodology, and Silver tended to respond quite intelligently with an unrivaled grasp of statistics. Even as the news networks hyped the election as anyone’s game last week, Silver said his estimations “represent powerful evidence against the idea that the race is a ‘tossup.’ A tossup race isn’t likely to produce 19 leads for one candidate and one for the other —  any more than a fair coin is likely to come up heads 19 times and tails just once in 20 tosses.” And, yes, unless Florida reverses course, he will have called 50 of 50 states correctly. That he even triggered the briefly popular Is Nate Silver A Witch? website tells something about his crossover success.

But let’s forget politics for a moment (please!); what’s impressive here is the rise of analytics writ large. Silver succeeded by keen understanding of statistics, willingness to discard dubious assumptions and eagerness to innovate. In higher education, we always talk about working smarter not harder and trying innovative things … then everyone rushes to “best practices” and well-plowed ground and research (like that on “Millennials”) based on questionable assumptions.

It all starts with data. Working with the web and social media avails us to a wealth of analytics and metrics via Google and other methods. But as Silver cautions, it’s about looking for the right data, not necessarily the most obvious or easiest. Avinash Kaushik, perhaps one of the top experts in web analytics, jokes that “hits” is short for “how idiots track success” … i.e. the number of visits to your website tells you only surface information. Instead, he says, look at things like bounce rates (how many people visit one page and immediately leave), average number of pages per visit and what paths and tasks users complete while on your site.

Google’s In-Page Analytics (seen above) is one of my favorite tools for seeing where visitors go after hitting a page. Those orange tags are click-through percentages, which you can roll over for numbers. I look at our home page using this tool very frequently to see what is and isn’t working, and regularly check other key pages. It’s interesting to see that sometimes switching out a picture or changing wording can have an impact on click rates. Among the most basic tips:

  • Pics of students work better than anything else. (Except maybe sunsets, but that’s a whole other story.)
  • Pics of logos and/or clip art are virtually useless. The only logo anyone ever clicks is the Oswego logo at the top left to get back to the home page.
  • Don’t overpromise or mislead with link names. I’ve seen pages where users think they are getting one thing because of a page name, only to realize the info they seek is not there. In cases like these, a user is more likely to leave our site entirely than go back. (We’ve seen this fixed by merely changing a link or page name.)
  • If your page has an embedded video but a very low average time on page, it’s pretty clear that video isn’t getting watched much. You can correlate with YouTube views — there’s a chance they’re watching it on YouTube — but you can often spot a dog quickly. This also ties into our data that shows videos about students and/or made by students tend to do much better than any other videos.

Another great Google Analytics feature is event tracking, which lets you see microtrends. With our new megadropdown headers and Popular Links, developer Rick Buck inserted a Google event tracking code to get a finer picture of who clicks where. The Academics part of the header rules, as it does in breakout tracking. This underscores our longtime push that good academic content and information architecture remain key to a college website’s success.

In addition to looking small, we look big. We recently completed our third month of compiling, filing and sharing a monthly web and social media analytics report, which has provided clues into what works and what doesn’t. We will learn even more as we add and hone various measurements and see trends in longer spans of data.

On a related note, you should also look long-term and not be so hasty that you change things too quickly. Silver’s data worked because he had large sample sizes. You need to track a page for at least a month (maybe more) to ensure you have a good enough sample size to judge user activity. A day or two is too small a sample size to glean a full picture.

Some colleges are showing a need and desire to invest in data. Ithaca College, for example, recently hired Colleen Clark as a full-time marketing analyst, and Colleen describes what that entails in this interview with Karine Joly of Higher Ed Experts. Not all colleges are in a position to hire full-time web analysts, but institutions should ensure that at least one (probably more) people in their organization have enough training, knowledge and — importantly — time to look at stats and trends.

Because as Nate Silver showed with this election, relying on conventional wisdom and erratic statistics get you results that are only as good as their flawed data. The more data you have, the better you understand it, the more effectively you implement what it shows, the higher the chances you can start achieving some real wins … whatever you do.

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26 Comments

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26 responses to “nate silver and the rise of analytics: what it means to you.

  1. Great post, Tim, and great to see that Nate Silver’s work is giving more attention to the importance of data analysis. If you want to dive deeper into this subject, I suggest you read Ian Ayres’ 2007 book, Super Crunchers: Why Thinking-By-Numbers Is the New Way to Be Smart. I posted a mini-review of Ayres’ book a while back, if you’re interested in more.

    One big lesson about big data is that any of us who profess to be experts in any subject based on our experience or intuitive knowledge of a field don’t fare too well in the man-vs-machine competition. We would be wise to embrace data-driven techniques in all aspects of our work.

  2. I love Nate the great! I’ve been reading 538 since 2008 when he predicted Obama and 49 out of 50 states four years ago. Of course depending on when they finalize Florida he might actually hit 50/50 this year. :)

  3. I wondered, as I was reading this, if more and more people start using more and more sophisticated data models to create the right conditions to enhance their popularity/utility/whatever-the-end-goal-is, won’t this rapidly become self-defeating?

    Likewise, Silver’s skill with statistics is formidable, and replicable, no doubt; but had say, voter suppression been achieved at high levels, polling might then have been accurate, but redundant.

    If everyone is achieving “wins”, then don’t we just raise the bar of mediocrity, rather than spreading success?

    Just wondering…

  4. In my last job (communications/PR), there was one person on whom every other staff member — lobbyists chiefly — relied. Not the CEO, not even the IT manager. It was our economist. In retrospect, I’m surprised he was ever permitted vacation days — he was absolutely essential to our effective functioning.

  5. Great post Nate. I saw you on the Colbert Report and the Daily Show, which led me to this site.

  6. Reblogged this on "Scattershooting" and commented:
    This approach and the success of Silver reminds me of 1982 when I worked in the Bill Clements campaign and saw a young wonder-analytic-kind Karl Rove WOW everyone.

  7. A mathematician friend of mine said ‘I trust Silver’s predictions’. He was right. It is, of course, entirely math – proper technical analysis of decent samples.

    And in today’s world of overwhelming data – in this computerised age of Web 2 and Google and numbers and numerisation and figures and everything else, we need that sort of analysis. It tells us practical, real things.

    It’s good to be a geek. We won.

  8. We need people like this in every field.

  9. Great post, Tim. And congrats on the FP! I’m a big fan of Nate Silver. Saw him on the Colbert Report in 2008 and was way impressed with his ability to analyze and crunch numbers. And he was totally accurate in 08 as he was in this year’s election. He just has more notoriety this time around. This year, he was pretty much right-on, except for the misfire in the senatorial race in North Dakota as was pointed out by Jon Stewart earlier this week. His work is a reminder of Statistics 101. And you’re right, the more data, the more accurate the prediction. Silver has just figured out how to work with multiple polls in the most effective way.

  10. I found it entertaining how the other polling organizations were handily blowing him off. Probably not the best response for a business due to the fact that businesses need to constantly adapt to survive.

    I wonder if human nature got to Nate like it did with me when the early returns started coming in. I am sure he just saw it as the plot changes in a book that fit into a bigger story.

    Great post!

  11. Reblogged this on Lloyd Lofthouse and commented:
    Nate Silver cautions, it’s about looking for the right data, not necessarily the most obvious or easiest.

    Yes, I agree with Silver.

  12. Thank you for this, Tim. After reading this post, I discovered that I may also be a stats junkie. For decades, before I would allow myself to form an opinion that sticks, I look for studies and statistics to see if my thinking is a leaky bucket.

    However, besides using stats to see what readers are reading, we have to find the readers. Correct me if I’m wrong but there are maybe three ways to attract readers to a site where he or she decides to stay or leaver and never return.

    1. word of mouth
    2. high search engine rank
    3. daily social networking by leaving intelligent tracks on other forums and Blogs

    Although I have not used stats as you do to track what works and what doesn’t work to attract readers and keep them on site, I have worked hard to build a high search engine rank for all of my Blogs and to do this I learned that a site has to score well when a search engine spider crawls the web searching for sites that fit a Google search, for example. That Google spider, depending on the algorithm that ranks elements found on a site, will decide if a site is on the first page of a search or # ten million of ten million hits that fit that topic.

    There are many elements that a spider looks for to rank a site, but, search engines such as Google, often changes the formula (the algorithm) causing sites to soar in rank or drop like the engine of a 747 that just fell off the aircraft at 30,000 feet.

    To insure a site against drastic changes in ranking, Bill Belew, who conducts workshops on how to gain high search engine ranking, says we should include as many elements as possible in each post that may include:

    1. photographs
    2. embedded videos (You Tube has billions of videos and it is easy to embed them) and that embedded video even if no one watches it is still an image, a photograph
    3. embedded internal and external links
    4. keep most posts short (250 – 450 words at most)
    5. if a post is long, serialize it by breaking the text up into smaller reading bites, and link all the parts together in a series

    In addition, I check WordPress’s site stats for “Top Posts & Pages”, “Summaries”, for “All Time” to discover the most popular posts other than the Home page and just now, as I checked, I discover that the last popular post on my China Blog was Chocolate Tofu Pie Recipe with only 61 visits while one titled “More Than Money” has 6,085 visits. Total views for that Blog is 325,906 (t 8:14 AM on November 10, 2012) with an Alexa Global Traffic Rank of 327,846 in addition to 245 Sites Linked In. The traffic rank in the US is 59,487.

    From Alexa, I just learned that the top search queries for China was “Chinese mother statistics” so maybe I should write a post about Chinese mothers and add some stats.

    However, I couldn’t seem to find the bounce rate for that Blog at Alexa or from the WordPress’s stats page. I guess that’s why Google Analytics is important but I have had trouble adding it to my WordPress Blog. I’ve tried twice and it never appears.

  13. Nice post, it was intelligent and clever :P

  14. Thought provoking for sure…great post and congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  15. ryanrussell3330

    Oh grande and largely underappreciated information theory

  16. Reblogged this on Facts & Other Fairy Tales and commented:
    This isn’t just about politics — this is about rational decision making. Kind of like they had the ability to make the 6 million dollar man, we now have better insights into decision-making. If only people, organizations, and governments would start to value intellectualism again! But selling intellectualism in industry is sometimes hard because “academics” don’t understand the real world. Selling intellectualism to the masses is viewed as some kind of liberal conspiracy. Selling intellectualism to the government…well, it’s a bureaucracy — it doesn’t like logic.

    In the end, it’s time to embrace the reality — we need smart people to run the country. Not everyone’s smart. Not everyone is good at decision-making. It’s now time to critically evaluate our relative skills and attributes!

  17. Pingback: Nate Silver, Winning Elections and Planned Obsolescence – Part 1/2 | Lloyd Lofthouse

  18. 50/50, I need to take this guy to the sportsbook with me ;)

  19. Pingback: nate silver and the rise of analytics: what it means to you. | InsideTimsHead | digger666

  20. I left an earlier comment, and I did not think of my father at the time. My father was a high school drop out. He was 14 when the Great Depression hit and he had no choice. To eat, he had to find work. His first job introduced him to horse racing. He worked at Santa Anita Race Track in Southern California mucking out horse stalls.

    That led to a lifetime love of horse racing. As a child and teen, I still remember my dad and his friends staying up to 2 or 3 AM going over the Racing Form looking at the statistics for each horse that was scheduled to race the next day.

    As a teen, my father developed a gut instinct for picking horses but many of them lost the races they ran in. But he was literate and smart so he studied everything he could get his hands on about picking winners and he bought a binder off a handicapper, who was a college graduate in economics, that also had a love of horse racing. Later came the hand-held computer that he fed the statistics into that are easily found in the Racing Form. He started to win more than he lost. Once, using that hand-held computer, the knowledge he learned from the economist and the stats on each horse in the Racing Form, he picked eight winners in eight races on the same day. When he died, my mother lived off his winnings for more than a year.

    I still have the books and that decades old hand-held computer that taught him how to handicap horse races similar to how Nate Silver predicts the outcomes in elections.

  21. Reblogged this on MetaRead360 Small Press presents and commented:
    NOTE: It’s getting ever-easier to measure the pulse of the consumer in near-real-time.

  22. Flashcom Indonesia

    Nice post… :)

  23. I started following the 538 blog while trying to calm down from election rhetoric overload. Nate’s predictions (…math rules…) were the true winners on Nov. 6th. In appreciation, I painted “Silver, lining” suzannebortgray.blogspot.com

  24. Pingback: Friday Five: 1,000 posts and advice to a #highered newbie « Higher Ed Marketing

  25. Pingback: boat-sailing breaking seas an overweight middle aged computer nerd buys his first boat quits his job and sails off to adventure

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