The Paths Report Obsession


Our favorite topic is data quality, but no amount of quality data can ever be enough for some cringeworthy analytics requests!

It's almost 2020, ya'll... and this oldie but goodie is just as common as it was back in the early 2000s. We're talking, of course, about the "Top Paths" report and its various assumed powers of AI-driven, machine learning-infused, blockchain-anvilled, Tufty-blessed, visual wizardry!

Among many fabled powers, pathing reports have been said to provide "valuable insight into [visitors'] interests and behaviors," help analysts understand "which content, features, and other data most often compel [...] visitors to move through [the] site," and even inform if a "website’s navigation [is] correctly structured" -- as opposed to incorrectly, which would be bad. 

These types of reports have many good uses, especially in the context of troubleshooting data quality issues. But rarely are they suited for the type of audience in front of which the complex (and rather messy) visuals are trotted out. As a result, the unfortunate truth is that the request to "get an understanding of the most common paths" is a vague cliché of a novel that cannot possibly end well.

If your reaction when you hear the request looks something like this:


...perhaps you will find the collection of thoughts various analytics professionals have shared on the topic enjoyable:


Avinash Kaushik questioning if spending time on path reports is justified:

Avinash goes over various challenges associated with the usability of path reports in a blog post dedicated to the topic. The post mostly focuses on pathing in WebTrends, but many of the challenges apply to other vendor implementations as well. The conclusion:

All of the above combine to make it quite sub optimal to glean any actionable insights that will lead to making our websites more endearing to our customers.


Simo Ahava and Jethro Nederhof on the shortcomings of paths/flows and a proposal:

In a detailed blog post Simo and Jethro discuss the challenges with trying to represent non-linear tabbed browsing with linear visualizations, the limitations of built-in referrer reporting in GA, the mixing of page view and event-based tracking HTTP requests, leading to the following summation:


...the reports are quite difficult to interpret, as they sometimes show sequences that you are certain shouldn’t be possible, lack necessary detail, and they don’t really give you a robust way to query the information or to build a proper flow report yourself.

They also propose an innovative way of using the PerformanceNavigation API and Browser Storage to create custom dimensions capturing navigation type, tab opens, etc.


Jim Gordon's take:


A sketch on pathing by the DAPH crew:

Excerpt from a full podcast transcription you can find on The exchange on pathing (as well as the whole podcast) is pure gold!


28:45 MH: Alright, the show is going great so far but we need to talk about one of our sponsors here in the multi-touch moment. Hey Josh, you know how there’s certain business questions that seem to crop up over and over again and on and on it goes? It’s just a well-beaten path, if you know what I’m saying. And that question is, what are the top paths on our website? You know how your colleagues are always asking that?

29:08 Josh: Yeah, I usually just fake an illness when I get that one.

29:12 MH: Yeah. Well, good news. It’s now easier than ever to find the answer to this timeless time suck of a question with the new top paths add-on for GA. So, it’s gonna parse through your user data, and surface the top paths browsing your website. Don’t worry about Markov chains anymore, Mark of Buttzville New Jersey is our top osteopath on the site this week. Or forget about path tracing. Tracy of Greasy Corner, Arizona was the top naturopath on the site yesterday.

29:44 Josh: Man, forget the CCPA. Stephanie Gray is the top sociopath on our site this week.


29:51 MH: Sociopath, exactly. I mean, it’s just time to just sort of know. If you need to find an allopath or a telepath or a homeopath.

30:03 Josh: Even a pathological liar.

30:05 MH: Exactly, it’s never been easier to befuddle your stakeholders with useless path information. So take the happy path and install our new add-on today.


Evan LaPointe delivers a verdict:

Would love to get your take as well!

Rumor has it that the Path report and the Pages report got together and begot an offspring - they named it The Content Journey. Be on the look-out and if you spot it, send us a note at!

Tags: Data Quality Humor

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