[Update 6/10/2019: Looker has been acquired by Google and Tableau has been acquired by Salesforce]
Someone asked this on quora so here’s my response: This is a great question — one that I figured it out when I led Analytics at Kiva[.]Org last year so I am happy to add my perspective here on Looker vs Tableau:
Let’s talk about capabilities first and then price.
Capabilities — Looker vs Tableau
Even though both of these tools are classified under Business Intelligence, they have some pretty clear product differentiation so in this section, I will share that. I will share the three main components of Business Intelligence platforms and then map it back to core strengths of each product.
Business Intelligence platforms typically has three main components:
- Data Collection, Storage & Access
- Data Modeling
- Data Visualization
#1) Data Collection, Storage & Access: Both of these tools don’t do data collection & storage. You will need infrastructure to collect data and store it — typically it is stored in databases. And you can access data from databases using SQL. You will need to connect to these data sources from either of these tools and access data — Note that: On the surface, it might look like Tableau supports more data sources than Looker but there might be workaround to get your data into one of the data sources supported by Looker and take it from there and so I am not awarding extra points to Tableau for this. Also, I am personally a big proponent of using Analytic databases like redshift, vertica, bigquery & Azure DW for Analytics applications which Looker & Tableau both support so calling it a tie here!
#2) Data Modeling: This is Looker’s core strength by a wide margin! Why? This is because of their LookML which is their data modeling layer and I am super impressed by this after using it for a while now! So let’s chat about what data modeling layer means and why you should care.
Data modeling (in this context) means creating data models that take your raw data as input and then it’s cleaned, combined, curated & converted and made ready for data analysis.
Why is this important? Not everyone can clean, curate, combine & convert raw data into analysis-friendly data assets. That’s what data analysts are trained and specialize in. May in the future we will have tools that do that OR maybe we will see plug-and-play (aka turnkey) solutions for few key analysis needs but for now, you need data analysts that can create these data models.
Now there are two ways to create data models:
You can create them on-the-fly (ad-hoc) OR you can publish all of these data models on a platform (like Looker).
There are all sorts of issues with doing it on-the-fly — it works for small teams (<20–30 people) but more than that you need to have some process in place. For instance: You can’t automate data models that you need often so that’s wasted time, Also, you can’t share these models easily with others, creates a single point of failure and if the analyst person is sick or on vacation then no-one gets “insights” from data — the world stops spinning. Yada Yada Yada…So self-service is good after you have few business users who want to consume data.
So what does a self-service platform bring to the table? They help data analyst build these wonderful data-analysis friendly models and publish them so everyone who cares in an org can access it. So the consumer can focus on analysis part and not worry about doing the not-so-good part of making it ready for analysis. Also, this ensures all sorts of other benefits: standardized metric definitions, trusted data sources, better collaboration among analysts, speedier model-delivery process, get out of excel hell and what not!
Think of this way: If you have all key data model available on your self-service platform then your data analyst can focus on 1) advance stuff = more $$$ 2) building more data models (and so eventually they can do more advanced stuff later and more $$$!)
This is where Looker fits in. Looker is great at this data modeling thing — it’s platform is amazing for anyone looking to solve this problem. You can also do data visualization on top and build dashboards.
Alright, moving on:
#3) Data Visualization: This is Tableau’s forte! No one does data viz better than Tableau, at least right now. There are vendors that are investing significant resources on this and they are close but still Tableau is a leader in this space.
Having said that, let’s map it back to how it help business users & analysts:
Business users and self-service environments:
Tableau is not great at data modeling thing. Yes, you can do basic clean, combine, curate & convert thingy but it doesn’t work well with intermediate to advanced needs. So if you have a self-service data modeling layer already in place that Tableau can connect to and you are looking for a data visualization layer then go for Tableau! You would be able to create some amazing visuals, dashboards and stories that will WOW your business users! But to make sure this scales you need to seriously think about 1) how to overcome the limitations in tableau’s data modeling layer OR 2) use some other tool to build this data modeling layer and connect Tableau to it.
Pro Tip: I highly recommend trying out trials of these products and seeing what works best!
Tableau shines at data discovery! While this certainly helps business users, it’s best leveraged by analyst because whenever they are working on ad-hoc data analysis (one-time, strategic in nature) projects they can be much more effective and discover the underlying trends and patterns in their data by visualizing it using Tableau.
So with that context you might be wondering, What tool did I champion & Implement at Kiva?
This is public knowledge that Kiva is a Looker customer because it’s Logo is on their website so I can share this.
After evaluating about 30+ tools (including Tableau), I ended up championing and eventually leading the initial implementation sprints to implement Looker at Kiva because the goals & vision that we had for Kiva’s data & analytics platform aligned better with having the data modeling layer that met Kiva’s needs. So you need to figure out your goals and vision and then choose the tools with that framework.
Pro Tip #1: It’s insanely hard to figure out what your goals and vision for analytics in an org. To figure this out, you might want to chat with organizations in the same industry at the same size & stage and see what they use. Ask them about what they use and whether it worked for them. Ask them about their Return on investment. This is a great way to get external feedback but you still need to figure out internal needs and prioritize them.
Pro Tip #2: Both of these tools have amazing reviews! You will see them highly ranked in analyst reports too — this is great but it’s important that ever before to clearly define what your organization needs and then map it back to the core strengths of these products (or any other tool for that matter) and go from there!
[I am happy to help evaluate the right tool for you needs, feel free to contact me:]
Pricing — Looker vs Tableau
I can’t talk about Looker’s pricing because it’s not public, I apologize! You need to contact them to get the quote.
However, you can anchor that with Tableau’s pricing which is public:
Your analyst and power users will need Tableau Desktop/Professional which is $1K and $2K respectively (one-time thing) and then depending on your deployment model: cloud or self-hosted — the price varies:
*Note that Tableau online is a subscription model so you can definitely start small. Let’s say 5 business users in a department and take it from there. If you grow then you can later look at other tools like Looker. (If you are rapidly growing, account for the non-trivial time needed to migrate from one platform to another and so it might be worth it to pick the right tool from the get-go)
Pro Tip: I will encourage you to think about building a ROI model too. You know use some analytics for your analytics projects 😉 — I apologize, couldn’t resist! Anyhow, the point is that instead of just thinking about the “cost”, think about the value-add and anchor your investment figure to that. There’s a reason some analytics tool are priced at let’s say $1000 vs some tools priced at $100,000 — both of them have different value proposition and if you know how to extract value of the tool and can project it then you can get better ROI!
Hope that helps! If I can be of any further help, email me or comment here!