Google Data Studio vs Tableau in Two Real-Life Stories

Being able to summarize your data in a single place (manually or automatically) is a huge win for companies (and data cultures). However, selecting a vendor that can do this isn’t easy. I’m frequently asked about my thoughts on Google Data Studio vs Tableau. This post is my answer to this question. 

I love both of these tools for different reasons. They each serve a purpose but you need to make the right decision. One could limit you in the future while the other could weigh you down in the present. If you’re designing a stack, a tool like this is a must.

To help you better understand each tool, I’ll weave in two stores from my client work. I had the opportunity to work on both of the tools at the same time (in different projects). This gave me a peek to the pros and cons of each option and why, in hindsight, they were the right fit for each given project.

First Things, First: Our Two Stories

To understand these two tools, we need to take real-life stories. One of my clients used Tableau and another one used Data Studio. They had different needs and different levels of complexity but each story captures the best of each tool.

The Tableau client needed to create a dashboard that could help them understand the impact of COVID-19 on local tourism. They had 25+ data sources and needed to segment the data by multiple markets e.g. Canada, the United States, Mexico, etc.

Most of this data resided in Google Sheets and we had a few automated API sources like Google Analytics. We also needed to make the data available publicly so the dashboard needed to support multiple stakeholders.

The Data Studio client had 4 – 5 data sources and a limited amount of segments. The dashboard needed to be public-facing as well. The overall amount of complexity was lower but we still needed something that could be easily maintained over time.

These are the stories that I’ll use to provide context on Google Data Studio vs Tableau. The context will help you gauge which tool is better suited for your company and needs.

Let’s jump in and talk about who Tableau is for.

Who Tableau is For

Tableau is better suited for large companies and more complex projects. If you have something that is “simple”, then this tool will be overcomplicated for your needs.

I also think Tableau tends to be a good match for academics and research teams. You’ll have lots of ways to show your data while also controlling it. Minor point but I wanted to bring it up.

There’s quite a bit you can do with Tableau and the Tableau ecosystem is extensive. Let’s start by unpacking all the versions of Tableau since that is the first confusing point.

In their website, you’ll see options like Tableau Desktop, Tableau Prep, Tableau Online, Tableau Server, Tableau Mobile, etc. It’s a lot. In reality, Tableau is showing the different use cases that you could tackle with their tools.

I want to focus on 4 major offerings: Tableau Online, Tableau Public, Tableau Desktop, and Tableau Server. 

Tableau Online is the cloud version of Tableau. You can edit dashboards online and then publish them internally within your company. Tableau Public is the central location where anyone can publish a dashboard for the world to see. Think of it as a search engine for publicly-available dashboards. Publishing to Tableau Public is free.

Tableau Server expands on Tableau Online and lets you do more advanced things like publishing dashboards externally (with more controls than Tableau Public), better security controls, and better ways of pulling data.

Tableau Desktop is what the pros use to edit their dashboards and it allows us to publish to Tableau Online, Tableau Public, and Tableau Server. As the name implies, this is an application for Windows and Mac. This application is free.

Most companies can start by using Tableau Online to host their dashboards and using Tableau Desktop to edit them. That’s it. This is all you need to share dashboards within your company. You might even get away with just Tableau Online but the online editor isn’t as powerful as the Desktop version.

If you need more security options, better ways of bringing data into your organization, or the ability to publish externally with a high degree of control, Tableau Servier is your jam. If you only need the external publishing option with limited privacy controls, Tableau Public might suffice.

Let’s now talk about data connectors. This is important because it determines how we will bring data into our dashboards. Tableau has lots of connectors out of the box. You need to make sure one of these matches the storage of your data. 

Tableau also has impressive functionality. Almost anything you can imagine from the perspective of a chart, you can likely do in Tableau. Things take time but there’s lots of flexibility in how you can display your data. This is both good and bad as setting up Tableau can be quite a time-intensive project.

One downside of the Tableau functionality is dashboards can be become quite fragile and break in small ways. Minor changes to the data source or the layout of your dashboard can break things. This is to be expected with a product that offers lots of ways to customize things.

My client was a good fit for Tableau. They had tons of data sources that were supported by Tableau out of the box and we needed a high level of customization. We had to make the dashboards a certain height, make things appear and disappear and play with the overall styling.

We did run into issues maintaining the dashboard and ensuring it didn’t break. However, because they were a larger company, they could assign someone to own it and keep it humming along.

Who Google Data Studio is For

Google Data Studio is a fantastic fit for companies that don’t need a high level of customization in their dashboards (or smaller companies).

I find that the speed in which I can create a Data Studio dashboard rivals what could be done in Tableau, especially if you’re a beginner. Data Studio feels more intuitive but I also think this is related to having less functionality.

As you can imagine, Data Studio plays well with other Google Products. Sheets, Big Query, Google Analytics, etc. If you’re deep in the Google product world, then everything will just work.

One downside is that their connector support feels a tad limited to anything that isn’t Google or advertising related.

Unlike Tableau, I don’t need to explain 45 different product variations and use cases. Data Studio is one product that lets you publish internally and externally. It is a solid product and does its job well, especially for its price.

If you’re trying to get something up and running without drowning in complexity, this is your jam. Having a price tag of $0 is just the icing on the cake.

My client loved what Data Studio could do. We stored all of our data in Google Sheets and then automated the updating of this spreadsheet using Zapier and webhooks.

Data Connectors: The Lifeblood of Your Dashboards

I wanted to have a section just on data connectors. They really matter. You need to be able to bring your data into your dashboards easily or it won’t make it in.

Tableau has a better list of connectors. Plain and simple. Data Studio does well with other Google products but they seem to be missing popular tools. These could be other analytics tools or CRMs or Email tools.

However, this doesn’t mean that Data Studio sucks. It simply means that you might need to rethink how you bring the data in. 

For both tools, your life will be significantly easier if you centralize all of your data in a warehouse e.g. Redshift, BigQuery, etc. If you can do this, pulling in data will be a breeze and the overall performance of your dashboard will be improved.

You can also consider expanding on something like Google Sheets. We have used this to easily update data and then pair it with a tool like Zapier to automatically bring data in from other sources that might not be supported by Data Studio or Tableau. This, of course, works for limited data sets (fewer than a million rows of data)

Besides data connectors, let’s look at another critical element: how long will it take to setup?

But How Intuitive Is Each Tool Really?

We all want tools that are easy to use. I get it, time is short. So how intuitive is each tool?

The caveat behind this question is that the data structure matters a lot. If you get the structure correct, everything else will be easier. If you don’t, you have to work harder to blend data or join different tables/sheets together.

Back to the question. My answer is that I think Data Studio is easier for beginners while Tableau has better long term potential.

Tableau doesn’t feel that intuitive when you’re just starting out. There’s a lot of options when designing graphs and it takes a minute for things to click. Data Studio on the other hand tends to work well out of the box.

Data Studio actually feels like you’re working in Google Sheets. There is a similar language and approach to how you visualize your data. Tableau feels like it’s own thing with its own unique language and philosophy. 

This “ease of use” in Data Studio comes with limited design options of course. Tableau lets you do anything but you need to learn its language first.

Google Data Studio vs Tableau Pricing

Finally, pricing. So how does Google Data Studio vs Tableau compare in pricing?

To start, Data Studio is easy. It costs $0 forever. While most Google products have an enterprise version that typically starts at $100,000+, Data Studio is always $0. The version you get now is the same version you would get if you were an enterprise customer, in terms of functionality.

Tableau on the other hand is not free. Pricing depends if you’re an individual or team but it will start at $70/month, billed annually. At the bare minimum, Tableau will cost your team around $1,000 and that number will quickly increase depending on how many people are viewing the dashboards and how many people are creating them. Don’t forget about the add ons too e.g. Tableau Server

Conclusion

Both tools are fantastic but they serve different needs. Data Studio is quick, free, and really good for the Google ecosystem. Tableau has a higher learning curve, more complex pricing, and incredible functionality. What you choose will depend on where you need to be in the next 6 – 12 months.

If you’re interested in other tool comparisons, check out the following links:

One more thing before you go! Do you know how to get more insights out of your data? 

All companies are sitting on a goldmine of data that they haven't fully explored. It's not about technology or capturing more data. The key is to learn how to make the most of your current data and convert it into actionable insights. This is the main idea behind my first book, The Data Miage: Why Companies Fail to Actually Use Their Data

I'm excited to announce the release of the book through all major retailers. If you're interested, you can download the first chapter for free using the form below. You'll learn what the best data-driven companies do differently and how to make sure you're playing the right data game.