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Teaching Web Analytics – Sandbox or “play” account needed

We’re developing Instructor Resources for our Internet Marketing Start to Finish book. It has been a fun project.

Yet, because several of our chapters describe data analysis, any exercises for students require… well… data. And since we’re describing how to use web analytics data, creating exercises for using Google Analytics seems like the right first step.

All perfectly logical, except it lands us in a quandary. How do we create exercises for these chapters without knowing whether the students have access to web analytics at all? What might the quality of the analytics installation be, on any access they can beg for through a family or academic network?

In the big sandbox

In the big sandbox, made available through Creative Commons on Flickr by Ernst Vikne

We came to the conclusion we had to make available a sandbox account where students can view real data. Something where they can play with data, experiment with the interface and learn a few things.

Requirements for a learning Google Analytics (sandbox) account

  1. The account should be properly installed (code on every page of the website). One of the first signs of poor installation is a large proportion of self-referrals in the traffic sources, showing that folks are looking like they’re coming from the same website. This can indicate incomplete installation of script-based web analytics services. Web data with configuration issues or gaps in deployment is tricky to impossible to analyze.
  2. The account should have over two years of data in it, to shed light on any seasonal trends at work at the monthly level and to provide a long enough timeline to measure year over year change. Because web analytics is recorded from installation forward, it’s not retroactive. So, by the time the course has started, it is years too late to have an interesting data set for students to engage.
  3. The account should have goals that have some business value by which to measure success of initiatives and/or success of the site itself.

So, Any Volunteers?

Yet, for businesses that use the Internet heavily for marketing and sales, web analytics data are typically proprietary, so it is hard to envision a scenario where interesting business data is freely available. If you know of such a situation, please leave it in the comments! Otherwise, keep reading for our current, half-baked solution.

Our Current Idea

The Good

The personal blog of one of the authors meets criteria 1 and 2. It has been installed completely on the (very simple) site and has been collecting data since fall 2006.

The Bad

The site and the analytic account is missing several things that would make it a good working dataset – the author is not running paid search to the site or doing a concerted link building program, so the referrals and paid search traffic sources are weak to empty. Worse, it lacks goals throughout its history, to be blunt the site lacks goals beyond experimentation and self-expression. So, it is a poor example for business goals, but a dataset nonetheless.

The Ugly

The thankless and annoying part will be to maintain access for students to the data. Setting up a publicly available login/password seems an invitation to treachery (among other issues, this “open” Google Account would end up having an available email account from which to spam the world).

So, we’re going to opt for fielding requests from qualified instructors to provide a list of students access for a pre-defined period, opening us up to a lot of silly administration and a fair bit of “tech support” back and forth when student A cannot access her account because she does not yet have a Google Account set up even though she already gave us her email address.

This “access rigmarole” happens all the time with new clients, and doing it for free is not appealing. Yet, this is something that is part of the Google Analytics “setup” process, and is in itself a learning experience, though something I, for one, wish I’d never learned so well!

Let us know if you see a better solution out there or can envision something easier to maintain. Thanks in advance for the input!

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About Dunrie Greiling

Dunrie Greiling is the Chief Operating Officer at Pure Visibility, but her favorite job title at PV was Director of Happiness. She co-authored the book Internet Marketing Start to Finish, published by Pearson Education, Que Publishing. At her personal blog, Scientific Ink, she writes about things like yoga, knitting, and travel. She can be found on Google+, LinkedIn, and microblogs on Twitter as @dunrie.

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