The assignment: what can be learned from the VHC website?

As the instructor for the Spring 2014 Introduction to Web Analytics class at the Community College of Vermont, I look for examples of "websites (or analytics) in the news" to combine learning the basics of web analytics, which frankly can be dull at times, with something more interesting and relevant to real life situations. The current semester began this past January, and the launch of the Vermont Health Connect website was very much "front page" news; the idea for this assignment began to emerge. Here's a quick example of how a snippet of java script can take you from boring code to important insight in just a few clicks (this is not unique to the VHC site, all websites can be viewed in this way):

Go to the Vermont Health Connect home page:

 screenshot of the VHC main page March 2014
screenshot of the VHC main page March 2014

View the source code to see:
 VHC mainpage source code
VHC mainpage source code

Focus on the Google Analytics tracking code, boxed in red, which is this bit:

 Google Analytics tracking code for the VHC website
Google Analytics tracking code for the VHC website

Simply recognizing that this tracking code is in place helps determine that from the outset, Google Analytics was built into the website, which is great. That means that even if one only uses the standard built-in reports, one can analyze all pages on the site to determine many things, such as how many visits the page has had, the flow of the page views (which exposes bottlenecks or problem pages), how searchers are finding the site (shows keywords used), and what other websites may be referring people to this one. With some configuration you could track, how many people completed signing up, and if they did not, where they exited the site. If both the website and the analytics were configured correctly, those analytics reports could provide data on how many currently uninsured people are completing the signup process, and it can show data in real time.

This is where I think things can get interesting. According to a Vermont Digger article:
"The Shumlin administration is not tracking how many uninsured Vermonters are signing up for Vermont Health Connect. Statistics on the uninsured won’t be available until the next household insurance survey. There is some disagreement about when that survey will be conducted."

This is an excellent example of a point on which class discussion could begin. Why not track that data?  It is possible, through some good design and analytics tracking. The tracking would be anonymous, so it would not show who is uninsured. Instead, a well-designed signup process could include a box one must  check that might say "no current health insurance, or "currently insured," etc. and those check boxes would be counted for completed signup processes.  Privacy, therefore would not be violated if the site tracked those numbers. That same tracking code in the image above tells us that whoever has access to the Google Analytics account UA-33924458-3 for the site has data now, and can tell what is being tracked, and use that to inform the web designers (and the governor) to make changes that would then enable better tracking of the data being collected. I would also be sure to point out in class that web analytics data cannot be the one source of numbers for the analysis of any actual website's performance or traffic. Other data collection methods used in concert with web analytics data are required for actionable data-based decision making for the business or service behind the website. Vermont still needs the survey data.

One assignment undertaken by this class was to apply some of the strategies learned in the course to an analysis of the Vermont Health Connect website. This demonstrates that although you may not be able to access the actual analytics generated by a site, you can still determine quite a bit about a site if you understand the way web analytics work. Students turned some of their papers and essays written for that assignment into posts to share on these sites.Another assignment was to track their own separate blog with analytics. Goals for the course include a comparison of the various methods of web analytics available, which students can do by accessing the analytics accounts behind the various webpages, Facebook pages, Tumblr blogs, and Wordpress blogs as well as the tracking set on this site and you for visiting and helping the next generation of Digital Marketing students learn the basics of web analytics through actual practice. I hope you will take the time to read some student posts.

Thanks for visiting.

Carol Caldwell-Edmonds  
CCV Instructor  

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