How to use web analytics on social learning or elearning websites

Posted March 27, 2008

My current job is researching the best use of web2.0 technologies and principles in the classroom. I and the other researchers use web analytics extensively in evaluating the effectiveness of websites we build. This post is the first in a two-part series about why and how to use web analytics for your social learning website.

This first part explains a bit about what web analytics is and why you should use it.

Why web analytics

All websites have a reason for existence. Depending on the site the reason could be to make money, provide leads, provide support, teach students, etc. Using web analytics helps you achieve your site’s purpose in two ways:

  • Using web analytics, you can measure the experience and behavior of visitors to your website. Using what is known as KPI (Key Performance Indicators) you can evaluate if your site is meeting your goals for visitors to the website—or not.
  • Using these KPIs you can identify areas where your site is failing to meet its goals and where it’s doing well

From these insights, you make decisions on what to do to improve the website. Then you evaluate the success of your changes by measuring changes in the experiences and behavior of visitors to your site, again using your KPIs (I’ll write more about KPIs in Part II).

In short, web analytics exists to power the generation of actionable insights.

Web analytics seeks to measure three things

  • Behavior?—What visitors do on the website — how often do they visit, what pages do they visit most, how long do they stay on different pages?
  • Outcomes—all websites have desired outcomes. The exact desired outcome varies site-to-site depending on its goals. Some sites want visitors to sign up as members. That’s one outcome. An e-commerce site’s desired outcome is a purchase. A support site’s desired outcome is for the visitor to find the answer to the question they had.
  • Experience—answer why the visitor did what they did.
    • Why did the customer add an item to his shopping cart, go through all the steps of the checkout process and then leave the site? Did they find the same item for cheaper on another site? Was the shipping price too high?
    • Similar questions can be asked about a social learning site. Why doesn’t one student ever visit the site? Why does another student visit twice a day. Why does a student do what they do?
    • Surveys and testing and experimentation are some of the best ways to understand visitor’s experience.

In my mind, the third thing is most important. It’s nice to know that a student spent an hour looking at online learning content but we’d really love to know why they did it. Did the student spend the hour because they were studying for a test? Were they finishing an assignment? Is the material helpful? What material is most helpful? Do they enjoy learning with the material?

So behavior and outcomes give you the raw data about what’s happening but experience helps you understand visitors in a more holistic manner. Understanding experience gets you into the mind of visitors to your site. Why they do what they do.


Web analytics help you improve your site in the following manner.

  1. Web Analytics provides you with information to understand what visitors do on your site and why.
  2. Using this information, you identify weakness you can correct.
  3. You experiment with potential improvements and test your changes using your web analytic data.
  4. Repeat starting at step 1

Part I explained what web analytics is and why it is valuable. Part II will explain step-by-step how to use web analytics on a social learning site. I will explain the process I’m going through to implement web analytics on a new social learning website I’m building for BYU.

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Kyle's profile picKyle Mathews lives and works in Seattle building useful things. You should follow him on Twitter. Currently exploring what's next and open to consulting.