The most widely used metrics for measuring traffic to your site involve counting page views, visits and unique visitors. They all measure different things and all have shortcomings that affect their reliability. In addition, time spent on site, bounce rate and loyalty are other metrics worth your attention.
People used to describe web traffic in terms of "hits." Unfortunately, it's the least useful metric, and it's misleading. So you won't find a it as a measure in most modern web reporting systems.
That's because hits measure every request a browser makes to download every element on a web page - not just the HTML file itself, but every graphic, every ad banner and every other related file. These elements can add up quickly. Most sites have a logo, a background image, an image used for spacing content, and sometimes a graphical navigation bar or advertising banner. The term "hits" also counts each Flash file, audio and video file.
Pages, also called page views, are a meaningful indicator of your site's value and success. Page views only count the single HTML document itself. When you call up the home page of Google, Yahoo!, or The Washington Post, what's displayed in the browser is the page or page view.
Page views are useful information. When the number of page views is high and growing, it signals a measure of popularity with readers. Nevertheless, page views are one of the more popular metrics - your advertisers, competitors, readers and staff will want to know what the page views are.
Plus, pages are advertising inventory, so the more pages you serve, the more inventory you can sell.
Think of an old-fashioned window that contains multiple panes of glass held together within a single wooden frame. Now imagine that each pane of glass is a different HTML file that has been pulled in to display alongside all the others in that single frame. That's roughly how HTML frames work. Using frames, you could use one file to contain your site's navigation links and an entirely separate file for your main page content, and display them both in the same browser window. Frames let you specify not only which files you want to place where, but also how big or small the screen area each file consumes.
Frames fell out of favor in the early part of the web revolution and have transitioned from widespread use into more specialized applications. They're difficult to link to and contradict the basic rules of web navigation. They're also hard to manage and confuse some search engines. We recommend you avoid them in your own designs. However, if you still want to learn more about them, this tutorial from the World Wide Web Consortium will give you a more thorough understanding.
Despite the preference for page views statistics, we recommend measuring visits and unique visitors as a more important measure of your site's reach and success. A visit is what it sounds like - one person coming to your site and looking at some pages. It might be a repeat visit or a first-time visit. A unique visitor means you can tell whether the one person looking at your site right now is different from the one who came by this morning.
A "visit" is usually defined as one or more page views from a unique user separated by an hour from any other page views. This isn't a perfect system. If your biggest fan checks your site every 30 minutes from work, that shows up as a single, 8-hour visit. If someone else starts reading your site, wanders off to have dinner and then comes back to finish, that's two visits from one unique user.
Visit and unique visitor counts can also be skewed by networks, such as those in schools and libraries that use the same identifying information for each computer. A classroom of 30 students all looking at your site at the same time, for instance, might all appear to come from the same Internet connection, and that's reported as a single visit instead of 30 visits.
So your unique visitor count can be both underreported and overreported. You can take steps to reduce this uncertainty by requesting that visitors register, but such demands tend to drive away readers.
How does it work?
Here are some of the elements that are being tracked:
- IP address. The visitor's IP address is the unique number associated with a computer connecting to the Internet. Traffic tools can look up that number to find out if the computer using it is based in .com, .edu or an internationally based network.
- Date. You can see what day of the week, or what hour of the day, your traffic happens. You can use this information to make strategic decisions about posting articles when your site is busiest and running site modifications when things are slowest.
- Page URL. The traffic tool determines if the request is for a page or just an image file and what content to serve back.
- Referer URL. This is the page from which the web visitor's request for your site originated, called the "referer." And yes, it's supposed to be misspelled. The referer might be another page on your site, or another site that linked to you, or a search engine that returned your page in its results. By analyzing this, you can tell who is sending you traffic and what search terms are resulting in the most clicks to your site. You can't tell, though, what sites simply have links to you or what search terms make your site appear at the top. You only find that out when someone clicks a link.
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