by Marjorie Steele, Editor at IQS
What’s the difference between a hit, an impression and a unique visitor?
Aside from all sounding like activities that take place at a Saturday night college party, these terms explain different ways of measuring a website’s traffic and, subsequently, a website’s success. This process of formulating website tracking into quantifiable data is called “metrics”, and with everyone using the new Web 2.0, quantifying a website’s success is trickier than ever. How many visitors does your site have each day? Each month? How many page views? What is the average time each visitor spends per session? What’s your site’s click through rate (CTR)? Is anyone subscribing to your RSS feed?
All these questions are pointing to one underlying concern: is my website doing what it is supposed to do? Obviously, website success looks much different to a blogger than it does to an industrial manufacturer. A professional blogger will put more weight in how much time each visitor spends reading content and how many RSS subscriptions she has, while a manufacturer wants to know how many online quotes are being submitted and how many unique visitors view his “Capabilities” page. These qualitative methods of measurement are part of the industry’s shift towards “engagement metrics”. But before we get too deep into this new mind-bog of “squishy” analytics, let’s iron out some definitions.
Hits – Not, according to the gurus, at all an accurate measurements of how many visitors your site receives or whether those visits are doing you any good. A hit is what’s registered each time a request is sent for your HTML page, or the page’s images. If you have a web page with 60 separate images on it, one visit to the site will register 61 hits. There are other reasons why this is not an accurate measurement of user quantity or quality, but we’ll leave them to the guys in IT.
Visitors – Also referred to as “sessions”, what we’re talking about here is a gross count of site visitors. Visitors are counted each time someone comes to your site, whether it’s a visitor’s first time that day or their 30th.
Unique User/Visitor – A visitor from a unique IP address. Users who repeat their visit to a site from the same address are only counted once, so a unique user count can be lower than a “session” or “visitor” count. Tracking unique users is valuable not only for gathering quantitative data (how many people visit a site each day), but for gathering more qualitative data from the user as well. How many pages does a unique user view? How long? These questions can help determine a website’s success or failure, and they can point to where improvement is needed.
Page Views/Page Per User Count – The number of pages on your site a visitor clicks through – i.e., the amount of material a visitor actually absorbed. Page views are an important tool, as they can measure qualitative results as well as quantitative. High page per user counts indicate people are finding your website worthwhile instead of “bouncing” back to different sites. A low page per user count indicates that a site is poorly written, poorly developed or lacking in engaging content.
Impressions – These can refer to either “ad impressions” or “page impressions”, which are basically fancy terms to describe each time a user views a page or banner ad. Impressions are usually more important when online advertisements are involved; advertisers attempt to measure their return on an ad based in part on the number of “impressions” an ad receives. While “page views” count the number of pages a unique user clicks through, “impressions” count the number of times a user is exposed to a specific message.
Click Through Rate (CTR) – Also an advertising term, comparing the number of users who click on advertisements to the total number of visitors, or sessions. E.g., if my blog has 100 visitors in a day, and 1 of those visitors clicks on my banner ad for canvas bags, the click through rate for my labels banner ad is 1%, an average CTR.
While all these terms are useful in determining certain areas of success or failure, unique user count and page view count can help paint an overall picture of your website’s success. When compared, these two metrics often provide qualitative data about what your users like – or dislike – about your site. If your unique user count is high, you’re doing a great job promoting the site through SEO, SEM, social networks and so forth. If unique user count is low, you probably need to create a Digg account, update your metatags and get friendly with Wikipedia. High page per user counts, on the other hand, indicate that your content is informative and well designed, engaging users to browse through your site looking for more. For business to business websites, measuring request for quote form submissions could easily tie into page per user analysis. If your page per user counts are low, you know your content needs to be reworked to be more engaging, informative and easy to use. Low page views with a high user count means you’re bringing people in but aren’t engaging them, and instead of staying they’re bouncing to other, more informative sites.
Comparing unique user counts to page views can show you whether you need to focus on SEO and promotion or whether changes are needed in content and site design. There are more extensive methods used to analyze a site’s quality, however. “Engagement metrics” attempt to measure some of the flurried, “new media” activity of the new Web 2.0 by determining whether or not a unique user is truly “engaged” in her interaction with your website. A few ways of determining user engagement include:
1) Whether a user returns to a site within a small time span
2) How long a user spends browsing a page
3) How long and how frequently a user views “critical” site content – “critical” site content is any information which helps your website satisfy its goal. If your goal is to sell products or generate RFQs, your online product catalog might be considered a “critical” page
4) How many visitors go directly to your URL (bookmarks are a plus!)
5) How many users have subscribed to your RSS feed (if you have one)
Although it’s possible to analyze this type of “qualitative” data, it’s difficult to capture the many variables which come with website analytics. Who is this site’s audience? What do I want users to do once they arrive on my site? What basic message do I want to impress on users? These questions are not new to marketing – they’ve been essentials for a long time. It’s easy to become distracted by all the various facets of SEO, analytics and user-optimization while forgetting the main goal: getting your website to do what it’s supposed to do. If your site was created to generate sales leads, then sales leads are the best metric by which to measure the site’s success. Click through rates, visitor counts and hits aren’t what you’re ultimately trying to get – you want the business of the people those counts are attached to. Metrics are great tools, but the tools can’t replace the product.
So, if you’ve gotten too tangled up in analytics lately, take a breath and a long look at your homepage. Try to remember why it’s there. When you remember, analytics will be there to help shape the site into what it should be.