Site Visitors and Traffic: Keeping Track of Your Numbers

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Site traffic, in terms of visitors or page views, provides one of the main measures by which mental health professionals can gauge the impact of strategic marketing activities. This page explores tracking your own traffic, while a separate article describes how to use Alexa to compare activity across sites.

Why Measure Traffic?

Finding something specific and concrete to measure is one of the best ways of answering questions that look like this: “Well, is it working?”. Governments, businesses, educational institutions, sports teams — they’re all looking for some parameter(s) to measure, something that will be related in a hopefully straightforward to some goal they want to achieve, so that by measuring the parameter(s), they’ll have some idea of whether their efforts are helping them to achieve their goals.

For a mental health professional in private practice using the internet as a marketing tool, site traffic provides one of the main parameters you can measure to get an idea of the impact of your strategic marketing activities. Other things being equal, when you observe an increase in traffic that is correlated with something you have done, you can probably infer that whatever you have done is working.

In real life, unfortunately, other things are almost never equal, and fluctuations in site traffic may well be driven by other factors over which you have no control. But as tricky as it may be to interpret traffic trends, traffic provides something useful to go on, and most webmasters and mental health professionals using the internet for marketing their practices should pay at least some attention to it.

Tricky Traffic Terminology

First things first: let’s get the terminology in hand, because it’s all too easy to mix up the different terms and use them completely inappropriately…

Hits:
A hit refers to any file request received by a web server, including requests for XHTML pages, individual graphic images, server side includes, etc. The main utility of tracking hits is for evaluating server performance; hits have almost nothing to do with the number of visitors to a site. From the standpoint of benchmarking your site traffic, hits are virtually useless. If you want more hits, just add a 1-pixel graphic image to every one of your pages: bang, instant hits.
Page Views:
Page views reflect the number of pages (as distinct from files) which are requested from a server. Page views provide a much more meaningful indicator of interaction between your site and the outside world than hits.
Visitors:
Visitor numbers indicate the number of distinct sessions from a given browser or other web client. Unless a site uses unique cookies to track all visitor activity on a site, visitor numbers can only be a ‘best guess’ derived from the raw data of server logs; load balancing and other technical network features of a network may sometimes cause distinct page requests from one visitor to appear as though they came from distinct visitors
Unique Visitors:
The number of unique visitors to a website is the number of individual sessions from browsers or other web clients which have not previously visited the site within some arbitrary period of time (often 30 days). Ideally, this number would refer to the total number of different people who have visited a site at least once within a given period, but in reality it is only a guess.

As you can see, the word ‘traffic’ hides away the distinctions between at least four completely different terms. And even today, it is all too common for webmasters to talk about their number of ‘page views’, when they really mean ‘hits’, or to talk about ‘hits’ as if they have any straightforward relation whatsoever to the exposure a site is getting out in the real world. (By coincidence, while writing this article, I was contacted for help with a site project by a woman who claimed her site received 100,000 visitors every month… It turned out the real number of visitors was smaller by a factor of at least 100, because she had confused hits with visitors.)

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The little ‘visitor counter’ graphics displayed on many sites are notorious for conflating visitors and pages (and for doing a bad job of counting either); in almost all cases, sites which claim to know exactly how many visitors they’ve received either don’t really know what they’re talking about, or they’re hoping you don’t! The next time you see a site using a simple text or graphic counter to report how many ‘visitors’ they’ve received, you might like to try hitting ‘reload’ to cause your browser to download the page again — when you see the ‘visitor’ number increment in response to a simple reload, you’ll see just how flaky these things are.

The moral of the story is that while measuring ‘traffic’ can be very useful, be sure of what it is you’re really measuring — especially when comparing data with other sites!

Tools for Measuring Traffic — And Some Pitfalls

[Update (April 2011): Since this article was originally written in 2005, Google Analytics — based on the Urchin software which Google acquired in 2005 — has become the undisputed champion of easy-to-use analytics packages. Several other third-party traffic tracking and profiling services have also come to greater prominence, including Quantcast.com and Compete.com.]

Most hosting accounts come with some variety of server log reporting and/or analysis software. Examples include Analog Stats, Webalizer, AwStats, and Urchin — of which the last two, AwStats and Urchin, are viewed by many as giving the more accurate reports. Unfortunately, many cheaper hosting accounts provide only the first two, because they place less load on the server (as a direct result of doing less work with the log files). In addition to demanding greater server resources, Urchin also costs money for a hosting provider to license, and so is probably seen least frequently of the four. [Update: As of 28 March 2005, Urchin Software Corp. is being acquired by Google, so it will be interesting to see where the future of Urchin might turn out to be…] Urchin offers a few graphical niceties not found in AwStats, but for most purposes I personally find AwStats perfectly usable.

(Other, more expensive, log analysis software certainly does exist, but unless you are delivering upwards of a million page views per month, or deriving outsized income from your site, it probably is not worth the investment.)

Whether you are using AwStats or Urchin, or one of the less accurate packages, it is crucial either to configure the software specifically for your installation or to take careful note of exactly what you will need to subtract out from your monthly figures to arrive at accurate numbers: unless you have a very simple site, all of the packages are likely to over-estimate your real page view numbers.

Some of the pitfalls which you can avoid by manually configuring your reporting software include:

  • (Mis-)counting page views from Google AdSense collapsing ad units
  • (Mis-)counting fetches of any RSS feeds you may offer as page views
  • (Mis-)counting multiple page views when ad serving software delivers ads

In addition, if you run either a blog or a discussion forum, it is likely your site will be targeted by any number of spambots and even malicious scripts attempting to crash your blog or forum software, and each page request generated by these nasty little automata will wind up being counted as a page view, unless you take special steps to protect yourself and/or exclude this server activity from your reporting.

It is surprising to me how many webmasters out there run default installations of the popular log analysis software, but without realizing just how erroneous their reports are. If you really want to use traffic as an objective indicator for your strategic marketing efforts, it is worth making sure it really is an objective measure and is not artificially inflated. Of course, you can also use an external measure such as the traffic figures provided by Alexa to track your traffic patterns.

Why Traffic Isn’t Everything

Finally, there’s at least one reason why tracking traffic isn’t everything: very often, traffic isn’t what you’re really after! Perhaps, as a mental health professional in private practice, you’re after clients. Or maybe you’d like some advertising revenues. Or something else again. (Or, it may be that you do just take satisfaction in knowing that people are reading what you write — in which case, great!)

If you are after something other than traffic, why bother with traffic?

By itself, traffic won’t get you anything!

Instead, you need the specific kind of traffic that will convert into whatever it is that you do want: if you’re in private practice and looking for clients, you’re after traffic only to the extent that it converts into real clients; likewise for advertising revenues, where traffic only counts if it generates ad revenues. (Even impression-based advertising, as opposed to pay-for-performance advertising, is impacted by this caveat, since poor quality traffic will ultimately drive down the prices which advertisers are willing to pay for your page views.)

So just like a government or a school getting caught up with hitting targets at the expense of whatever it is those targets were originally designed to promote, it pays to beware of the traffic race and keep your eyes on whatever it is you are really aiming for!

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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