Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

Hits and Visits 101:The Myths and Realities of Website Statistics

By Linda Adams

2002, Linda Adams 


You've just visited John Q. Author's site, and you see by his hit counter that he's received 100,342 hits.  Then you read on a message board that Sally Writer has gotten 200,000 hits.  So many potential readers are looking at their websites!  And then you look at your own writing website and wonder why it isn't doing as well.  Are you doing something wrong?

Actually, no.  You've just stumbled across a gray area in website management:  Hits.  Many people focus on the hits or what a counter shows--because the numbers are high.  It makes them feel successful, when, in fact, it is very misleading.

A counter simply counts the number of times anyone visits the page the counter is on.  That means if you went back to the main page five times during your one visit to the site, the counter would show five ticks.  Counters are notoriously inaccurate for this reason; some web masters have been known to keep reloading their page to make their website more seem more popular than it really is.  Worse still, if you have one on your site, and it only shows ten ticks on the counter, this advertises that no one is coming to your site.

But what about hits?  Be wary of anyone who says they are receiving a large volume of hits.  It doesn't mean there are many people actually coming to the site!

Huh?  Then what do those high numbers represent?  A hit is one file being downloaded.  Let's suppose you visit a page with 100 thumbnails on it.  Each one of those thumbnails is a file in addition to the web page itself.  So, by coming to that one page with the 100 images, you have just generated 101 hits.  But only one person visited.  So a site that gets 87,000 hits may have only 3,000 visitors, depending on how the site is designed.

But many people often use the hits as a sign of success because the number, for obvious reasons, is so much higher.  However, it doesnít tell you any information you can use to build on your visitors.  All it tells you is that you have a lot of graphics and other files on your site.

So what do you use to measure how many people are looking at your writing site?

The first measurement is called Unique Visitors.  This represents the number of people visiting your site for the first time.  No matter how many pages they explore on your site, it counts only as one visit.  In technobabble terms, the Internet Protocol (IP) address, or Internet network number, is stored in a statistics database as a single record.  That record is counted as a Unique Visitor.

Because the address is stored, when that person returns several days later, the database is able identify them as a Repeat Visitor.  This is actually the more important statistic to pay attention to because it tells you there is something on your site that interested your visitors enough for them to come back.

With that information, you can then refer to other statistical information such as the most and least popular pages on your site.  Or how about what keywords people are using to find their way to your site?  Some statistics programs also offer a "click through" so you can follow the path the visitors took once they arrived at your site.  Of course, it may take several months of monitoring your statistics program before you can see any trends.

But once you discover why people are coming to your site, you can adjust your content accordingly.  When my co-writer and I designed our site, we put up a mixture of three different things, all tailored towards writers: Microsoft Word how to's, historical guns, and writing articles.  While it would be great to think that people might actually be interested in seeing what we had published next, we knew the articles would be the real draw in the beginning.  But what content would be popular?

It took about four months to see the trends in the statistics.  Initially, the Microsoft Word articles got a lot of interest, but once the search engine spiders picked us up, the gun articles became the draw.  Once we knew that, we added some more articles, and the statistics have continued to rise.

But if we'd just slapped a counter on the main page, we'd never have known that.

Website statistics are a valuable tool, and knowing the difference between hits and visitors provides a better understanding of what your visitors are doing.  With this information, you can customize your site to keep them coming back.

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As part of her job, Linda Adams maintains statistics for five government websites.  She has been published in the anthology "Let Us Not Forget," a tribute to American veterans, and is co-writing a women's Civil War thriller.  Website: http://www.hackman-adams.com.