So, uh…what’s my hit counter say?

Web traffic analysis.Someone recently asked me if I’d install a hit counter on their web page, the old school kind, that shows a visible pageview count. Despite the anachronistic nature of the request, it demonstrated that even those with the least amount of web savvy understand that having some idea of your traffic numbers is important.

After I pointed him towards more robust traffic reporting options that don’t make your website look like you never migrated off Geocities, I spent some time thinking about how much traffic analysis has changed in the last ten years, and how it reflects on the evolving nature of web communication.

Back in 2000, a hit counter really was a reasonable reporting tool for your average home page. Google Analytics had yet to really revolutionize simple deep traffic analysis for the low rent website, and the prevailing philosophy was that getting a million hits automatically translated into huge piles of cash. This led to marketing efforts online best described as “splatter your link across a million pages regardless of quality or audience”, and hundreds of services offering to “put YOUR website in 655,000 directories for FREE!”.

In 2011, we have a much better understanding of the importance of having the right kind of traffic, and the need for more robust reporting methods. However, if you’re new to web traffic analysis, it can be difficult to know what all those numbers mean, and which ones you should be paying attention to when adjusting your marketing strategy. If you’re launching a new project online, here are some core questions you can ask yourself to help establish what kind of traffic is right for your brand, and what information in those analytics reports to focus on.

  1. Analytics Territory DetailIs your product virtual or physical? If you’re developing a virtual product such as a web service or application, news or information site, or online community, then you’re capable of capitalizing on the global reach of the internet, and the Visits/Pageviews totals will likely be your top traffic metric. However,  if you’re selling a retail product or physical service (even design and development), your regional reach may be limited, and the total number of visits is far less important than where those visits came from. The top level view of your web traffic will be less important to your business objective than the geographical detail views, which will illustrate how well your regional targeting is working.
  2. Does your brand cater to a niche, or does it have mass appeal? While office supplies may have a potential customer pool of several billion on the planet, fermented Jabanero beer likely has far less. Research both your competitors and general market demographics, and try to get a good feel for the true size of your potential audience. The regional limitations of question 1 will also factor into this. The reason it’s important to assign an actual number value to your audience is so you have a rough idea of how much of the audience you’re reaching. While 15,000 unique visits may sound like a lot,  if your audience size is three million, you’re only reaching half of one percent of your potential customers. Inversely, 1000 unique visits is five percent of your 20,000 Jabanero beer fans. The formula (x/y)100 gives you your percent of audience saturation, where x is the number of unique visits, and y is the total audience size.
  3. Does your project rely on user interaction? If a prominent function or feature of your site is user interaction, whether it be through reading content, participating in a forum, playing a game, etc., site stickiness is more important than if you’re simply offering a retail product for sale. One of the metrics used to measure that is “Average time on Page”. Go to your favorite user driven website, and use a stopwatch to measure how long you spend on a single page view, such as a forum thread or article. Do all the normal things you would on that page, such as posting comments or replies, or submitting information on a form. Repeat that process across ten different pages, and average your results. This will give you a baseline number to compare your site’s results with.

Now that you’ve identified your key data points, you will know where to focus when those reports start coming in, and hopefully have some baselines to compare them to. When you’re able to accurately interpret your traffic analysis, adjusting your marketing strategy to match the needs of your audience becomes much simpler, which is far more important than what number’s on your hit counter.

I don't miss Geocities at all.