Hits, Sessions and Visits: Reading A Traffic Report Accurately
Standard web analytics packages, such as WebTrends, Urchin and Webalizer, provide a wealth of information about your site’s performance. But which information matters? Hits? Visits? Pageviews? Sessions? Maybe all of the above, but you need to understand what each statistic means if you’re going to make sense of it all.
Hits. A hit is one download of one file from your web site. So, if your home page is comprised of three images, a style sheet (style.css, for example) and the page itself (let’s say index.html), then every time a browser downloads that page, four hits are recorded. On some sites, a single page download can account for dozens of hits – while it may sound impressive to say ‘my site got 10,000 hits this month’, it’s deceptive. Hits are a good measure of overall server usage, but they don’t tell you much about site traffic.
Sessions. A session is one browser visiting your site, one time. So, if I come to your site 10 times in one day, that counts for 10 sessions. This is a better measure of traffic than a hit, clearly, but there’s a problem that I can illustrate with this example: If everyone in your office has your site set as their home page, then every time they start their browser, they generate a new session on your server. Think about it – that means that 5 or 6 people can generate a lot of sessions, which doesn’t necessarily give you an accurate look at your site’s appeal. It’s great to have folks come back to your site, but you need to know how many unique individuals see it, too.
Visits. That’s where visits, or more specifically unique visits, come in. A unique visit is one visitor coming to your site any number of times in a given time period. So, if I come to your site 300 times in a month, I’ll still only count as a single unique visitor for that month. You need to know how many unique individuals arrive at your site, because each unique visit starts a conversation, and each conversation is an opportunity (note that some reporting tools call a unique visit a unique session – it’s confusing, I know, but if you see ‘unique’, chances are you’re on the right track).
Page Views. A page view is one browser downloading one page, one time. Combined with visits, page views can tell you how successful your conversations are. If you have 100 unique visitors a day, and only 100 page views, that’s a bad sign – that means each visitor is, on average, only viewing a single page of your site. If, on the other hand, you have 100 unique visitors and 500 page views, that’s better – it means that folks are spending a little time looking around your site. Generally, a high page view to unique visit ratio is a good thing. Don’t get carried away, though – if visitors are viewing a lot of pages per visit, they may be getting lost.
What it all means. This is a really, really high-level view of web traffic statistics, and how to interpret them. Look for upcoming pieces that go into more depth. But for now, keep this rule in mind: Of the statistics offered by standard web analytics packages, unique visits and page views present the most accurate measure of campaign success.