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“Visits” to your website or “unique visitors”?

An interesting query came in from a client the other day, asking if it was better to measure “visits” to your website or “unique visitors”. It’s an interesting question. The answer is that it depends what you’re analysing with that data.

Once upon a time we measured “hits” on a website (ask your Dad), which was a count of all the “files served”, i.e. the components of every page viewed. It was only set up, to be honest, to help the person managing the web server, but it acted as a rough guide to the volume of traffic to the site. Then we moved on to “pages viewed”, which was a bit better, but didn’t tell you whether you had 1000 people looking at one page each, or one person looking at 1000 pages.

Finally, with proper website analytics, we could look at the number of visits to the site, or the number of individuals. Neither have ever been ideal in isolation: were your 1000 visits from 1000 different people visiting 1 time each, or from 1 person visiting 1000 times? Did your 100 unique visitors visit 1 time each, or 100 times each? By the time you start looking at the chart of the number of how many people visited 1 time, 2 times, 3 times etc., it all gets a bit complicated, and very hard to produce that nice graph of “website traffic” to show at the board meeting.

But let’s step back a minute. What do we actually want to analyse? Is it how many first-time visitors we’re getting? Is it how often previous visitors are returning to the site? You need to decide. And you also need to select the right measurement for whatever you’re analysing.

For example, if we’re analysing the results of our promotional marketing and advertising initiatives, we might set up a “traffic sources” report. But what should we be measuring for each traffic source? I’d suggest that first-time visitors to the website are all that we’re interested in here. Sure, returning visitors can be just as important (in other ways), but we don’t set up our advertising for them. Of these first-time visitors, we’re also interested in the ones which spent time on the site when they arrived, as any campaign which brings in visitors who aren’t relevant is no use. Finally, we want these first-time, engaged visitors to be in the right part of the world. So what we want to be measuring, to assess our promotional initiatives, are visitors who tick all three boxes.

Most website visitor analytics applications can do this, but going back to our original question, if you had to choose between “visits” or “unique visitors”, you can see that the latter would correspond more closely to what we really want, as a first-time visit is a subset of unique visitors. But it all depends on what you’re analysing. Just measuring “visits” or “unique visitors” – indeed, just measuring website traffic – is not really very useful at all, when you think about it. At the very least, measure your overall website traffic with a combination of “first time visitors” and “returning visits”. However, we can all do better than that.

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