Sunday, August 7, 2011

Total users and pageviews are misleading measures of web traffic

Versión en español aquí.

When web entrepreneurs take a deeper look at their traffic in Google Analytics, they might be surprised and alarmed to learn that most of the visits probably last no more than an eyeblink, 10 seconds or less.

(This is not the bounce rate, but we will get to that in a minute.)

The dirty little secret among web publishers is that visitors to most websites have little or no interest in the content and are either browsing or lost. They arrive through referrals or search engines, don´t like what they see and leave.

Misleading totals and averages

This does not stop any of us from touting our top line totals of unique visitors, visits and pageviews, even if those totals include many people who, in essence, took a glance at the shop window as they hurried past on their way somewhere else.

Let me quote Ken Doctor, a leading analyst of the business of journalism:
Unique visitors are a great dumb count. As I’ve noted, it’s as if in the print world we counted the everyday subscriber — consuming 5 hours a month of a news publication — the same as someone who, standing on a Midtown corner on a windy day, happened to catch a sheet of flying newsprint as she held up her hand to hail a cab.
Gumersindo Lafuente, head of digital operations for, one of Spain’s leading newspaper websites, also warns about misinterpreting the numbers: "On the web, I don’t believe in averages. They can deceive you and mislead you." No kidding. If most visits to a website last less than 10 seconds, it is misleading (even though accurate) to cite the top-line number of unique visitors and claim them as your own.

Totals inflated with a lot of air

We are looking through the wrong end of the telescope. The real value of our websites is not in the totals and overall averages but in the measures of loyal visitors and heavy users of our sites. These are the people who are likely to pay for admission to special events or access to premium content or other kinds of revenue-generating offers.

The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism studied the top 25 news sites and found that 77 percent of their traffic came from users who visited just one or two times a month. Only 7 percent were so-called power users who visited more than 10 times a month. 

However, the value lies in the power users who might make up a small percentage of your online audience. The advertisers who want the big user totals are the ones who want to pay the lowest rates (quoted in CPMs, cost per thousand impressions of an ad; an impression is counted whenever a visitor loads a page with the ad).

A web publisher can get higher ad rates and generate more money by directing advertisers to that small group of loyal users who truly identify with and appreciate the brand.

In the following graphic, which shows traffic on my journalism blog for three months, 59% of the visitors (the top line) were coming to the blog for the first time. But almost 30% were loyal return visitors (the last six lines). Obviously we want to convert the casual visitors to regular users, but that is another topic. (The blog is on digital journalism and is in Spanish.)

Click to see a larger image.

Some advertisers do want the big numbers. The problem is they also want to pay very low advertising rates.

Doctor, mentioned above, has an excellent analysis of the value of loyal readers in terms of advertising revenue on the Nieman blog. 

Bounce rate and other definitions

It pays to study the metrics closely in Analytics. There is a widely held misconception that the term bounce rate refers to the percentage of people who visited a site for only a few seconds. The bounce rate refers to the visitors who looked at only one page, no matter how long they stayed on that page. It means that they looked at just one thing on the site and left. Here are the definitions of the terminology used in Google Analytics.

If you want to see the length of visits in Analytics, go to Visitors, Visitor Loyalty, Length of Visits. Don’t be surprised if more than half of your visits are for less than 10 seconds.

Click to see a larger image.

The worldwide figures for Google Analytics Benchmarking Report for the three months ending Feb. 1, 2011, show that sites that anonymously volunteered to share their data with Analytics had a bounce rate of 47 percent, average time on site of 5:23 per visit and 4.5 pages per visit.

Analytics did not publish absolute numbers, merely percentages. The traffic sources for these sites were: direct (meaning from a bookmark or from a user typing in the URL) 37%, referral 19%, search engines 28% and all other 16%.

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