Hits, Page Views, Visitors and Visits Demystified

This article is an introductory level and the intention of this article is to clarify few terms that you constantly hear in Web Analytics. Why am I writing this article? I hear some confusion about these terms from people new to field, so I thought I will write this blog post to clarify some of the common terms.

I am going to explain, Hits, Page Views, Visitors and Visits in this blog post.

Hits

Back in the early Internet days, Hits was a term commonly used to measure websites traffic. This term was mainly used by IT folks, early users of web analytics tools, to get an idea of the load on the server. As Web Analytics has moved into marketing and we have move to JavaScript based solutions, this term does not hold much meaning today as terms such as Page Views, Visits and Visitors have taken over.

So what is a Hit anyway? Let’s take an example of a simple web page shown below

This page is an html file with one image embedded in it.

When a person browses to this page (in her internet browser), she is requesting this page from the server to be downloaded to her internet browser. She views this page as one entity. In return browser is actually requesting 2 items from the server

  1. The actual HTML page
  2. The image embedded in it

When server returns these items, the browser assembles them and makes them look like one page to the person browsing this page.

This is what the log file of the server might look like (I have removed several items to make it simple)

291.111.276.23 – – [16/Jun/2007:11:17:55 -0400] “GET /samplepage.html HTTP/1.1” 200 3225 “http://www.anilbatra.com/” “Mozilla/5.0 (Windows; U; Windows NT XP; en-US; rv:1.8.1.7) Gecko/20070914 Firefox/3.0.0.7”

291.111.276.23- – [16/Jun/2007:11:17:55 -0400] “GET /batman.jpg HTTP/1.1” 200 3225 “http://www.anilbatra.com/” “Mozilla/5.0 (Windows; U; Windows XP; en-US; rv:1.8.1.7) Gecko/20070914 Firefox/3.0.0.7”

That means there were 2 hits on the server, one for the html page and one for the image. So with one page request there are 2 HITS (in this example)

All the above items will show up in your analytics reports if

  1. You use log file based solution
  2. You do not filter them out when setting up your reports

If you use a JavaScript solution then the only thing which is tagged (contains the JavaScript code) is the HTML page and that’s the only thing which will show up in the Web Analytics report.

Now let’s take a look at this sample again but this time we will look at the source to make sure there are no items hidden behind the HTML code. Sometimes (read most of the time) there are files that are not visible to the individual but still need to be downloaded from server and count towards the hits.

Here is what the source code looks like:

You will see there are two more files that are embedded in the page. One is a style sheet (stylesheet.css) and the other is a JavaScript (myjavascript.js) file.

So when a user requests this page, a total of 4 files are being requested from the server

  • The actual html page
  • The image embedded in it.
  • The .css file (stylesheet)
  • The .js (JavaScript File)

This is how the log file will look like

291.111.276.23 – – [16/Jun/2007:11:17:55 -0400] “GET /samplepage.html HTTP/1.1” 200 3225 “http://www.anilbatra.com/” “Mozilla/5.0 (Windows; U; Windows NT XP; en-US; rv:1.8.1.7) Gecko/20070914 Firefox/3.0.0.7”

291.111.276.23- – [16/Jun/2007:11:17:55 -0400] “GET /batman.jpg HTTP/1.1” 200 3225 “http://www.anilbatra.com/” “Mozilla/5.0 (Windows; U; Windows XP; en-US; rv:1.8.1.7) Gecko/20070914 Firefox/3.0.0.7”

291.111.276.23- – [16/Jun/2007:11:17:55 -0400] “GET /stylesheet.css HTTP/1.1” 200 3225 “http://www.anilbatra.com/” “Mozilla/5.0 (Windows; U; Windows XP; en-US; rv:1.8.1.7) Gecko/20070914 Firefox/3.0.0.7”

291.111.276.23- – [16/Jun/2007:11:17:55 -0400] “GET /myjavascript.js HTTP/1.1” 200 3225 “http://www.anilbatra.com/” “Mozilla/5.0 (Windows; U; Windows XP; en-US; rv:1.8.1.7) Gecko/20070914 Firefox/3.0.0.7”

If you are counting the Hits then there are 4 Hits on the server. It is evident it does not make a lot of sense to count Hits. Let’s look at what make sense (at least for now).

Page Views

According to Web Analytics Association Standards, “Page is an analyst definable unit of content”. Page Views is the number of times a page (an analyst-definable unit of content) was viewed.

So what does it mean? It means you can define type of file, Module, Flash interaction, PDF etc as a page and when a user views them they can be counted as Page Views.

Let’s use the above example and define a valid page as the files with .html extension only. When using a log file solution we configure the tool to filter out the other types of requests and only count pages with .html extension as valid pages. In a JavaScript based solution, all other types of files mentioned above (except .html in this case, if it has the JavaScript tag) will be automatically excluded from the Page View count.

So how many pages will the analytics report show? One, as there is only one html page. (You can configure your JavaScript based web analytics tool to track other forms of files as page views too but that requires customization).
The one page that is showed in the reports is a page view.

Visitors or Unique Visitors

Visitors or Unique Visitors, sometimes also referred as Unique Users is the number of unique individuals visiting a site. The most common way to identify an individual is via an anonymous cookie. Keep in mind that this is a close estimate of unique visitors and not an exact measure. Here are four examples on how unique visitor count can be wrong

  1. If two people use the same computer and same browser to visit a site, that identifies users by an anonymous cookie, both of them will be counted as one unique visitor since their cookie will be the same.
  2. On the flip side, if one individual uses two different computers to access the same site, the individual will be counted as two unique visitors because the new anonymous cookie will be issued on both the computers and show up as two different cookies in the analytics tool and hence will count them as two different visitors.
  3. If an individual uses the same computer but two different browsers (say IE and Firefox) then the person will be counted as two unique visitors because each browser will have its own cookie.
  4. If the individual visits the site, she will be counted as one visitor. Then if she clears her cookie and then visits the site again, she will be counted as two visitors.

Note: Visitors are calculated over a period of time e.g. day, week, month, year etc. and a visitor count from two periods can not be added together to get a total visitor count. Let’s take the data for following 2 days
Day 1 – 30 visitors
Day 2 – 45 visitors

The total visitors count for day 1 and day 2 is NOT the sum of the visitors count for the two days i.e. it is not 75 (30+ 45). Why?

For simplicity let’s assume that all the visitors who came to the site on day 1 also returned to site on day 2. In that case we will have 30 visitors from day 1 and 15 (45-30) on day 2 as unique between those two days, making the total unique to be 45 for the two day period and NOT 75.

The calculation I showed above has been simplified for this example. My advice is to let the analytics tool do the calculation for you and not sum the visitor count from separate period to come up with the total count of unique visitors.

Visits

Visit is also known as session. Visit starts when a visitor interacts with this site. In most case the interaction is the first page view by the visitor. The visit ends when user does not interact with a site for specified period of time. Most of the web analytics tools set 30 mins of inactivity as the end of the visit, however in most tools it is configurable and you can set it to whatever makes sense for your business.

Unlike, unique visitors, total visits to the site can be summed across time periods to get the total visit count for the period.

Hope this clarifies some of the confusion surrounding these terms.

Questions? Comments?

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Search for a Mertics to Compare Web Sites

Steve Rubel wrote:
“The page view is on life support. It fails to capture all of the myriad of ways consumers engage in online activities without ever leaving a web page. To get a feel for this, spend some time playing with Yourminis. So what will replace it and when will that happen? Let’s handicap the field.” On his blog What Will Replace the Almighty Page View and he thinks it willbe events or time spent.

Eric Peterson voiced his opinions on this subject on his blog
Worried about page views dying? Don’t be.

I however, have a different opinion than Steve and Eric. I think Unique Users make the most sense of all the different metrics that are discussed in these two articles. I also think that maybe we should not just rely on a single metrics such as page views, unique users, no. of events, sessions etc? Maybe it is time to find a new metrics combining some (or all) of these above metrics to compare web sites?

I am going to list my reasons why I think, time spent, event, pages views and session by themselves don’t make sense as measure to rank one site against another.

Time Spent on Site: I am not going to go into detail on this one, you can read my blog article that explains why I am not a big fan of “Time Spent on Site”.

Page Views:

Page views were not the right metrics to compare web properties to begin with. Why? Because they can be manipulated very easily. Say it t takes 2+ pages on site A to do anything compared to 1 page on site B, is site A really doing better than site B? Additionally you can split your content in as many pages as you want, there is no min standard page size, thus inflating page views.

Events: I think events will have the same issues as page views, plus everything in flash or AJAX interaction could be an event, where do you draw the line? What count’s as a valid event?

Session: I agree with Eric that this is a relatively stable metrics and agree with all the things he listed out for session. However, I don’t think sessions (alone) make sense as measure of measuring relative value of web properties.
I agree that Unique users have issues but those issues affect every web property, most likely in similar fashion. For example, if I delete my cookies, most likely I will delete for both myspace and yahoo.

Here is an example to make my point:
I go to myspace and read 2 pages in 1 min, wait 31 mins and then go back and read 2 more pages in 1 min. So here is what the web analytics reports will look like

2 sessions (visits)
1 unique users
4 page views
2 mins.

Now I go to yahoo spend 2 mins reading 4 pages in 1 session. Here is what the web analytics report will look like
1 session
1 unique users
4 page views
2 mins

What about the following scenario

Which property is number 1? Aren’t they both the same? If you use Session myspace appear to be number 1. But if you look at Unique Users and rest everything too, they both are equal.

What about the following scenario

I go to myspace site and read 2 pages in 1 min, wait 31 mins and then go back and read 2 more pages in 1 min then come back after 2 hours and read 2 more pages for 1 min. So here is what the web analytics report will look like

3 sessions
1 unique users
6 page views
3 mins.

Now I go to Yahoo spend 2 mins reading 4 pages in 1 session. My friend goes and reads 2 pages in 1 mins in one session. Here is what report will look like

2 sessions
2 unique users
6 page views
3 mins

Which property is number 1? Session will say myspace, even tough yahoo is getting more users?.

Will an advertiser be happy by showing same ad 10 times to one user in (more session but only 1 user) or they will be happier by showing the 5 times to 2 users (fewer sessions but more users)? So shouldn’t yahoo be number one in this scenario?

Let’s face it, it is about unique users. But other metrics do play a role in determining the value of a website

So do you agree that it is time to find a new metrics combining some (or all) of these above metrics? Comments/Thoughts?