Thursday, October 04, 2007

Traffic cat is out of the bag

Traffic is important for most websites. It determines ad rates as well a website's influence. Most people do not question traffic numbers very much, but they should. Patrick Ruffini (via Dean Barnett) shows us why:

Our own Patrick Ruffini made some headlines a couple of days ago with an extremely interesting post. Delving into the vicissitudes of the Sitemeter counting system, Patrick estimated that Sitemeter overstates the amount of Daily Kos traffic by roughly 60% and that the actual number of Daily Kos readers is closer to a 250,000/day than the much ballyhooed figure of 600,000 a day.

Sitemeter is a great little web application, but it is not a reliable tool. Unique visitors is the key measurement for traffic. Established and commercial traffic trackers like Hitbox will track unique visitors over the course of a day, week, month, etc. Sitemeter tracks unique visitors per 30 minutes and no farther. That means if you visit a site once an hour, all day, you will count as 24 unique visits under Sitemeter's system. This creates an echo chamber than can over count the actual number of unique visitors to a site like Daily Kos in a day, and thus greatly skew how much influence such a site has in the political process.

That's not to come down on Sitemeter. Sitemeter was never designed to be an authoritative voice on traffic, and that's part of the reason you don't see it on commercial web sites. But even among those companies that are in business to count and log traffic there can be significant disparities. There is no defined standard for counting traffic, and that means there is a lot of gray area that can be exploited. And in the case of blogs and Sitemeter, you can be sure that the actual number of unique visitors in a day are smaller in most cases (RSS feeds play a part in this, too, but that is another discussion for another day).

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