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Understanding Your Website Traffic
By: Terri Wells
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    Table of Contents:
  • Understanding Your Website Traffic
  • Defining Some Traffic-Related Terms
  • Tracking Your Visitors
  • Getting the Raw Data

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    Understanding Your Website Traffic - Defining Some Traffic-Related Terms

    (Page 2 of 4 )

    If you want to analyze your website traffic, there are certain terms you need to know. They may sound like obvious terms -- “visit,” for example -- but their meanings often aren’t quite that simple. I’ll be defining some of the most commonly used words in this section.

    A “visit” encompasses all of the requests that a single, specific user makes to your website during a particular period of time. If a certain amount of time (like an hour) goes by without the visitor accessing your website again, that visit is ended. This means that a visitor who flips back and forth between your site and, say, a competitor’s website to do comparison shopping, is really only visiting your site once.

    For purposes of analyzing your website traffic, visitors can be tracked. Specific visitors can be identified in a number of ways. A “cookie” is a small data file that can be written to a visitor’s hard drive by a web server, for purposes of identifying that visitor. Many cookies last only for the length of a visit; others are more permanent, and save visitors the trouble of re-entering their personal information every time they want to make a purchase at your site. Visitors can also be identified by their username (if they have to log into your site or otherwise have an account with you) or by their IP addresses.

    A “hit” is one term that is often confused. It happens when a file request is made to your server. Do not confuse a file with a web page. One web page can be made up of many files, including graphic files, audio files, JavaScript files, and more. So a single page might account for many hits when a visitor tries to view it.

    When you want to talk about a web page as a whole, you want to use the term “page view” or “impression.” This is what you need to count when you want to find out how many times a web page is, well, viewed.

    A plain count of page views could give you an inflated idea of how many visitors are actually checking out your website. So you also need to check for unique views. A “unique view” of a web page is a page view by a unique visitor within 24 hours. So the same visitor could view the same page multiple times, but they all only count as one view.

    If you want to know where your visitors are coming from, you want to look at your referrers. A “referrer” is a web page that links to your site. It could be linking to your site for any reason; the point is, somebody followed the link and ended up at your site. If you’re getting visitors from search engines, looking at the referrers could tell you what keywords they used to find you…and that’s very valuable information for whoever does your site’s search engine optimization.

    Finally, I’m going to mention one last term: user agent. Usually, a “user agent” is the same thing as a web browser. It’s the software a visitor uses to access your website. But it isn’t always a web browser; when search engines send spiders to index your site, they don’t use web browsers (a fact which black hat SEOs sometimes take advantage of, but that topic is beyond the scope of this article). Sometimes a script is used – and sometimes it’s overused to block other visitors from accessing your site, as in denial-of-service attacks. In broad outline, if you can tell what kind of user agent is accessing your site, you can tell what’s happening to your site – whether it’s getting normal traffic, being indexed by the search engines, under attack, or even seeing some unusual but normal use (i.e. the software many bidders use on eBay that allows them to “snipe” the winning bid).

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