Do unique visitors matter?

November 10, 2008

As I discussed in an earlier post, there are many ways to measure web traffic. The question is really how valuable those measurements are and what they mean to interested parties – which usually means advertisers. As with all statistics, you can twist the numbers any number of ways. First, let’s look at probably the most common site measurement, unique visitors.

Unique visitors (UVs) is the number of different people who visited your site, usually measured within a month (e.g., a site quoted as having 50,000 UVs translates as having 50,000 different visitors in that month). The value of UVs is your site’s (and brand’s) reach: how many people are coming across it and seeing who you are and what you do?

UVs have been the industry standard in measuring traffic, to a great degree because it’s a simple measurement and easy to compare. It’s meaningful in the sense that an increase in UVs means your site is being seen by a greater number of people than before, and probably that it has greater exposure across the web.

However, there are some flaws in using UVs as a single measurement. For example, a high number of UVs doesn’t necessarily translate into “quality” traffic: readers who actually read and interact with your content. It also doesn’t mean your whole site is getting a high amount of traffic: 50,000 UVs could mean 30,000 UVs over three top articles and the rest of the site going virtually unread. It could even translate into those three top articles being clicked on from elsewhere but having a high bounce rate and low amount of time on site and never actually being read at all.

Another problem with UVs is that a focus on them as a major statistic means that your web team will be concentrating all of their energy on raising UVs, which isn’t necessarily the best goal for the site’s overall development. There are many strategies for increasing UVs that create traffic spikes (such as if you have a compelling link on a prominent site or blog for a single day) but no conversions into repeat visitors. If 10,000 of your 50,000 monthly visitors are from a single link in a single day to a single story and they never come back, is that 50,000 really a quality measurement of your site’s readership? (This is a common problem with social media/bookmarking sites such as Digg, StumbleUpon and Twitter.)

The key to quality site development is to pay attention to UVs but not make an increase in UVs your only target. Make sure your traffic-driving strategies include a focus on converting those new visitors into return visitors, such as by encouraging them to sign up for newsletters or RSS feeds. In order to have a well-rounded site, you have to have a number of different goals and strategies in mind.

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