Web stats. Site statistics. Don't run away... you need to read this! The very thought of deciphering site statistic programs sends many site owners running to do all kinds of tasks that are less painful and tedious, like going to the dentist or cleaning the tile grout with a toothbrush.

If you understand what you are looking at, site stats are not that painful and can be a real motivator to improve performance. They are the scoreboard that allows you to benchmark your performance and challenge you to find ways to make your site convert at a higher rate; more sales, more signups, more participation.

Let's review some of the basic terminology you will find in most web analytics program and demystify it so that you know what to measure, what to ignore, and what it all means.


Hits are the most overused and misunderstood measurement in web analytics. In the early days, people would brag about how many hits their website got... today most people know that hits are not a reliable measurement.

A hit is any element called by your browser when it requests a page. A single page may register a single hit or hundreds of hits based on how it has been built. Images, external stylesheets, external javascripts, and other elements that require the server to pull a file to build the page register as hits. Since every page has a different number of elements, hits are not a reliable measurement.


A file is a hit that actually returned data from the server. Not all hits return data. Cached elements and errors are examples of hits that are not counted as files. This measurement is not likely to be helpful to you either.

Pages or Page Views

A Page or Page View is a measurement of the pages requested from the server. This is a good measurement to keep up with. You can get a rough idea of the number of pages the average visitor views by dividing this number by the number of visitors.

Page views can give you an idea of whether or not visitors are finding what they need on your site and progressing through it or viewing a single page and leaving.

Sites, Unique Visitors, and Repeat Visitors

Sites and unique visitors increment your visitors by recording their IP address. This gives you an idea of the number of visitors to your site in a given time period. It's not entirely accurate as people visiting your site from the same IP address (such as people on an office network or on dial-up where IP's rotate) will be counted as a single site or visitor.

Repeat visitors simply takes that IP address and compares it to see if the same IP address has visited more than once. Again, a margin of error for multiple users on the same IP address will skew this number.

Session and Visit Duration

This metric tries to measure the amount of time a user browsed your site. While it seems like a good idea to measure this, it's not a very accurate measurement. People may not be actively browsing your site, but they may have it open. A visit may "time out" at different intervals, and a new session is started for the same visitor.

One thing to note would be a large number of very short visits; it may indicate your search terms are not very well targeted and people are not finding what they expect on your site.

Referrers or Referring Sites

The link a visitor clicked on to arrive at your site is counted as a referrer or referring site. A large number of your referrers will be internal pages, the rest will be other sites or search engines. You may also see some web-based e-mail programs in your referrer logs. Bookmarked pages and urls typed directly into the browser will not show a referrer.

Referring sites is definitely something you want to watch- you can tell who is linking to you and how much traffic they send, including the search engines. When checking referring sites, don't click the URL in your web analytics program... copy and paste it into a new browser window. Otherwise your stats page will then appear in their referrering sites!

Search Terms and Search Strings

Search terms and search strings are pulled from the referring url from traffic sent by search engines. Search strings are more useful than search terms...just because a single words are listed in the search terms does not mean a visitor found your site by typing in that one word. It's simply every word in the search strings listed separately.

Search strings can tell you a lot about your search engine traffic- Are there phrases there you didn't expect? What phrases that you did expect are missing?

Browsers, User Agents, and Operating Systems

Browsers or user agents and operating systems will tell you what type of browser and operating system your visitors are using, often detailing it to the version number. You may want to double-check to see how your pages render in the browsers your visitors are using. Don't get lulled into a false sense of security by a small percentage of users for a specific browser... translate that percentage into actual numbers. You may want to check again for browser compatibility!

This information will typically show you the search engine robots traffic as well; you can see how often they are visiting your site and how many pages they are viewing.

Entry and Exit Pages

This is an interesting metric- it details the top entry pages (the first page a visitor arrives at) and the top exit pages (the last page they view before leaving or timing out). This can help you identify the high interest pages and the pages where you are losing visitors.

If you can combine this metric with top pages viewed, you can get an idea of how people are progressing through your site.

The Basics

There are many, many things a web analytics package can tell you these days that are truly amazing. Once you grasp the basics of these measurements that are included in any web analytics software, you will understand better what you want to measure and why. Then it's time to trade up to a full-featured package that can give you that finely detailed information in the way you want to see it.

Most hosts these days have free web analytics programs installed- check your control panel for your sites and see. It's probably labeled as "web stats" or "statistics". The most popular ones are Webalizer, Analog, and AWStats. If you don't have a web analytics program installed but you do have access to your raw logfiles, try Funnel Web, a free log analyzer.

If you don't have built-in stats or access to your logfiles, get a new host! You really do need to review this information monthly or quarterly to see how your site is doing with traffic and visitors. Put it on your calendar now- start benchmarking! You need to know the score.

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.
April 26, 2005

Scottie Claiborne is the facilitator of the Successful Sites Newsletter. She is a speaker at the Search Engine Strategies conferences and the High Rankings Seminars as well as the administrator of the High Rankings Forum.

Search Engine Guide > Scottie Claiborne > What's the Score? Basic Web Analytic Terminology