Why Traffic is a Vanity Metric and What to Measure Instead


The traffic metaphor has never really worked for the Web. These days it's almost completely useless. Do you want people to drive by your site without stopping and buying?

Or do you want to welcome real visitors and make them happy customers or supporters? Measuring traffic on a busy street your store is at won't tell you much about your business success either.

When will traffic go the way of "hits" an early metric of the Web site owners used to track in the nineties? Like "hits" its younger sibling "traffic" does not really tell you whether your site performs well or not. You can have huge traffic but fail as a business. It looks good on the screen but doesn't tell you the real story.

Even your non-profit site that has so called "targeted traffic" might be a failure in reality despite it. In essence measuring traffic does not tell you anything besides that you are situated at a busy street.


What do you need to measure instead of traffic?

What you need to measure of course depends on the kind of site you are tracking. It's obvious:

  • An ecommerce site needs to track sales
  • A so called "lead generating" site (one that is after prospects) needs to measure conversions
  • A publisher that shows so called CPM ads (paid per thousand views) needs to measure pageviews

and so on and so forth. I don't want to explain each and every analytics use case here.

Industry leaders like Avinask Kaushik are blogging about it for years. I rather want to tell you to stop focusing on sheer traffic and focus an actual people instead. What does this mean? Just think of it:

you can have a thousand visitors on two consecutive days but on one day it may be completely different people than on the other day. In other words you just attracted "traffic" again.

Like a drive-in at the highway you have a thousand cars that have passed you by to never return. On the next day another thousand of vehicles is passing through and so on. Most of us are not in the drive-in business on the Web.

Even in case you manage to

  • sell something to these drivers on your drive-in website
  • to convert them to prospects
  • to make them view several pages (by adding an image gallery where you have to click to see the next photo for example)

they may return the product bought later on because they are dissatisfied and never return because of that. They may never reply to your attempts to turn the "lead" into something more. They may be so annoyed with the poor "pageview generating" user experience that they will shun your site in the future.

Thus just focus on more value oriented but short-term selfish metrics does not suffice. Website success is not measured by "f*****g on the first date". No matter whether you're into ecommerce, lead generation or display ads you need to measure whether real people are satisfied and are coming back for more.


People are not personas, lurkers are not influencers

Beware of personas, they are just abstractions meant as a cheap trick to turn people into abstract entities again. Let's be honest: most of you don't deal with millions or even thousands of visitors per day. You have to care for every single person who visits your site.

It can make a huge difference whether someone only superficially interest in the subject matter drops in or whether a high profile influencer like Rand Fishkin visits your site and refers to you on Twitter for example.

I'm not solely talking about the online marketing sphere. In other industries it's even more the case. Just think fashion, design or even gadgets. Some visitors are more important than others. Just consider the typical online activity pyramid of 90-9-1.


90% of users are lurkers, 9% display some activity e.g. writing comments etc. but the 1% of hyperactive power users run the show almost by themselves. It's apparent on most social sites but also on the Web in the general and thus on your site as well. You want to spot get the 1% and make them return.

You want to try to make the lurkers and occasional contributors active at all or more often. The key to find out how your site really performs is to track real people and to focus on visitor retention. By "track" I do not mean creepy NSA-like tracking. I don't even mean the slightly less spooky "retargeting" where you make ads stalk unsuspecting visitors around the Web automatically.


What does visitor retention mean in particular?

Retention is an awful word. I wonder who comes up with such weird lingo. To retain means to "keep possession of". It literally means "holding back". That reminds me of rogue xxx and warez sites that first lure you to visit them with some too good to be true promises and then try to prevent you from going back by throwing some weird JavaScript alerts, redirects and windows at you. It's not about holding back,

it's about keeping your visitor happy for as long as possible and making her or him return as often as possible.


There are many different metrics that can tell you whether a person is happy on your site. First off s/he stays there and doesn't run away in an instant by ideally clicking one or more internal links. It's called a low bounce rate.

Different analytics vendors measure the bounce rate differently though.

Here's how a the fine folks of Ptengine define bounce rate:


For some you just need to click in order not to bounce. Others measure the time on page and consider visits below a certain threshold (like 1 to 5 seconds usually) as a bounce. Intriguingly some people try to click or take an action on your page but seemingly don't find the actual links.


A tool like Heap analytics can even show you the people who tried to click where there was no link or who simply selected text (maybe to copy and paste it into a message). Heap is free for small sites that don't have too many visitors. Above you can see a partial screen shot from my Heap analytics of a visitor who landed on my blog homepage, then clicked on the humans.txt article and in it tried to click inside the content.


A tale of heroic readers

As you see the bounce rate already implies two other metrics, time on site and pages viewed. Personally I track metrics I have invented myself like "heroic reader" for example. A heroic reader is the perfect metrics to keep track of the people who are really fond of your blog or publication. For ecommerce sites and landing pages it may be not the right metric. It depends on the set up of the site in question.

What does the heroic reader do on my blog? S/he reads. A lot.

A heroic reader is a reader who views at least five pages and stay on site for at least half an hour. That's a rare case you might argue but these people are among the most important ones to track. Remember that drive through traffic doesn't mean much. It's the people who actually get out of their car, enter your site on foot, sit down, relax and enjoy the content.

Using my favorite people analytics tool called Woopra you can easily track your heroic readers. For example you can highlight all the people who stay for half an hour or longer by choosing

[Duration of Vist (s)] [greater than] [1800].

1800 is the number of seconds. 30  minutes are 1800 seconds. See the partial screen shot below:


In contrast people who weren't even interested enough to stop their car and to enter your site are far less likely to come back. Why return when you weren't even wowed enough to stay the first time? The only exception would be being in a hurry initially. When you take a look at the people who actually return they in most cases viewed more than one page on the first visit already.

Marketers often speak about KPIs or Key Performance Indicators. That's just another acronym you don't need to remember other than in my own interpretation of it: KPI stands for Keep People Interested. Take a look at the pages the people dwell on and return. Then create more such content.

  • Elaborate on the topics.
  • Show examples and provide case studies.
  • Share outside resources dealing with them.


Retention and value beyond the "customer lifetime"

Here we are already talking about the most significant part of the "retention". Keeping means keeping coming back. Ideally you make someone fall in love with your site and reappear for years to come. Sales people also call it the "customer lifetime value".

Sadly marketers mostly measure the money you spend. The value is of course not just monetary.

A satisfied reader who wants to return is also more likely to share your content or even recommend your products and services right away. You can't measure a so called brand evangelist by the number of sales and how much money they've spent. Ideally you also measure micro-conversions like a share button click.


Does social media activity really impact your website traffic?

Clicks on share buttons do not have to mean much either though. When John Doe clicks the share button and tweets your post to his 10 automated followers it won't help much. When Rand Fishkin and 100 others who follow him tweet your post it can actually make or break your piece of content. Most other people are somewhere in-between.

Ideally you can look at the correlation of shares and traffic.

It's difficult to measure just with Google Analytics or other traditional tools. Yet GA certainly can help. Personally I use SumAll, an analytics dashboard aggregating and comparing all your data from Google, Facebook, Twitter and the likes. I can see whether my sheer social media activity has some positive impact on my actual site traffic or rather the number of visitors:

sumall-retweets-google-advocavy-visitors Above you see how the number of retweets [blue line] and Google+ “advocacy activity” (+1’s, shares, reshares) [red line] and the traffic stats [orange line]. Sometimes the social media engagement seems to have a direct positive impact in other cases it doesn't apparently.


Key Takeaways

  • Measuring traffic doesn't suffice and mostly makes you feel good
  • You need to keep track of power users who really engage with your site
  • Heroic readers are your best bet to come back for more again and again
  • Retention does mean making people happy not trapping them
  • Do not solely focus on direct monetary gain, people matter as well
  • Ideally you connect the dots of social media and website analytics


* (CC BY 2.0) Creative Commons image by davejdoe


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