January 11, 2005

Blog Traffic

All of a sudden I have no idea how many people visit this blog – or anyone else’s blog for that matter.

N.Z. Bear writes at Tech Central Station:
[I]t should also be noted that not everyone in the weblog world believes that SiteMeter data are perfect, or even the best counter available. Some bloggers scoff at SiteMeter, claiming that the results it provides undercount the actual traffic they see by measuring traffic more directly from their server logs. These complaints may or may not be true: I frankly don't know.
This is news to me. I’ve used SiteMeter ever since I started this blog and always assumed it was reasonably accurate. Maybe it’s not.

So I checked my traffic level using Webalizer (which is installed on my server), something I’ve never done before. And I was shocked.

SiteMeter says the average number of visits per day on my blog is 3,200.

Webalizer says my daily average is almost 6,000 for the same time period.

What’s the deal? How can these two traffic counters be off by so much? Does anyone have an informed opinion? (Both SiteMeter and Webalizer claim to count a single visit as all activity on my Web site from a single IP address with less than 30 minutes of idle time in a row between clicks. So it’s not like they’re comparing apples and oranges.)

I’m slightly inclined to believe the Webalizer stats since Webalizer is actually installed on my server and SiteMeter isn’t. But maybe there’s a flaw in the code that leads to overcounting. I’ve no idea.

I really would like to know how many people stop by here every day. It’s not just about ego or idle curiosity.

As N.Z. Bear notes at TCS:
This is a real problem, and one that will only grow in importance as weblogs continue to take their place alongside traditional media as a source of information and entertainment. Blogging is no longer exclusively a hobby done for the sheer pleasure of it: for some, it's a business, with real money coming in from real advertisers -- who want to know exactly what real traffic they're paying for.
Yep. Maybe someone should conduct an experiment. Create a place-holder Web site where you can control exactly how much traffic it gets because you’ll be the only one visiting. Keep a careful tally of how many “visits” you auto-generate. Then compare different traffic counters and see which ones are accurate and which ones are not.

It would be a pain, but also a real public service.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at January 11, 2005 07:14 PM
Comments

I used to tally a hits report for a corporate website. Even our department's alpha geek couldn't find a method that would provide verifiably true results.

If marketing would ask about how exact the weekly hits report was, we'd do some hand-waving about 'approximations' and say that the stats should be used for 'comparison' (they go up, it's good, down, bad). This is probably why I've never gotten around to installing sitemeter on my site.

Posted by: mary at January 11, 2005 07:27 PM

There are any number of reasons for the discrepancy -- cached "counter" images, filters blocking sitemeter specifically or generally as a third-party, incorrect interpretations of the data, incorrect configurations...

Compare some of the other stats and see how they come out (browser share, etc)

Posted by: Mason at January 11, 2005 08:13 PM

It's not possible to get an accurate count. That's the end of the story. Everything already mentioned (proxies, adblockers, cookie blockers), as well as rss feeds not counting... you can't tell. You can set a lower bound, but you can't know the upper.

Posted by: Ry Jones at January 11, 2005 08:17 PM

Any program running on your server is always going to be more accurate WRT hit counts because it parses the server logs. It's not possible to block the information server logs collect. OTOH, it's trivial to block Sitemeter, because it uses Javascript. If the visitor's browser does not allow Javascript, Sitemeter can't count the visit.

The point about the Bear's Ecosphere is that all sites are being counted the same way (relatively). In reality, some sites could be undercounted more than others simply because more people that visit that site don't allow Javascript in their browser, but there's no way to overcome that problem.

On my blog, Sitemeter consistently undercounts compared to Statcounter (which I also use.) I don't know why that is, but I can't really say I care either. As long as NZ Bear counts all sites with Sitemeter only, then all sites are being compared fairly.

But none of us really care about hit counts anyway, right? ;-)

Posted by: antimedia at January 11, 2005 08:45 PM

Wow. Webalizer says I have more visits in the past five months than what Sitemeter has for my blog's life.

Posted by: Nathan Hamm at January 11, 2005 09:04 PM

I kinda hate to say it, but I think sitemeter drastically over estimates the number of visits a given website gets. I'm not an expert in site traffic, but I am a professional web developer and the personal code I use for my hit counter says I get about 1 percent of the 1000 per day sitemeter says I get (as per my trafic ranking on truthlaidbear).

Posted by: Leathan Lund at January 11, 2005 10:18 PM

Leathan Lund,

Sitemeter counts the least number of hits of the three counters I have now looked at.

I'm definitely not getting one percent of the 3,200 Sitemeter says I am getting. I get more people leaving comments than that.

How can Sitemeter say you get 1000 hits per day when you're only getting 10? That seems ridiculous to me. You must be getting more than 10. Sitemeter can tell you exactly who is on your Web site at any given moment, what their IP adddress is, etc. Sitemeter isn't making those IP addresses up out of thin air.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at January 11, 2005 10:38 PM

I think bots have an impact on the numbers, as well. My server stats show which robots hit my site, so I assume it counts them.

Posted by: Mike at January 12, 2005 03:43 AM

Another common mistake is for people (and possibly the stat packages) to mistake "hits" and "visits" and "page views". Depending on what program you're looking at, the definition of a hit may differ.

In my professional-computer-geekdom-experience, a hit should be defined as some object/file fetched from the server; a page view should be counted when a page with a unique address is viewed; and a visit should be counted as the totality of page views from a unique (IP address/cookie/what have you).

A little more detail, or maybe just even more confusing: When you type an address into the address bar, your browser receives the skeletal html (or xml or whatever) document. That's one "hit". Then your browser requests any graphic, style sheet, java script, or other files to fill in the page. Those are all counted as hits, too.

One "page view" can easily generate a dozen or more "hits", after all of the graphics etc are fetched.

Posted by: Mason at January 12, 2005 04:22 AM

Okay, everyone count off.

One!

Posted by: Scott Janssens at January 12, 2005 08:08 AM

This web page may help you compare the two different tracking systems. The two systems may match better if you try comparing the page view counts between them instead of the visit counts. Visit counts usually diverge the most between different tracking systems.

http://www.sitemeter.com/default.asp?action=help&area=COMPARE

Posted by: David Smith at January 12, 2005 08:36 AM

Two!

Posted by: Caroline at January 12, 2005 09:01 AM

Uh...uh....WHAT'S MY NUMBER???

I've always suspected that sitemeter was underreporting my traffic.

Oh, it's still cricket sounds, but the cricket sounds are LOUDER now...

Posted by: TmjUtah at January 12, 2005 11:00 AM

Advertisers don't need perfect stats. All they need is a standardized method of measurement, so the same errors happen everywhere. They can get by on a ranking of sites' relative traffic, and develop a quite accurate idea of the advertising value of a given location.

If the Nielsens are good enough, Sitemeter is good enough.

Posted by: dipnut at January 12, 2005 11:38 AM

The short answer is that Sitemeter doesn't count web crawlers and spiders, but Webalyzer does. It's surprising to see just how much web traffic is devoted to indexing the web. It also appears that Sitemeter doesn't count visits from AOL - at least it doesn't show me any. This is a pretty serious drawback, of course. So your actual traffic is probably about 25-50% more than Sitemeter says.

Posted by: Richard Bennett at January 12, 2005 01:34 PM

Hey Mike,

Given what your last (full time) job was, this is a rather funny topic.

With that said, it is exceptionally difficult to verify the actual hits, visits and views into a single comprehensive value. That value being an actual living person viewing the site. There are too many intricacies involved. You can get pretty close though. Why aren't you using the old product?

Your old co-worker,
-Todd

Posted by: Joe Ignorant at January 12, 2005 01:59 PM

For Richard,

I'm guessing the reason AOL doesn't get counted is that you can litterally assume several IP's through AOL with a single page being loaded. In that case, I'm guessing AOL gets counted as a web crawler. I haven't read up on site meter, so this is just my guess.

Posted by: Joe Ignorant at January 12, 2005 02:04 PM

Todd: Given what your last (full time) job was, this is a rather funny topic

Ha ha, yes I know. (For those who don't know, my old day job was with WebTrends, a tech company that makes...Web stat counters!)

The reason my opinion on this particular subject is "uninformed" is because I may know a lot about Webtrends, I don't know a damn thing about how SiteMeter or Webalizer works.

Richard Bennett's answer above (that SiteMeter doesn't count AOL visits) is exactly the kind of info I was fishing for.

Why am I not using the old product? 'Cause these counters are free and require no maintainence. Also, I don't have a copy of the old product, so there's that...

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at January 12, 2005 02:53 PM

I have nothing to add to this topic but wanted to say that your site is must reading for me. No offense, Michael, but the reason is as much the comments as your posts. The snark you get in the comments at Polipundit, LGF, Kevin Drum etc is not, generally, replicated here.

Why should it be rare to find a site with comments where the posts are from smart people with different political views that respect each other (even while disagreeing)?

Posted by: Matthew Ryan at January 12, 2005 03:17 PM

Three! Er, hold on. Two! (Damn!) I lost track. . .

How do you access Webalizer, anyway?

And your Site Meter down below my comment says 1,176,391. No matter how you slice it, that ain't half bad!

Posted by: The Parson at January 12, 2005 03:33 PM

Parson,

Webalizer comes with my hosting service package. But you won't get it if you're using blogspot.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at January 12, 2005 04:10 PM

Well, there you go: Make a site counter that is the best of the best. And create Jobs in America in the process.

Who's up for the challenge?

Posted by: James C. Hess at January 13, 2005 04:27 AM

Excuse my honesty but 6,000 a day isn't very much for someone with your popularity, I'm a nobody and pulling 4,000 a day average. Again excuse my honesty but I bet your traffic would sky rocket if you took down your pic. I mean, I like your site, I'm a daily reader, but My God, that has got to be one of the smuggest portraits on earth, I can't stand looking at it. I mean SMUG. Sorry to say it, but it really bothers me and gives a bad impression about you. I will probably regret letting this slip. But you really look smug. Smug is a nice way of putting it. But like I said, I like your site, just can't stand your pic. It is so smug. I'm not saying your a bad looking guy, you just don't look very nice. You look very smug. Sorry.

Posted by: Zed at January 13, 2005 09:26 AM

I'm glad Zed's never seen the picture of me I have in my blog mast rotation!

How do you count RSS feeds? I've encouraged so many readers to use RSS feeds but now I realize that I'm sabotaging traffic, making it harder to achieve the numbers I need to run blogads.

I can see how often blogines accesses my blog, but isn't that just telling me how often they troll, not how often someone reads me?

But as to actual traffic, I don't know of any reason to think that webalizer is missing any. But the Java script comment makes sense as I've noticed that Sitemeter does better when they "see" more IE traffic (and when I'm linked to by, um, "conservative" bloggers, the discrepancy between my Sitemeter and Webalizer stats shrinks considerably).

Posted by: Mark Gisleson at January 13, 2005 02:24 PM

Use WebTrends! :-)

Posted by: Jason Holliston at January 13, 2005 04:23 PM

For what it's worth...

I've been running site meter on my blog for quite awhile and I never questioned the data it gave me until I read your post Michael. Last night, I installed Stat Counter and waited for to see any difference. Well, there was a difference. As of 10:00 PM, Site Meter reported that I had 4,424 unique visitors, while Stat Counter said I had 5,064, a difference of 640. I'll keep looking at this over the next few days. Clearly, one is right and one is wrong, or they're both wrong...or something.

Posted by: PunditGuy at January 13, 2005 10:25 PM

Don't worry, Michael. People routinely tell me I look like a serial killer, based on my picture. Smug is a little better.

I know SiteMeter knows how to count AOL visits, because I accidentally banned a friend of mine from commenting by banning an IP address that was an AOL proxy. I diagnosed the problem by having him access an obscure and old post of mine while I was on the phone with him. It showed up within seconds, and I unbanned the IP address -- and voila! he could comment.

So you're not missing all AOL users. Sorry.

Posted by: Patterico at January 13, 2005 11:17 PM

Open two sitemeter accounts and place both scripts on your page. I did this and got different counts. Ooooofff...

Posted by: metermaid at January 14, 2005 07:46 AM

I only have experience w/ Site Meter... before I told it to stop counting my visits to my own blog, it was very accurate at showing the numbers and amount of time I spent visiting my site from the five or six different computers I use on a regular basis.

Insofar as the reason why this is important in the first place, it would not be hard for an unethical blogger to get help auto-generating lots of false hits to his blog. I guess advertisers need to have something to go on however.

Posted by: LCB at January 14, 2005 09:58 AM

With respect to the first comment in this thread: I am my company's alpha geek and I think the whole hit-counter/log analyser thing is a crock. They're order of magnitude numbers to fob marketroids off with. You can use them for broad-brush analysis, but as precise measures of site activity they're next to useless. Consider, for example, a site that is popular with students. The university I used to work for had a very, very big SQUID proxy to cut down on its freakishly enormous bandwidth costs. A lot of caching proxies are configured to ignore headers like Cache-Control:, Expires:, Last-Modified: and Pragma: on things like sitemeters (otherwise they'd be useless). They can be made to aggressively cache main body content, too. So 10,000 students could visit the same page within the cache expiration window and you'd see one hit. Even small businesses often have caching proxies. Your ISP may well have one.

Before I upgraded to Firefox 1.0, the small cookie limit (300) in Firefox 0.8 meant I configured it to reject cookies from sitemeter.com. That screws up hits vs. uniques.

Hit counts are bogus numbers and have been for ever. Their degree of bogosity can only increase.

Posted by: David Gillies at January 15, 2005 03:06 AM

i work for a tech site in Asia. we use webalizer amongst other tools, as well as Doubleclick's DART as an ad serving tool. One method of measurement was take a DART count of the unique number of ads served throughout the site (there is an ad on every page). When compared with the page view numbers from webalizer, the result was consistently 40% - 60% lower from DART. so far, we've attributed this to spiders/crawlers and unfortunately, have used the smaller number for more prudent reporting to advertisers.

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