What is the Difference Between a
Referral, a Visitor and a Hit?

More than one manufacturer has asked me how many hits do we get on 4specs.com. Some how they think that a "hit" means a visitor or a page provided. The truth is far from that. I propose that the important measures for a manufacturer looking to evaluate advertising effectiveness of an Internet directory are:

  1. How many referrals does the directory make to all manufacturer's web sites? and

  2. How can you increase your share of those referrals?

Here is my explanation of the differences between referrals, visitors and hits.

What is a Referral: When you click on a manufacturer's link on 4specs.com, you do not go directly to the manufacturers site, but rather to a program running on our server (goto.php) that refers you to the site. This program enables us to track each referral. We provide statistics to manufacturers interested in advertising. Your web server will have a corresponding entry showing that a user came from 4specs.

Hits: A hit is an entry in the computer log that a person requested a file and that file was either transmitted to the requestor or an error message was sent.

What is a Hit: Every file requested is a hit. That includes all images, pages and programs. For example, one construction-related site has 30 images on the home page. If one person requests that home page, the computer log will show 31 hits (30 images plus the HTML file). If a second page is requested that has 10 different images, that request will generate another 11 hits (10 images plus the page). Thus one visitor will have generated 42 hits just by visiting 2 pages.

What is a unique user or visitor?: This may seen obvious - one person even when they come back several times, even over several days - but it is very difficult to measure.  Unique visitors are tracked through registration and cookies. More about that another time.

What does the computer log tell you: The computer log shows which machine (but not the person's name)  requested the file. In some cases, the machine's name will tell you the company, especially a company like Dupont or 3M that provides its own Internet connectivity. The computer log will list what pages were requested and where the request originated. This is generally available. Ask your ISP how to get the referrer data for your site.

How are Hits Analyzed: Most web servers have available one or more analysis programs that read the computer logs and generate a summary report.  Typically  computer logs include the referrer. Some log analysis programs will analyze the referrals.

I can identify most referrals to 4specs.com by reviewing the daily access report looking for the referring sites. Over many months, I have deduced that currently 50% of the work day visitors have 4specs.com bookmarked or type in the address and 10-20% come from a link at a manufacturer's or organization's web site where 4specs.com has a cross listing. This is why we have emphasized cross listings with manufacturers. The remaining 10-20% of the visitors come from search engines such as Yahoo and Google. Most of these search engine visitors go into the section pages within the website.

What is a User Session: A user session is defined as one machine making requests for pages and there is at least one hit every 30 minutes. When the analysis program reads the log, it sorts all of the hits from each machine and will evaluate how much time has passed between hits. Thus, one person using 4specs.com all day, with a hit every 28 minutes will count as one visitor.

To make this number as realistic as possible, the analysis program does not count the common search engines such as Yahoo and Infoseek as visitors. The search engines can be a significant part of the visitor count if they are not excluded. Some days search engines would qualify as 40-45 visitors if they were not excluded. Hits from my ISP are excluded from the visitor count, even if they were from an architect. This means that my site development work and review is not counted as a visitor.

The concept of hits and visitors was well explained in a marketing newsletter I receive by email. You can get more information on this newsletter at Wanda Loskots' web site:
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14. H.I.T.S. - How Idiots Track Success
Still talking about "hits" when trying to illustrate how much traffic your site gets? At least don't use that word if you are speaking to ad people because it will indicate that you have very little knowledge of site traffic measurement.

People who buy advertising say that whenever owner starts telling them how many "hits" their site gets... they most likely move on to someone else. A person who understands the industry better. Someone who is able to talk in terms of page views, impressions or unique visitors.

Advertisers are not interested in the number of "hits" that a site gets because a "hit" is registered when one file on the server is accessed by a visitor's browser. The problem with telling someone that your site gets "Millions of Hits" is that if you have twelve graphic files on the main page and someone visits it, you just registered thirteen "hits": twelve .gif or .jpg files and the one .html file. "Hits" are extremely inaccurate, totally useless and that's why recently more and more people use the name HITS only as the acronym for - sorry folks - How Idiots Track Success!

In summary, I propose that the number of  referrals is the best way to evaluate an Internet directory. Advertising will increase your share of those referrals.

See also our newsletter about questions to ask when advertising on the Internet.