October 6, 2010

Greatest Hits

It's time to talk about hits--great ones if you'd like--but more importantly, the kind generated by Google bots and the ones oft' overestimated by your staff as genuine human interest in your web content. Lately, everyone's favorite word seems to be "hits." I keep finding myself in meetings where someone asks breathlessly, "How many hits are we getting on that page? Have our hits gone up? Are you tracking?" If you hear one of these questions, take a deep breath, put your enlightened librarian face on, and calmly explain the following:
  • A 'hit' is not as easy to define as some might think. Your own web system may define it differently from services such as Google Analytics, and you may have to wade through your server logs and crunch the numbers yourself to get an accurate count. (I'd say more, but I obviously don't know any more than this; I rely on our webmaster to interpret the server logs.)
  • Your own hits may be included in the numbers you are looking at. I don't know about you, but every time I am building a page, I check it several times in several browsers because I don't trust the preview screens. All those hits and refreshes (to fix apostrophes that are turning up as question mark diamonds) may be counted as veritable web traffic to a page. Which brings me to the next point...
  • You need to create a baseline to make sense of the numbers. You may choose to start tracking hits or growth after a certain date to filter out some of the set-up hits, especially if the page in question is brand-new. If the page is not a brand new URL but you have changed or added content, then it becomes even more important to think carefully about the date ranges you want to look at.
  • Don't track hits on pages you do nothing to promote. Marketing may not be in your job description, but if someone is asking you how a page is doing, and that page is not either (a) linked very prominently on your site, or (b) being actively promoted through some other method, do not spend time looking at the numbers until you've made some effort to drive web traffic to that page.
  • Be clear on what you are looking for in the numbers. Have you ever heard that HITS stands for 'How Idiots Track Success'? (I originally heard this attributed to Gerry McGovern, and it has also been attributed to Google's Avinash Kaushik, but I'd like to think it was first coined by Toby Ward.) I don't know if I truly believe that, but I think the extreme point of view occasionally helps move us to a more reasoned middle ground. Yes, you want to know if people are using your site, but hits could be bots not people, and even if the hitmakers are human, do you know how satisfied they were with your content? As JD Roth says, "Do you know the best way to get search engine traffic? Get linked from other sites. Do you know the best way to get linked from other sites? Write content that people want to share with others, content that makes people go, “Wow. I’m glad I found that.” That’s only SEO trick you need to know."
A website is a means to an end, not an end in itself. If you throw out some numbers that indicate page traffic is up, the temptation may be to think everyone is doing his or her job. Other forms of feedback and evaluation may be more effective unless your goal is just to generate hits. Let's leave that to the great songwriters of the world.

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