Fun with Web Metrics

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Diatribe: Web Stat “Odometers”

Big numbers don

Outside of many McDonald’s, they tell you the numbers they’ve served is in excess of 99 billion. If that refers to customers, it must include repeat visits, unless they’ve used a time machine to reach most of their clientele who are primarily space aliens. And while the number sounds impressive, it doesn’t really say much in terms of impact. Or, it might refer to burgers, but then it doesn’t say who the recipients are (or if they’re all human…). Or it might refer to the number of times a transaction occurred, but then that might or might not include orders that don’t include burgers… In short, I don’t know what it means, but it certainly sounds like a huge number and I suspect that that’s truly the only message, left entirely to the interpretation of the viewer of the sign with the expectation that there are very few things with that many zeroes in it to use for comparison.

Frequently we fall into the same trap with respect to metrics. We WANT to be seen as important, or at least respected, having achieved our goals that involved designing, building, launching, and maintaining our web sites – it’s a lot of work!

So we start looking for impressive sounding numbers – things that are not subject to fluctuations. Cumulatve numbers always increase and they’re low-hanging fruit.

In a way they’re like the odometer in your car which is handy .  But if you think about it, there’s not that much joy at watching those miles tally up.   Really, there’s typically two things that you use that meter for:

  1. working out distances between way points on trips;
  2. knowing when to do maintenance.

Why is it then that we’re trying to make our web stats into more?

Plots of cumulative stats (page views, visitors, etc.) fall into this trap:  because they’re cumulative they never go down, and you get that familiar “hockey stick” shape.   (Have you seen any lately that made you go “WOW!”?)   But going back to our odometer metaphor, the two aforementioned uses do have their metrics counterparts:

First, we do have way points we measure from: monthly stats, yearly stats, etc., and measuring those offsets provides us with an indication of growth (among other things).   OK – that’s fairly obvious.  But the web site “trip odometer” has an interesting twist in other (shorter-term) ways.    What about the comparative increase in hits of part of the site when new content is added and looking for the time frame that things “go viral”?    I can see this being important for sites with RSS feeds:  you want to know if the content being served is rapidly perused and the comparative popularity of each article (or articles on the same topic).

As for the second – preventive maintenance – while I’ve never seen a site development strategy put in the context of the “5,000,000 visit checkup” it sort of makes sense, and it would be interesting to see what sort of effect it would have if we chose to revisit design, UI, and even regular maintenance checks (dead links are a great example) based upon milestones of visits or page views.

Forthcoming: why distributions are so cool, and when they are/aren’t “normal”.

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September 17, 2010 - Posted by | philosophy, visits |

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