Counting the Hits

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Hit counters are very popular with novice web developers, but they lose favor as the developers gain skills. What is a hit, and why are hit counters not for serious developers?

Just about every web developer, it seems, has tinkered with one of those free personal websites offered by an ISP. The ISPs try to make it easy and attractive for anyone without a crumb of development knowledge to build their own personal website; it is the desire to make these personal sites better that often leads a fledgling developer on the path to professionalism.

In any case, the ISP will give the personal site developer some tools to build the site with, and one of those tools is a rudimentary way to learn how popular a personal site is: the hit counter. The hit counter is perhaps the simplest form of website analytics. It works by counting the number of times it has been loaded by a visiting browser, and then displaying that number. Very simple, and for its simplicity, very popular. It can take on just about any appearance that suits the programmer who creates it, and they run a full range of appearances.

Hit counters as analytics tools

As an analytic tool, the hit counter may serve its purpose for the owner of a personal website, but when the owner of the site gets serious, the flaws of a hit counter start to become noticeable. The first is in what is being counted. The owner of the site has been using the hit counter to count visitors, but remember, all it really counts is the number of times it’s been loaded. A hit is the term used to count the loading of a file from a website. This is an important definition, as it can put the popularity of a website in perspective. It can, and should, cause you to question how the number was attained, as well.

Since the hit counter counts the number of times its been loaded, what happens when a visitor arrives, then refreshes his browser? The hit counter is loaded once on arrival, then loaded again with the screen refresh. The hit counter would display 2 hits. Next, the visitor browses to an adjacent page, then returns. The hit counter is reloaded on the return, and the visitor has caused the counter to display 3 hits. Finally, what if he starts a refresh, but moves to another page before the screen is fully loaded? Depending on where the hit counter is on the screen, it may or may not be loaded, and may or may not be incremented.

Getting an impression

So, you see, hit counters are not all that accurate at counting visitors. Why, then, do we bother counting hits at all? Aside from the fact its simple, which is why the counters are so popular, hits do provide a count of something very valuable: impressions. An impression occurs when a graphic is displayed to the viewer. Impressions differ from hits in that hits don’t require graphics, while impressions do. A text page, when loaded, can record a hit. Hidden counters, little more than code that relates execution to a tracking program, can record hits. But impressions must be displayed to the visitor to count. Who cares about impressions? Advertisers, particularly banner advertisers, who may be paying the site owner an amount per impression to display the ad. Often these ads have their own form of hit counter buried within.

One last thing about hit counters. Ever see one running on a major website? No, for many reasons, but one really practical reason is this: while a hit counter can tell you how many hits your site has recorded, it also tells the visitors the same information. How confident will the visitor be in your product or service if the visitor sees what he perceives is a low hit count on your page? If you aren’t popular, why should he do business with you?

Hit counters can be a lot of fun when we are learning to build our own websites, but when we turn to serious business uses for a website, we need to start using serious analytic approaches.


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Michael Pedone is the President / CEO of eTrafficJams.com, a search engine optimization and website marketing company <http://www.etrafficjams.com> located in Clearwater, Florida that specializes in getting targeted, eager-to-buy traffic to your site. You can catch him blogging at: <http://www.etrafficjams.com/blog/>.

Counting the Hits
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