Monday, January 28, 2013

Understanding Visitors and Visits

Most digital analytic tools provide firms with information about site visits, page views, bounce rates, exit rates, cart abandonment rates and so on that allow them to try and peer into the minds of both the curious and loyal customers to try to  understand their behavior as they are presented with the firm's products and services online. When you look at your analytic reports, you will generally see that there are several basic visitor metrics that give insight into consumer behavior, but first it is important to understand the difference between a visit and a visitor in the analytics world so that you don’t misinterpret the data you are looking at.
According to the Web Analytics Association, a visit is defined as "an interaction, by an individual, with a website consisting of one or more requests for an analyst-definable unit of content (i.e. “page view”). If an individual has not taken another action (typically additional page views) on the site within a specified time period, the visit session will terminate(1). A visit then, can be understood synonymously with a user session where an individual may make one or multiple interactions with your website. Think of these actions as distinct hands-on-the-keyboard activities: page views, events such as click, a form fill-out, click-through, social interactions via a pop-up chat window, transactions, etc. (2)

It may seem pretty obvious, but think of a just as you would think of a visit to your grandmother’s house. You enter the house, you interact in some way, and then at some point, you leave and go on your merry way. The same is true when an individual enters and then exits a website, but in analytics it is important to also keep in mind that the length of stay that defines the visit can be calculated differently in different analytics tools. Although a session or visit standard is generally calculated when a user stops interacting with your website after 30 minutes of inactivity , a visit by this definition can span for a few seconds, to several hours, to days and even longer.
Although visits are important to firms because they provide information about traffic, how “sticky” their web pages are and give great marketing feedback during different campaign tactics, many firms want to know more about visitors: what makes them click beyond the landing page, what drives their transaction rates, what patterns make as they interact with the website, etc.  So what is a visitor?  It sounds easy enough to say that a visitor is the individual who makes the visits and is the hands that take the actions on the website. While this is mostly true, in analytics, visitors are defined and tracked through sophisticated methods using  cookies that contains a unique identifying number and  date/time information that are sent to the visitors browser when they click on a web page. This cookie information is stored and remains in the browser for the length of the visit while some cookie data remain there as long as the individual leaves it there. This unique identifier number provides firms with data about browsing activity, whether or not the visitor is new, returning, repeat, etc.
New or first-visitors who do not already have a unique identifier will be sent a cookie with a date/time stamp of their first visit. If the cookie remains active and the same individual returns to the website, this unique identifier is checked when they enter the website and they are considered a returning and or repeat visitors.  The “unique visitor” and “unique visits” metrics can be commonly misinterpreted as a measurement of people; however, a unique visitor really is nothing more than the value of the cookie’s unique ID (3). One person then,  may actually have multiple unique IDs over his/or her visits because average consumers delete 3rd party cookies at a rate in excess of 30-40% and first party cookies in excess of 20% (4). If a user comes to the website, is assigned a unique identifier, exits, deletes his/her cookies, and then returns to the website, they will be considered a unique visitor again. In order to track people methods such as forced authentication (username/password) can be used.
Understanding the nuances between visits and visitor metrics will help firms make more sense of the visitor data they get from their analytic reports and will help them avoid misinterpreting the results.






  1. I keep my cookies deleted as much as possible using every device I have (Ipad, laptop, cell phone) so any sites that I visit would consider me as different visitors many times over.

    I would be interested to see what percentage of people actually delete cookies consistently so these businesses could make an accurate count of visitors using some formula.

    Good to understand the difference between visitors and visits. Thanks for the post.

  2. I liked the analogy of entering grandma's house being a visit. It makes it easy to understand.

    When reading about per visitor metrics, knowing that Every once in a while I clear out my cookies, I'd been wondering about how cookie deletion impacts the metrics and what the rate of deletion was. Those numbers are pretty high. How do companies account for this in their metrics? Do they make any adjustments to their numbers or do they just take them as presented with the understanding that there is built in inaccuracy?

  3. Unlike Ryan, I never delete my cookies. I like going to websites and seeing that they know a little about me. Some might think it's creepy and an evasion of privacy but I really don't mind it.

    It's interesting to note how far we've come in this web analytics world. I remember how people used to be so obsessed with page views on their sites...oh how far we've come!

  4. I also don't delete my cookies, but mainly because I'm lazy.

    This is good article. It is so easy to give certain metrics simple titles like "visits". It's so simple we don't ever think to understand the full definition of the underlying data and how the definition is incorporated into calculating the metric. Without this definition we use our assumptions and sometimes can come to wrong conclusions.

    I also liked the grandma metaphor. It did add some clarity. We would never call it a visit if we pulled in the driveway, and then left.