How can we as online marketers aspire to professionalism when we cannot even define the most basic metric?

If you have anything at all to do with online marketing then you are well aware that more visitors to your site is almost always a good thing.  More visitors means more chances of selling, or more adverts and more clicks and therefore more profit.  If you get more visitors year on year then you can justifiably use this as evidence that your site is getting better over time.

If your conversion rate is stable (and in my experience imp[roving a conversion rate is a lot harder than improving the number of visitors you get) then your hard cash outcomes of the site will improve in line with the number of visitors.

However, we online marketers have a guilty secret that we don’t like to let those outside of the industry know about: we cannot even agree on what constitutes the most basic metric of our entire industry!  We still have no accepted, industry-wide definition of what a visitor is!

Why? – well, because it is actually a ferociously hard concept to define categorically and there is room for legitimate debate.   However, compare this with the offline world and accepted industry definitions abound: there is the Audit Bureau of Circulation for print, RAJAR for radio and BARB for TV.  Here in online marketing though, we cannot even decide what a visitor actually is!

Some analytics tools decide that if a session – or a “visit to a site” to normal English-speakers – sits idle for 15 minutes then the next click constitutes a fresh visit to the site.  On other tools the period is 20 minutes: on other tools the concept of sessions is ignored.  Just to think about this for a moment: if you visit a site and then get called away on a phone call, or go and make a coffee then 15 minutes can very easily elapse between clicks: and yet you would be counted as two visits to that site!

A better metric is of course that of “absolute unique visitors” used by Google.  Characteristically Google adopt a very thoughful approach: when using their free analytics tool you have to embed a snipped of code on every page on your site: the Google analytics engine therefore knows precisely how many times each page gets downloaded and so on the issue of literally unique visitors can be very precise.

But what happens when you visit a site at home ancd then go back there once you arrive in the office to complete the purchase? – there is no software invented that can track that pattern: two visits from two seperate IP addresses at sepatrate times – and yet all the same person.  The way sites try to get around this of course is to get you to regerst at the site and create an account and log-in each time you visit.  Visitors though hate this: it is another hoop to jumpt through and yet more information garnered about you by yet one more company.

So the queastion is: how can we as an indsutry aspire to any degree of professionalism whilst even the most basic metrics we use to measure success remain uncertain and subkect to change?  We need a solid, stable, published set of definitions – but in an industry as fractured and profitable as ours this is not going to happen any time soon.

So: as a self-proclaimed ethical online marketer, how do I get round this problem?  In several ways:

  • by never measuring “hits”: a hit on your site constitutes a single interaction with the server: each page, each image, each chunk of javascript is a hit: one page can equal 10, 20 or 50 hits: as such it is a truly meaningless stat.
  • by using the absolute most pessimistic stats possible: Google’s “absolute unique visitors” stat yields even lower numbers than their number of visitors stat: and so I find it much more plausible.
  • by drilling down to what is truly meaningful: when I sit down with a customer and get to an agreed definition of what a unique customer is, I then use that as the basis for the calculation of the conversion rate.  To me conversion rate is far more significant than the raw number of visitors as it measures your visitors behaviour after they arrive at your site and are exposed to your content – and not before.
  • and finally by that ultimate, undeniably arbiter: cold hard cash.  How much money does the site make?  Is it making more money than it cost? – is it therefore delivering return on investment?
As I have said many times before, getting a site to number one in Google is not the be all and end all of online marketing: you could be number one and get a million visitors and not make a disngle sale – and in fact have the site cost you a lot of cash in hosting and bandwidth fees.  And you could be far from number one in Google abnd get one visitor who spends a million pounds on the site.
Being number one in Google does not equate automatically to successful online marketing… – it is simply a likely indicator of success.

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