Web Traffic 101

You’ve had a website for your business for years now. Perhaps you hired a high-end design agency to create an online brochure that rivals a work of art. Perhaps you partnered with a local shop to build you a set of Internet tools to help your business run more smoothly. Perhaps you even hired a local freelancer to work under your in-house marketing department.

You’ve probably already thought seriously about web traffic: how to increase website traffic, how to get more targeted web traffic, how to learn more about your customers and potential customers by doing a website traffic analysis, how to get more of your visitors to become buyers or clients.

Over the next several sections, we discuss in detail the many aspects of measuring, increasing, and focusing your web traffic: analyzing your existing traffic, identifying your best visitors, converting them to customers.

If you can’t find the answer to your specific question, use our contact form to send it to us. We maintain an extensive Internet Marketing FAQ, and we would love to add your question to our list.

Site Visitors: A Misnomer

When most people think of site visitors, they think of people: people seeking information, people filling out forms, people shopping (and hopefully buying), and people returning to buy more.

Most people visualize individual humans when they think of site visitors—but, technically speaking, websites are not actually visited, even in an electronic form. Instead of a person visiting a site, what actually happens is that person’s user agent requests files, which are then retrieved from a website and rendered at the person’s computer, thus creating the website traffic. The traffic itself is actually a measure of your site being sent to the person’s computer after being visited by a user agent.

In a sense, there is no such thing a site visitor. Instead, your website is the visitor.

User Agents, Not Site Visitors

User agents are basically different types of software that request files from your web server. Think of it like a road: A road is equally likely to be used by someone driving their car to work, by a cyclist out for exercise, by a person walking across the street, by a semi truck hauling goods, and even by the occasional opossum or deer crossing the street. Just like roads are used by many creatures and vehicles for many different reasons, your website is similarly used by multiple parties, for multiple reasons.  The most common user agents requesting your website are web browsers operated by a person, but your site is most likely used by other agents, such as crawlers, robots, or spiders.

The World Wide Web Consortium states that “A user agent is any software that retrieves and presents Web content for end users or is implemented using Web technologies,” including Web browsers, plug-ins, and media players that “help in retrieving, rendering, and interacting with Web content.” They further state that “The family of user agents also includes operating system shells, consumer electronics with Web-widgets, and stand-alone applications or embedded applications whose user interface is implemented as a combination of Web technologies.”

– from W3C: Definition of User Agent.

Crawlers, Robots, or Spiders

Many terms are used to label the software programs used to index websites. Most refer to them as web crawlers, web robots, webbots, or spiders. Web crawlers, robots, and spiders are used by many companies to retrieve information about your website. They are often automated and are programmed to simply follow hyperlinks throughout the web. Search engines are the most well-known users of spiders, but other sites use them as well. All in all, crawlers, robots and spiders make up a significant number of the “website visitors” for a well established site.

The Google robot will visit a well established site several times a day to check for updates. Of all the spiders who traverse the sites for which we have web log access, Google is by far the most active.

Another common web crawler is the ia_archiver, which crawls sites in order to create and maintain a complete historical backup copy of the web, located at Archive.org, and also is used to provide screenshot thumbnail images for Alexa.com, which uses the Google search engine.

Crawlers, robots, or spiders are also used by companies which offer link checking or link validation services, and by companies which harvest company contact information or email addresses for sale.

Increase Traffic to Your Website

Website traffic is composed of several different metrics, including hits, pageviews, sessions, and unique visitors. For some sites, increasing pageviews will be the immediate goal. For others, the immediate goal will be to increase the number of unique and return visitors.

Because there are multiple metrics available to webmasters when reporting traffic, a great deal of confusion surrounds the whole affair. Many webmasters refer to website hits when they report their traffic. While many people have asked about increasing hits, website hits are not a very good measure of the success of a site.

First, let’s take a hypothetical tour of the process of measuring website traffic. Imagine Hypothetical Jim visiting the home page of a new website he learned about on Google.com. Hypothetical Jim visits the home page, then visits the “About Us” page, which he bookmarks. Later, Hypothetical Stu visits the home page, then leaves the site. Later that evening, Hypothetical Jim returns to the “About Us” page using his bookmark, and clicks on the link to the “Contact Us” page. After looking over the page, he leaves the site.

From the text description above, you can determine that: (1) the site has had 2 unique visitors, Hypothetical Jim and Hypothetical Stu; (2) the site has had three unique visitor sessions (two for Jim and one for Stu); and (3) the site has had 5 pageviews (4 by Jim and 1 by Stu). You may wonder wether to count Hypothetical Jim’s second visit to the “About Us” page as a second pageview. Count it.

What you cannot determine from the description above is the number of website hits. A hit is measured every time a specific unique file (HTML files, image files, script files, frames, etc.) is downloaded. In other words, many people refer to the total number of HTTP Requests a user makes as the number of hits the site receives. Since a single web page can be made up of any number of unique files, measuring hits is often meaningless in measuring the success of a website.

In this hypothetical example, the homepage consists of 24 files, so web analysis software will count 24 hits every time a visitor downloads the home page. There are 21 total images, 1 script, and one CSS file (plus the index html file itself). The “About Us” page consists of 14 files, so web analysis software will count 14 hits. There are 11 images, 1 script, and one CSS file (plus the about html file itself). The same goes for the “Contact Us” page.

As you can see, website hits do not consistently correlate with unique visitors, sessions, or pageviews. The only reason to look at hits is to measure the number of HTTP requests that a browser has to make in order to view your page. Generally speaking, the larger the hit count, the slower the download. For that reason, it is best to reduce the number of hits/page until the download speed is optimized.

Savvy media buyers ignore webmasters who claim to have thousands of hits. They measure pageviews, user sessions, and unique and return visitors.

Visit our Free Webmaster Tools page to get our Free Website Hit Counter.

Increase Site Visitors

Here are 20 surefire ways to increase web traffic and site visitors to your website. Use some or all of them, and let us know which ones worked best for you.

  1. Optimize your site (SEO).
    Win on the search engines when people search for keyword phrases related to your products or services.
    (More about search engine optimization.)
  2. Get links to your site.
    Get people with complimentary sites to link to yours. You offer rental kayaks on the beach. Ask the local restaurant owners to link to you, and offer to link to them. Ask the local tour guides, the real estate agents, the night clubs, and everyone else. Links lead to clicks onto your website and help to improve your search engine rankings.
  3. Buy ads linking to your site.
    Buy sponsored links on other websites. That means more people visiting your site, and many sites offer a pay for performance model.
  4. Buy banner ads.
    Buy banner ads on other websites. It helps to build brand recognition.
  5. Pay for clicks to your site.
    Pay for clicks or inclusion on the search engines so that people will see your site in the sponsored links section of the search results when they search for keyword phrases related to your products or services.
  6. Set up an affiliate marketing program.
    With affiliate marketing, you can either pay per click, pay per lead generated, pay per sale, or pay per customer acquired.
  7. Use smart public relations (PR).
    Get news coverage of your business and your site. Approach online and traditional media. This will often lead to others placing links pointing to your website, which leads to more clicks and also to improved search engine rankings.
  8. Use E-mail marketing.
    Ugly, but effective for the cost. Blast out your special offers, but be nice about it.
  9. Use off-line marketing.
    Promote your site. Put your url on all your license plates. Paint it on your car. Buy newspaper and yellow pages ads with your url. Put up flyers and stickers. Sponsor a little league team. Do anything and everything to spread the word about your website around your city.
  10. Run regular promotions.
    Stage regular giveaways and spread the word about it.
  11. Get published.
    Write articles for publication on other websites. The author profile will link to your site. The article will show that you’re an expert.
  12. Publish yourself.
    Write articles for your own site regularly. This will help you to win on the search engines and gives your visitors a reason to come back over and over
  13. Ask for reviews.
    Ask for reviews of your self-published articles on other webmasters’ websites. Ask for reviews of your website, your products, your software, your services. These will usually include links to your articles.
  14. Write briefs.
    Write daily or weekly news briefs focusing in on your industry or specialty area. This keeps your site “fresh” in the eyes of the major search engines and helps you to spread a wide net when fishing for top search engine positions.
  15. Create a newsletter.
    Ask your visitors to sign up for your newsletter, and encourage them to send it along to people they know. Send a newsletter regularly with teasers or lead-ins to your in-depth new articles or with special offers and the latest products.
  16. Give away free stuff.
    Offer something people want at your site. Give them a reason to come back and get more. Offer free downloads and update them regularly. Offer coupons or discounts.
  17. Give awards for excellent sites in your niche.
    This builds more links back to your site and establishes you as a credible reviewer, an expert in your space.
  18. Run a contest and promote it.
    Photo contests, essay contests, goofy contests, random drawings, anything. Example: Messiest Garage in America contest on OfftheFloor.com.
  19. Join your local business organizations.
    Chambers of Commerce and other organizations will often add your site to their member directory. That’s an added advantage over the obvious business-building and networking opportunities.
  20. Be accessible.
    Build your site so that it is accessible to all browsers and devices. And don’t forget, people with disabilities buy things too—make your site Section 508 compliant. Your competition probably hasn’t.

We really couldn’t stop at 20. This last suggestion is our most important one:

Be a good Internet citizen.
Provide useful resources on your website, resources that make people feel thankful that you put in the time and effort. Help every person who ever calls you on the telephone or emails you a question. When they ask “How can I ever thank you?” just say, “If you like my site and think it’s useful, why not link to it?”