It is rare in this world that we get to experience public vindication of our ideas. So it was with excitement that I read on the SeekingAlpha blog about Yahoo president Susan Decker’s comments during the company’s fourth quarter earnings call. I must have missed this when it first came out with all the post-Christmas excitement, but I revisited the earnings release just this past week in light of all the Microsoft/Yahoo chatter and what a gem I found!

Decker said that, moving forward, Yahoo would use visits rather than unique visitors as the most relevant metric for tracking the relative success of Yahoo sites.

She said:

“With consumers accessing the web in so many ways, we’ve looked for a more unifying global metric that’s more flexible across Yahoo’s and our partners’ properties and useful across multiple devices and geographies. We expect to use visits to Yahoo’s global starting points and anchor sites to be the most relevant metric going forward.”

She points out that the metrics that have been discussed in the past, such as uniques and page views, “may not tell the story of what’s happening and the key, value-creating starting points for consumers and advertisers.”

Ha! Let me bask in the light of a swift moment of “I told you so.”

Almost exactly two years ago, I wrote a blog post in which I said that, as a metric, visits were far more useful than unique visitors when tracking web performance. And, though I received plenty of kudos from others within the industry, it must be said that I got my share of “what could this wacky guy be thinking?” type of responses. The guys at Future Now, for example, were particularly scathing in their grokdotcom blog.

My theory was based on a few simple (or, as grokdotcom called them, “simplistic”) reasons:

1. Visits are more accurate than unique visitors.

2. Every visit represents an opportunity to persuade or convert a visitor to a customer.

3. Measuring visits is based on fairly established industry standards.

I explained each of those reasons in detail. I also continued to explore the reasoning behind my theory in other posts, including one where I laid out 15 reasons why all unique visitors are not created equal.

As I pointed out then, users access the Internet via a variety of browsers and a variety of computers.  Also, multiple users can access the internet via a variety of browsers on a single computer.  Users delete or accept cookies on various browsers and various computers. At any given point in time, then, these scenarios are being played out by your visitors to your website.  They are inherent in unique visitor counts and, by their very definition, make unique visitor counts completely unreliable.

Today, the issue gets even more complicated.  Users access the Internet not only by a variety of different computers (their home computer, their computer at work, their husband’s or wife’s computer) but by a variety of different devices including Blackberries and iPhones.

Times are changing, and the world of web analytics must change, too.  If you didn’t take my word for it, back in 2006, that visits was a more accurate measure than unique visitors, think about what Susan Decker of Yahoo said.  And Susan wasn’t alone either – several other large media concerns have explicitly or implicitly gone this same direction.  Then, go back and read or re-read my 15 reasons unique visitors are not created equal.

Consider that this might be just the first indication of a sea-change that is taking place in the world of web analytics. New devices, new technologies and new ways of using the web continue to create the need for constant vigilance on the part of web analytics companies.  We can’t afford to sit back and rely on what has worked in the past.

That’s part of the reason I was so pumped when I read about Yahoo’s shift.  It means we at Omniture are moving in the right direction.  We’re successfully staying on top of the changes the web world is encountering.

I’ll continue to explore these changes, and to share my thoughts with you.  Hopefully, they’ll help you to more easily navigate the choppy but exciting waters of a Web 2.0 world.  In the meantime, let me know your thoughts, even if you disagree.  As always, I look forward to reading your comments.

10 comments
Paul Web
Paul Web

We cannot always be sure what a supposed top dog at a company like Google or Yahoo says. Now that Susan Decker has been fired from Yahoo, we know now that she was unable to help Yahoo get to Google's stage. For web analytics, there can never be a dedicated technique to boost traffic. Times always change, so do the ways to improve traffic.

Daniel Hollerung
Daniel Hollerung

From what I can tell, visits as a metric is better than unique visitors in 2011 too. With more mobile browsers, web browsers and share IP addresses it is perfectly clear and still relevant today.

Kim Davis
Kim Davis

The fact that something may be easier does not mean it is automatically *better*. If so, we would not try to progress... We need to give context, i.e. including limitations, as part of our information. Otherwise it remains simple data. Two reasons why visits give an incomplete picture: - they don't account for a crucial piece of information to retailers: loyalty. Consider trying to get the ROI of a web tool supposed to augment revenue by making users come back. Calculating the Revenue per Visit, you get a smaller number since more users come back, but obviously don't buy every time, even if total sales go up. Only the Revenue per Visitor would properly account for the added loyalty effect. - they're not counted when cookies aren't enabled (meaning reports may have more visitors than visits. Which do you trust? Neither...) So we have to continue perfecting that information...

Steve Hunt
Steve Hunt

Matt- if one converts from a metric of "uniques" to a metric of "visits," what sort of ratio would you expect to see. For example, if one originally wanted to reach 100k uniques, what would be a reasonable target for "visits," all other things being equal?

Matt Belkin
Matt Belkin

Thx for the feedback Arthur. And you're right, Omniture provides an optimization platform that is essentially "metric agnostic". So it's not surprising that you wouldn't hear many of my counterparts evangelizing visits in their daily interactions. That said, given our vast industry experience, our clients often look to us for consulting on which metrics to use, and how to interpret their data. The Visits vs. Unique Visitors question has arisen for years, and many customers benefitted from our 1:1 explanation of why Visits tends to be the better of the metrics. I elected to post this to the Omniture blog because I felt all our customers could benefit from this perspective. Thx again!

Arthur Freydin
Arthur Freydin

Hi Matt, I'll begin by saying that I agree using visits as a more trustworthy metric than unique visitors. What I don't understand is how your realization relates to Omniture "moving in the right direction". How does Omniture evangelize the visits metric exactly? I've been on a number of conference/demo calls with Omniture and have a great friend that is a sales exec @ Omniture and have never once heard them peddling the visits metric - Omniture was always a open-box tool; they provide us with the data and we do what we want with it. So, with that said, I'm not sure that Omniture is in a position to be evangelizing a certain KPI - that's better left to its clients.

Alex L
Alex L

Fantastic! On behalf of all the down-trodden web analysts out there, can I request that you please keep banging on about this. The sooner that the business/marketing users realize that UV does not equal 'people', the sooner we can get on with the job of producing MEANINGFUL data.

Howard Kaplan
Howard Kaplan

Hey, at least we never called you wacky ;) I apologized publicly on our blog earlier today. You're right, we went beyond scathing, and unnecessarily so. Next time you're in NYC, let us know and we can continue this conversation in person. Who knows, we may even buy dinner...

Tucker Christiansen
Tucker Christiansen

Congratulations Matt! Visits are defiantly the better metric. Ive noticed at BYU that quite a few of the business students have their web browsers set to automatically delete cookies every time they close down the browser.