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.