The Inaccurate World of Web Traffic

by Zack Zarrillo

Web traffic is gross, frustrating, exhilarating, complicated, and more than anything: inaccurate. Most companies have both “external” and “internal” traffic numbers. Companies like ComScore and Alexa attempt to rank website traffic that many can view, while Google Analytics and other companies take a finer look at internal traffic with embedded coding. Traffic’s bottom line is to sell ads, and that’s why the numbers are so important and often a catalyst for horrible experiences (and money). FiveThirtyEight wrote a crushing piece on web traffic recently:

“If I were to go out and make the argument that the internal number is correct,” Coletti said, “I would be suggesting that every American visited ESPN in the past month, which would be wonderful, but unlikely.”

Traffic, as represented by unique visitors, will always be estimated under the current technological regime, and those parenthetical “internal numbers” that reporters drop in media stories bear little relation to how many actual people go to a given website. Or as Coletti puts it: “Neither numbers are right or wrong — they’re just counting in different ways, and it’s unsatisfying.”

The whole article is worth a read for anyone who operates a web-based business.