Online metrics is not a decimal system

There was a time when the measurement of a community, or rather its website, was counted in hits. Remember? If you don’t, you’re probably born in the 1990s or later. Back then, which is actually the 90s I’m talking about, every HTML-dabbler and web marketer were happily installing grab-off-the-internet-shelf hit counters and putting them on their websites. Everyday we would log in and a little cheer go up in our toddling Web 1.4 hearts when we see that the hit counter had gone up another couple of tens or hundreds. Nothing was more satisfying than the solidity of seeing numbers go up. It was so, er, countable.

Hits are so old, this is a gif. On Netscape.
Hits are so old, this is a gif. On Netscape.

Even on the days when the server screwed up and over-wrote the hit counter data file with, well, nothing, and caused the hit counter to reset to zero – even on those days, we’d go what the hell and just FTPúpéd a “corrected” file (it was just a text file with a number) based on best memory. Yesterday was like 623,XXX so I guess it oughta be about … 647,231 this morning? Yes, I did do it. I didn’t feel I was cheating, mind you it was the server or the hit counter cgi (computer gateway interface, not computer graphics imagery) – the little exe-cutable programme on the server – that screwed up and overwrote the number with a blank file. I was just restoring the hit counter back to what it ought to be, based on best memory. Sometimes I even gave discounts.

….. Arrrgh, fact is the whole thing is a farce.

Alright, give us a break, we’re just trying. Trying to measure the success of a website, using numerical counters that accurately count the inaccurate attribute which gives a  rough idea of the approximate number of people visiting. Or perhaps they were just passing through.

Numbers give us comfort. They are so, um, defined. Even if they accurately measure the inaccurate, it doesn’t matter. Even if I had to approximate today’s hits because the server screwed up the count last night, it really didn’t matter. I mean, it’s not meant to be accurate, right? After all, 4,012,599 hits and 4,076,221 hits doesn’t make a difference to the people visiting the site. They just figured it is an impressive number and it grew a bit since the last time I was here. Wow. Must be a cool website.

And that’s all that really, really mattered.

millionhits

It didn’t matter even that for years and years (and for some, even today), many people did not realize that the hit counter itself was a lie.  What is a hit, I ask you? For many people, especially web marketers and their bosses, it meant customers. Visitors. People who were looking at your website on their browser!

NOT EXACTLY- a hit is any call to the server for a file. Not just the webpage, but the 5 images, 12 design elements, the CSS file, the little stars that make up ratings, the 8 avatar pictures as well as the cat picture.

Land on one page and that act could generate, like, 32 hits. And you CAN hit the refresh button if you want more.

Thus, at best, the hit counter only gave a highly inflated gauge of your website’s visitorship. Not that it’s not useful, you just needed to be aware what you’re measuring so exactly. Like pageviews.

Your community/website metrics’ number is exactly representative of another number. It is not an exact representative. 30 hits does not equal 30 visitors. 30 hits represents (maybe) 1 visitor. The number is not a decimal number. It’s probably more binary – like a computer counting. It’s not that the number is wrong. It is correct – but you need to know what it truly represents.

Once you understand this, the sometimes meaningless jumble of numbers in monthly reports – made meaningless by bo(b)ssession – shows of a silver lining where (some manner of) truth can be gleaned, making your measurement all that little more meaningful.

(And that’s my first post, which was originally titled “Measuring Online Community Success – for the non-measurer”. I plan to write more about the topic of measuring online community, specifically in a non-technical way, to help the many of us in the field of online communities to better measure them and report to our bossess.)

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