I had a phone call today with an interesting question:
How many visitors do you think the Starbucks website gets per day?
Whilst I'd agree that someone who knew me might be well served in calling me to ask a question about the web, I haven't had this one before. The number of visitors a website gets is usually shrouded in mystery, a value often unavailable in its truest sense even to the owners of the site. Nevertheless, hits, visitors and users are often used as quick metrics to measure the success of a website.
This is an obvious scenario. The core feature of every website is that people, actual real people with brains, opinions and, crucially, wallets, visit them. So, assuming you're able to sort the bots and random traffic from real people, you can look at these numbers then grin as they increase, gaze with vague consternation as they stay level and rant about SEO & diversification when they drop. Hits and views are important - without them you're just a server being cached by bots - but what do these numbers actually tell you?
Except in the rare cases that your entire site revenue model is directly priced pay-per-view adverts these metrics don't really tell you much. It's perfectly possible for a site with 10 visitors per day to be making £1000s per week if 1 in 10 buys some plant machinery from you; in the same way 2000 visitors might be losing you the same amount if each is downloading a 30 second HD video. Any website can throw money at Google or other PPC ads and score record traffic. Whether that traffic actually makes you any money is another matter. Even the much coveted email address sign up field is useless unless your only intention is to sell it to spam networks; in which case the unending blight on your soul is probably a bigger worry than website traffic.
The simple answer to "how many hits does your website get?" should either be "enough" or "not enough". If it's the former, keep iterating to keep them up, if it's the latter then your site needs to make more use of it's current visitors, or be a place that more people want to visit. If your boss just wants to know "how many hits are we getting?" what they're really saying is "what the hell is this web thing anyway?"
Users != $$
With the recent purchase of Instagram by Facebook still resounding across multiple social networks the question of how much a user is worth has once again been brought to the forefront. The general assumption is that a user is someone a bit more involved or invested than another faceless hit. As well as giving you precious personal details users might be providing you with content, sharing your content or even paying for your services. Therefore the far more common metric in real web businesses is users, not hits.
But really, users offer that same undefinable value that hits do. For a start, users are always a more consistent drain on your resources. They're using your site and sapping at your bandwidth and nobody gets that for free. The real and harsh reality is that the majority of your users are probably costing you money, and the minority are making it. Sites that don't realise this churn funding until they finally work out a method, or they go bust.
Of course I'm not saying here that Facebook don't make money. Their profit this year was $1bn on the dot, which is damned impressive and like every other kid who wrote a website for his friends, I wish I'd done it. But even Facebook, this super enigma of the social web, has been making losses for more than half its existence. They got $240 million from Microsoft for 1.6%; with a $1bn profit Microsoft would have just made $16 million were it not for the upcoming valuation. Hardly a return on the investment just yet.
My worry with the current trend of huge valuations, massive acquisitions and overnight success stories is that we're heading into dangerous territories (again). The internet is really cool and amazing and has rockets and lasers and stuff, but the value we associate with it is starting to become wildly abstracted from the world which it enhances and sustains. Those rockets don't maintain themselves you know.