Definition: Website traffic refers to web users who visit a website. Web traffic is measured in visits, sometimes called "sessions," and is a common way to measure an online business effectiveness at attracting an audience.

Web traffic is important — but not the only thing

When ecommerce took off in the 1990s, the metric of web traffic was first viewed as the most important means of determining a website's popularity, as other metrics did not yet exist to gauge online success. As digital marketers got savvier, analyzing a website's performance became much more comprehensive.

Analysts no longer just ask "how many people visited?" Now, it's just as — if not more — important to find out:

  • How long did users stay? Bringing in huge amounts of traffic is ultimately meaningless if users leave after mere seconds. Metrics such as bounce rate and time on page pant a picture of how users behave.
  • What % of users made a purchase? For an online business to flourish, it needs a large audience. But it also needs to be the right audience. Determining how many users buy products, commonly measured by conversion rate, shows whether an ecommerce store is effectively selling marketing their product offerings.
  • How much does it cost to bring in a visitor? Some web traffic is free, but many online stores rely on paid traffic — such as PPC or affiliates — to support and grow their business. Cost of Acquiring Customers (CAC) and Cost Per Acquisition (CPA) are arguably the two most important ecommerce metrics. When balanced with AOV (average order value) and CLV (customer lifetime value), a business can assess and adjust its ad spend as necessary.

Website traffic is not the be all, end all of ecommerce performance measurements. But it is still a great starting point to determine a website's popularity and visibility. Consider two contrasting ecommerce underachievers:

a) Website A: Effective call to actions and concise yet eloquent product descriptions convert a high percentage of visitors to sale, but they only bring in minimal traffic.
500 monthly visits * 40 sales = 8% Conversion Rate (CR)

b) Website B: Ranks highly in natural Google search listings, puts out well-received content, and brings in paid advertising. They do outstanding with web traffic, yet convert a minimal number of visitors.

5000 visits, 40 sales = 0.8% CR

This example illustrates why marketing metrics such as web traffic cannot be viewed in a vacuum. Two contrasting websites achieve the same outcome, where they are failing to capitalize on what they do well. By focusing on the one metric where they excel, it fails to acknowledge the area for improvement. By studying the whole picture and optimizing areas of subpar performance, ecommerce stores give their customers the best possible experience while maximizing revenue.

How is website traffic actually recorded?

When someone visits a website, their computer or other web-connected device communicates with the website's server. Each page on the web is made up of dozens of distinct files. The site's server transmits each file to user browsers where they are assembled and formed into a cumulative piece with graphics and text. Every file sent represents a single “hit”, so a single page viewing can result in numerous hits.

It is not only the traffic on the website's homepage that is monitored. Rather, all segments of the website are constantly monitored by the server to determine exactly how many hits each receives. In web vernacular, a single visit is known as a “session”. The minutia of each session varies, yet each has a beginning and an end point.

Servers are able to compile every request for a web page, arming its operator with the information needed to determine how popular the site is and which pages receive the most attention. When a web server processes a file request, it makes an entry in what is known as the “server log” on the server's hard drive. The log gathers entries across posterity, forming a valuable database of information that the site owner can analyze to better understand the website's visitor activity.

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