Gerry McGovern // New Thinking

Web Metrics: Don’t be slave to the next HIT

November 3, 2007 -- Gerry McGovern

Early website management was obsessed with volume. Today, an increasing number of page impressions can mean a website is failing rather than succeeding.

I still hear senior managers and journalists quoting HITS when they want to say something impressive about the Web. (HITS stands for How Idiots Track Success.) A HIT is a totally meaningless measure, so why is it still being quoted?

Many years ago, when the Web was still young, the web team was desperately trying to prove their worth. A message came down that a vice president was going to give a speech and in that speech he'd like to mention the website. He needed something to say that would sound impressive.

So, the web team got together and brainstormed. Somebody got out the website behavior data and began to pore through it. Then suddenly they shouted: "I have it! I have it! I know what we can tell them. We've got a zillion billion HITS!! Look, look, have you ever seen a number like this?" And then they all gathered round and marveled at such a big number. Then they danced around and drank orange juice.

Senior managers don't particularly like being made to look like fools. One of these days, someone is going to explain to them that HITS is worse than useless as a measure. Okay, so page impressions or visitors are a little better. But are they really? If you are a site that lives off advertising revenue, then yes, but if you are any other website, then no.

The Web has given rise to the phenomenon of the "word farm." Websites that generate their revenue from advertising pay as little as possible to get writers to churn out low-quality, high-volume content. Multiple versions of the same article are created with just enough modifications to fool the search engine.

"Collections of articles are sold in packages, for as little as $1 per 500-word piece," Danny Bradbury of The Guardian writes. "Customers spin them into thousands of articles designed to draw traffic to sites laden with adverts or other profitable payloads such as email collection forms or credit card payment systems."

I have talked to people who ran websites who refused to take down out-of-date content because it would reduce their page impressions and mean that they were less findable in Google. Think of a website filling up with products that you no longer sell, analysis that has been proven to be wrong, conferences that were cancelled, events that happened in 2002, and all because someone is a slave to volume, desperate for another HIT.

Let's say you launch a new product and there's a problem with it, and you get lots of confused and annoyed customers coming to your website. Is that a good thing? Let's say your website is so confusing that it takes 20 clicks to do something that can be done on a competitor's website in 5. Is that a good thing?

Word farms of the web: The Guardian