The Numbers Racket

Non-aviation, but possibly of general interest, is that each time you visit a Web site (URL), not only do you eat up a handful of bytes (or barrelful, depending on where and for how long), but you are recorded as a counter clicks over a number or numbers. And there isn't but maybe one visitor in thousands who can explain what those numbers really mean.

Wow! Look at that counter total! Aerofiles has attracted more then 11 million visitors in 2007! Not bad for a dopey site full of airplanes, right? Wrong. Those are hits, not visitors, as you shall see.

Page counters are often blamed for gathering information about you, recording SS numbers, stealing your credit card info, all sorts of diabolical electronic things, but unfairly so, because they really only have one job—to tally and track the traffic coming to a Web site and its pages for analysis. Human analyzers can then see where points of interest and popularity are on their URL and where the duds are. Commercially, counters are of prime importance to attracting advertisers, and they provide the chips in this game of numbers, which we will reveal while no one's looking ...

    Unless you actually type in personal information, you are merely a number 1, but a counter also records where you came from—your IP (server) has a unique code—and when you dropped in and how much time you spent at that site and on which pages, plus other data of a general nature. It doesn't give a damn what your shoe size is or if your parents came from Ireland or what your drivers license number is; "cookies" attend to that. It has its hands full just juggling the numbers it records. And juggle it does.

    Since those numbers are vital to commercial sites who need to attract advertisers, as well as to personal ones who want to impress the folks back home, there's room for hanky-panky. Hence there are several pigeon-holes where the numbers can be filed, the principal ones being labeled hits, pages, visits, and kilobytes.

Hits is the fat one. It counts everybody who comes through the door, even the accidental stumble-ins and those of us working on the URL's pages. Hits measures total traffic to a site as a single file request in the access log of a Web server. For example, a request for an HTML page with 5 graphic images will result in 6 hits in the log—one for the HTML text file and one for each of the graphic files. While a Hit total is a measure of how much traffic is being handled, it is a misleading indicator of how many or which pages are being viewed. It is the figure most often seen on Web pages, but it's only good for impressing the tourists. It is inflated and, essentially, a lie.

    Pages totals how many times someone has viewed an entire page or pages including all text, graphics, etc. It is favored by ad agencies as the most accurate indication of a specific audience. It is also the figure that Aerofiles uses to gage our annual traffic. Our counter is reset to zero on New Years Day and shows the total every couple of weeks or when we get around to transcribing the Webalyzer provided by our IP, Network Solutions. (We don't employ an automatic hit-counter because of certain complexities; besides, it would spin like a car's odometer since we averaged about 12,000 pages viewed daily last year.)

    Visits counts a series of hits from any particular IP address. If any two hits are separated by 30 minutes or more, two visitors are counted. "Visitors" represent an extrapolated number, which is the lowest of the three totals. This is commonly used in polling ("vote for your favorite") or for those pick-one type of selections, such as where the viewer is called on to make a recordable choice ("yes" or "no") or to rate something ("1 to 5 stars").

    Kilobytes is meaningful only to a URL's person in charge of shoveling out money to keep the lights on. It reduces visitors to 0000s and 1111s so they don't feel a thing. Only the treasurer says "Ouch!"

    There are also Files ad Sites, which track activity for specific files and multiple sites, as the names indicate, but it's too involved to explain and is irrelevant for our purposes.

    Now you know ... the rest ... of the story.

(If you're terminally curious, here is Aerofiles' colorful Webalyzer rap-sheet for 2006.)