Understanding Traffic Statistics 8 April, 2007 — Stuart Brown

A guide to common traffic trends and graph features

Posted in Analysis, Tutorials
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For the webmaster, blogger or internet marketer, traffic reports and statistics have long been the bread and butter of performance analysis in terms of the success and popularity of a web site. There are a multitude of different services and means of analysis out there - from the raw log files to full analytics packages like Google's own Analytics service. But what do all those facts and figures mean?

Of course, there are many subtle aspects to traffic analysis - indeed, there's a whole industry devoted to such analysis - but there are a few more predictable, understandable elements to traffic statistics. Here, we'll cover a few such trends, patterns and give a little background in each instance.

In the examples below I'll be using my preferred means of traffic analysis, Google Analytics, but the information applies equally to any traffic analysis method.

Diurnal Variation

'Diurnal variation' is just a fancy way of referring to the daily trends you see in your traffic statistics - if your traffic dips at night and recovers in the morning, that's diurnal variation. Such a graph looks something like this:

diurnal variation

What you can see is an increase rate of traffic between around 8am and midnight, with a reduced rate at night. This indicates that your traffic has a bias towards certain time zones - in the case above, times are GMT, so the prevailing source of traffic is likely to be the UK and Europe. There is some overlap from the US in this instance, so the diurnal variation is more slight than traffic exclusively from the UK might have been, but there is a consistent and daily trend for more traffic during daily hours.

If you run an website focussed on one particular country, and your traffic follows suit, then the diurnal trend will be much more pronounced, with traffic falling to practically nothing after midnight. Conversely, a site with global appeal may have a near flat graph on daily variation, although for any given English-language site there may always be some considerable influence from the US.

Massive Referral

Since the rise in popularity of the internet, there have always been large, highly trafficked sites that can overwhelm the unprepared web server. Back in the day, tech news site Slashdot was the main offender, regularly bringing web servers to their knees. Nowadays, Digg is a more likely suspect. Such an influx of traffic usually comes on very suddenly, and looks something like this:

massive referral

The graph above demonstrates the magnitude of the Digg effect, with the initial spike at 2pm (nearly 8,000 visitors per hour - 133 per minute sustained, likely far higher peak). Note the generally low pages per visit (P/V) - such massive referral traffic tends not to persist as long as other, more sedentary traffic.

Weekend Dips

Presumably there are a lot of people who browse the internet at work, as in general the weekends tend to be quieter on the traffic front. Depending on the site, the variation may only be slight or it could be more pronounced - but in general, traffic on Saturday and Sunday will be lower than on a given weekday. The same can generally apply to national holidays, such as Christmas and Easter - unless, of course, your site happens to be particularly relevant to such events.


Organic Growth

Organic traffic is traffic from search engines, usually Google, MSN, Yahoo etc. Depending on which sector you're in, organic traffic can be the most valuable - targeted searches can mean excellent conversions, increase the likelihood of subscription, or responsiveness to ads.

The only trouble is, it's tricky to get - and it's a competitive field. Every visit you get from Google is one that could have ended up at a different site. If you're good, however, and you build up good quality content (and good-quality links to that content), then you'll be rewarded with more organic traffic.

It doesn't happen overnight, though - good organic traffic takes a lot of time (and a lot of patience). Google tends to be quite reserved about giving new sites/domains immediate top rankings, so as a site ages, gains natural inbound links, and generally matures, the organic traffic will start to flow more freely. This can be seen in the following graph:


Signal-to-Noise ratio

Of course, the trends above are dependent on your site having a steady stream of traffic to your site. If you have a new site, or a site that simply doesn't receive much in the way of traffic, then some trends will be less pronounced.

signal to noise ratio

Generally speaking, the higher the traffic to a given site, the more stable the traffic trends. Composition of the traffic itself is a factor - reliance on referral traffic will also lead to higher instability in traffic trends, whereas a steady stream of organic traffic can mean very consistent graphs.

Regardless of what your graphs look like, with regular checking and steady growth traffic analysis skills should come quite naturally. There are a lot of subtle influences on the type of traffic you receive, but broadly speaking it's your reader demographic and your particular sector which will have the most effect on the traffic you receive.