Determining Your Website’s Traffic On The Social Web

by Jason Falls |
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The social web has almost relegated website traffic to a shoulder shrug of a statistic  for some. But the number of people of visit your website or blog is an important measure of your reach or exposure. However, many people make a mistake in analyzing or even determining a website’s traffic. And the social web is partially to blame.

RSS feeds change not only the metric, but the information you’re looking for. Here’s why:

Provided you are following the sage advice of social media and/or Internet marketing counsel, you’re publishing content on your website. Perhaps it’s a blog. Maybe it’s company news or other information run through your content management system. If your CMS was created in the last four or five years and isn’t called Cold Fusion (little developer’s joke for ya), it probably produces an RSS feed, or XML file of content updates. Hopefully, you’ve let visitors know the feed is available should they choose to subscribe to your website’s changes.

The problem with RSS numbers - Items posted is much different than items actually read.
The problem with RSS numbers - Items posted is much different than items actually read.

The shift in thinking then comes because those who access your website’s RSS feed often do so in a feed reader like Google Reader or Netvibes. These readers display the content from your website without a visitor ever being registered there. Someone read your blog post, but your web analytics package never registered any data.

RSS allows people to access your content, not your website. So the information you are looking for is no longer web traffic, but content traffic. And content traffic is measured both on and off your website.

So how do you determine your website’s traffic in the world of the social web? It’s not as simple as you may think.

First, you need to know your website’s unique visitors. Your analytics software will tell you that. Then you need to know your RSS analytics. To find this, you need to run your RSS feed through software packages like Google’s Feedburner, which is free, or a competitor like FeedBlitz, which is a paid service, but cheap and more reliable. These services not only help you manage your subscribers, but analyze and present  you with metrics about how your RSS feed is used.

Now, you may think you take your unique visitors and add the number of RSS subscribers and there’s your content traffic. But it’s not that simple and that number is going to be unbelievably inflated. Not to mention, some people click through the feed to your website and are, thus, counted twice in that scenario. The thinking here is flawed because the total number of RSS subscribers is not representative of the number of people who do something with your feed.

According to Google/Feedburner, the RSS subscriber total represents the number of services (not people) that access your feed for distribution. While there are roughly 9,500 people who subscribe to Social Media Explorer’s RSS feed, if 100 of them abandoned Bloglines a year ago, but didn’t shut down their account, those 100 people never access the feed even though Bloglines still pulls the data for them.

Fortunately Feedburner has a metric in their analysis of your feed called Reach. This number represents the number of unique people who have either clicked on your feed (driving them to your website) or read your feed in a reader. However, I could not find a delineation between “click through” and “read.” By that rationale, unless Feedburner has some hidden metric, there’s no 100-percent, accurate way to know how many people consumed your content. You don’t know how many clicked through to subtract from your unique visitors.

To make matters more confusing, if you download your Feedburner statistics (Excel or CSV file) you can identify the number of “item click throughs.” However, this number is greater than that of the Reach metric on my reports, so you don’t know if that’s click throughs to your site or clicks on headlines to expand your feeds or something else. In fact, if it were either of the first two, the Reach metric should be the larger number.

Clear as mud?

My assumption is a better set of metrics can help you with FeedBlitz, but I’m testing it now and have not yet seen their full reporting. If you use it, please help us with a run down: Can you pull data that tells you how many people read your feed vs. how many people click through to the site?

For now, I would tell people that while my content traffic is an inexact number, I calculate it by adding my daily unique visitors to my Google Feedburner Reach number. There is some overlap, but using August 31 as an example, there were 981 absolute unique visitors to Social Media Explorer. Feedburner says 246 RSS subscribers did something with my feed. Thus, my content traffic was 981+246 or 1,227 people.

As inexact as it is, this is what we have.

Or is it?

Analytics folks, unleash your wisdom on us in the comments. Tell me if my math is wrong, I missed some metric feature. Or, even better … tell me there’s an easier way to do this. If I’m not seeing it, we all want and need to know.

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About the Author

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for Elasticity, one of the world's most innovative digital marketing and public relations firms. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).