The simple truth about save-wye’s statistics

I have no idea whether the minutes of the Wye Business Association are must-read stuff in the village these days, but if you find your head in the latest edition you will see something there which requires clarification. It is, I hasten to add, nothing to do with the minutes themselves, but a statement contained therein, one emanating from our borough councillor and WBA leading light Ian Cooling.

It comes after someone suggested we be approached to run a free ad for the Wye Business Association Exhibition on September 16 (i.e. a week tomorrow) as we did for the farmers market when it needed a new manager. To quote from the minutes, ‘Chris Pound thought this was a good idea as save-wye are getting 600-800 hits per day. Ian Cooling pointed out that some of those are search engines but he would take up the suggestion and email the WBA press release to save-wye.’

I was unaware that web site statistics were among our local councillor’s skills, nor do I recall having discussed this subject with him. This statement is now on the record for an important village body. It is also utterly erroneous. So please indulge me for a moment while I try to put things absolutely straight. This may appear a small point but I’m afraid journalists (even former ones) are sticklers for accuracy so it’s important anyone who wants to understand our statistics has the opportunity.

First things first. We’re not a local newspaper, just a voluntary website covering Wye Park. The activities of WBA aren’t really in our remit although we think this is a very worthwhile local organisation and hope as many of you as possible will head off to the exhibition a week tomorrow, perhaps after a visit to the market. It is in the Wolfson Lecture Room (there will be signs from the market), from nine a.m. to two p.m. You will also find your local MP Damian Green there, for the opening at the very least, and the room has apparently been kindly donated by Imperial. save-wye wishes the exhibition well, though we won’t have an official presence for the very simple reason we’re not a business. Now that’s out of the way let me turn to the subject of the site statistics which you see in the sidebar here and try to clarify what exactly they mean.

Are we, as Ian Cooling suggests, boosting the figures by counting search engines and the many other robots and spiders that crawl the internet these days, thereby handing out misleading statistics for visits that don’t entail any human interactivity? Absolutely not. This is, with the system we have in place, simply impossible. The statistics you see come from a piece of commercial software called Mint, bought for $30 and installed by me. The web-conscious among you can read all about it on the product website if you’re interested.

Mint

From Mint’s own website: local councillors please take note

Mint works by talking to your web browser using something called Javascript. Some of you will have this turned off for security reasons (not that you need worry about security with us). If you visit us and don’t have Javascript enabled, your presence won’t be recorded. This is why we can say with absolute confidence that search engines and other robots aren’t counted in our statistics. They can’t be, because they are automated systems, not human beings typing in addresses through browsers. The system is also set up to ignore visits by site administrators — in other words Justin and me — so that our frequent trips here to write and maintain stuff don’t show up and skew the figures either.

Clear so far? I hope so, because here it gets a little muddy. Initially we used free statistics software to log access to save-wye. Unfortunately this wasn’t terribly accurate because this is a very unusual website. Most places on the web are seeking to get as many people as possible through the door then happily watch them stay for a couple of minutes before disappearing. They are about mass audiences and fast throughput.

We, on the other hand, are just two blokes with computers recounting what we hope are interesting stories about a potential development in a small corner of south east England. If you want to know about Wye Park we’d like to think we’re essential reading. If you want to pass a jolly minute or two on the web I suspect you may be better served elsewhere.

Instead of millions of readers staying for a short period of time, we have had a total audience of something like thirty thousand individuals over the nine months we have been in existence and now maintain a core audience of under a thousand regulars, some of whom who visit frequently and often stay for some time. Standard statistics software of the kind we used originally didn’t really reflect the odd kind of site we are.

MintLet me try to demonstrate this with some statistics from Mint detailing recent visits from one address within Kent County Council (please click on the graphic for a readable view). This screenshot shows you that someone in KCC — probably the same person — has become a regular visitor of late. This person visited four times during the present day, nine times the day before, seven the day before that and so on… a total of ninety separate visits over a period of a week or so.

Our original software counted unique daily visits. So on this basis, it would have counted just one visit for each day — just as it would if someone had turned up once and read nothing but the front page. We get a lot of people who come back several times each day. Standard statistics software usually counts that as a single daily visit.

After some thought I decided a more accurate reflection of the site’s popularity would be to base the statistics on usage, not a unique daily visit that was the same whether a person turned up once and read one page or visited five times and read a hundred.

Mint generalThat is what you see now. If you click on the picture to the right you get an overview of the site on a typical, relatively quiet weekday afternoon. We’ve had twenty visitors in the space of an hour, you can see from this how many pages each of them has viewed over time (not just on this visit) and by hitting those little triangles on the edge we can tell which articles are most popular (for the record, as I write, our top three pages of all time are Here’s your chance to make a difference, Where are the councillors when you need them? and Secret no more: the nightmare vision for Wye.)

The numbers you see in our sidebar are a reflection of the amount of overall traffic save-wye it is getting. The statistic ‘visits so far today’ is based on the number of articles people have read during that time. It reflects individual visits not individual visitors, because if we tried to produce a figure based on the latter it would be highly misleading, and fail to reflect return visitors coming back the same day. So if a thousand people come and read one article you would get a visits so far figure of one thousand. If ten people come and read a hundred articles each you would get it too. The truth generally falls somewhere between the two, at the higher end of the scale. We have readers who come here once a week, lots who turn up daily, and a hardened few who seem so addicted that frankly you ought to be working on your social skills (only a joke really, we love you, honest).

Picture 7-1The figure for visits since Jan 2006 is, I admit, inaccurate. We only started using Mint full time in May. So what we did was take the running total from the old software and make that the starting point for the new system. The result is this underestimates the historical site usage by an unknown amount, probably quite considerably using our present way of counting.

In short, we carry statistics to show that people do come here and to give a public indication of busy times and slack times. Whatever those who wish to denigrate this site may claim, we don’t try to load or boost the figures in any way. We don’t see the point and it would be hypocritical given that we’re arguing for more openness and honesty not less. Our record for a single day is the 2,000 plus visits we had when we published the leaked plans for Wye Park. Our slack days are weekends when, quite rightly, you’ve all mostly got better things to do and the total visits may be 350 or so.

Since we are not a business trying to sell any of you advertising I don’t intend to spend time or money providing better statistics than this. They are very accurate general indications of the site’s level of usage and they do not include robots, spammers or anything other than genuine human visits, and then not all of them. Only a remarkably amateurish website would do the latter and, while we may be run on an amateur basis, I would hope the system here is as professional as our limited time and resources can make it.

As to whether save-wye is reaching its audience I can only tell you that the second most frequent visitor to the site — behind one individual user whose identity remains a mystery to us — works in the estates department of Imperial College. In the past month a single computer there — which is far from the only contact we get from Imperial — has made more than seven hundred visits alone. Draw your own conclusions, please…

And if anyone, including any councillors, would like any more information please feel free to ask. We will answer all questions as best as we’re able, and you won’t even need to fill in a Freedom of Information request first.

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About David Hewson

Professional novelist, published in more than 20 languages. Creator of the Nic Costa series set in modern Rome. Most recent book the novel of the Danish TV series, The Killing.
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6 Responses to The simple truth about save-wye’s statistics

  1. Ian Cooling says:

    David,

    You are right, web statistics are not amongst my skills. I did not (repeat) not say that your figures included search engine hits. I said they “might” or “could” or a similar word indicating a possibility.

    I said this because separately and earlier this year I had asked the webmaster for my site what lay behind the “visitors” total on the home page. He mailed me a link to the tracker he used and I saw that many of the hits were from search engines and the like, thus giving a false impression of the number of personal visitors. I therefore asked him to remove the figure from the home page.

    Not having had any sight of your tracker data, I was not in any position to make any definitive statement about your stats – nor did I.

    I would, of course, been more than happy to clarify this quickly had you e-mailed me first to check.

    I shall ask for the minutes to be corrected at the next meeting of the WBA.

    Ian

  2. Justin Williams says:

    If I didn’t know you better, Ian, I would say that this was just the latest example of a low-level campaign to challenge the reliability of this site and the information it contains.

    As we all know, this is not the first time that David has felt the need to put the record straight after word has reached us of comments made about save-wye.org. Every time, you have come straight back with a denial. Every time, that denial has been couched in vague and opaque language that does nothing more than cloud the issue further.

    Look at the latest example: ‘I did not (repeat) not say that your figures included search engine hits. I said they “might” or “could” or a similar word indicating a possiblity.’ If it was not your intention to cast doubt on the reliability of save-wye.org, then it is beyond me as to why you felt the need to make any comment at all. Perhaps, instead of David emailing you to clarify this, you should have contacted one of us to ask about our figures before discussing them.

    This really is the limit. Both David and I are growing very tired of attempts to denigrate the work that has gone in to save-wye.org and the subsequent half-baked denials.

    I’m also interested to hear that you will now ‘ask for the minutes to be corrected’. I understand that you have recently asked for some other minutes to be ‘corrected’ but have been unsuccessful. I wish you better luck this time.

  3. Ian Cooling says:

    David & Justin

    I’m running out of ways to say that I am not conducting any sort of campaign against you. As you know, I have congratulated you both on the quality of your journalism, up here and elsewhere, more than once. I have also tried several times to meet you face-to-face to discuss this whole issue, without success.

    This is a pity as it remains my view that such matters are best clarified and resolved by meeting rather than through web site exchanges.

    I have commented in a separate e-mail to David that his earlier accusation that I’ve “complained long and hard to anyone who will listen that this site has been conducting a character assassination attempt on you for months” is simply not correct. Apart from anything else, where on earth would I find an audience for all that whingeing week after week, month after month – and what would be the point?

    Whatever else you may think of me, I hope you do not think I am stupid. And it would be a very stupid person indeed who praised you up here and then denigrated you elsewhere; knowing full well that in present circumstances it would rattle straight back to you. It would also require a different sort of stupidity to pick a quarrel with anyone running a website. Whoever controls the site has the last word, so I would be guaranteed to lose.

    I may, from time to time, disagree with you in the same way as you will disagree with me. But I see that as being healthy rather than problematic and it is certainly not systematic nor denigratory.

    So please accept that I am not running a campaign against you and never will. In turn, may I ask you to stop running your campaign alleging I’m running a campaign?

    Thanks

    Ian

  4. tim garbutt says:

    Hi Ian

    Alongside the view on statistics could I request that a feasibility study into Manston as an alternative site for Wye be added to the Council agenda for the next meeting please?

    Clearly the plans for Wye are cause for concern and this could be a route worth exploring.

    Many thanks.

    Tim

  5. David Hewson says:

    I don’t intend to get dragged into arguments about whether the word used was ‘did’ or ‘might’ or ‘possibly’ or whatever. It remains my view that the quite irrelevant introduction of questions about the accuracy of our statistics is typical of the low-level sniping we’ve had over the months and it just gets very tedious, which is why I am closing this thread now.

    If WBA had been about to place some expensive advertising campaign I could have seen why people might want (accurate) clarification of statistics and had I been asked you would have received what I have made public today. But what WBA was after was a free ad, so even if our audience consisted of two grannies and a goat in Albania you would still have been getting a bargain.

    I know you like personal meetings, Ian. But a personal meeting over this wouldn’t have easily corrected the quite unfair and erroneous view that your comments would have formed in the minds of people reading those minutes. I covered the technology world for the Sunday Times for twelve years and I can tell you that websites that count search engines in their statistics are, rightly, seen as pariahs by anyone knowledgeable in this business. I do not intend to have us included, quite incorrectly, in that category.

    Nice suggestion, Tim, but to be honest it’s hard enough getting Wye on the agenda of things at Ashford Council much of the time, and we’re in their area. So I think the chances of Manston getting on are somewhat remote.

  6. tim garbutt says:

    Oh I don’t know David: I’m pretty sure it’s a legal requirement for the Council to add a citizen’s topic to the agenda of a formal Council meeting.

    And debate it.

    Local democracy and all that.

    Would it be useful to ask Thanet Council (planning authority to Manston) to add Wye to their ageda for their next Council meeting?

    I’m pretty sure Ashford contributed to the funding for Infratil’s USA flights at Manston and Wye are linked in all sorts of ways.

    It may be useful to request Wye-Manston as a Cabinet agenda item for KCC too?

    The agenda/debate could cover, say, subsidies to the private sector, updates on EIR requests, status on Planning Environmental Assessments, discharge into watercourses, a SMART timetable on the planning and evaluation process, an Audit Commission or National Audit Office enquiry etc.

    All sorts of debating points that could be part of a public debate.

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