Link Tracking – (lies, damn lies &) Statistics?

The last couple of months have shown a shift in Internet traffic – from being search engine (read Google) directed to social media driven. I believe, the main reason for this is what Fred Wilson calls the Power of Passed Links. That is, I click more often on the links that my friends tweet in Twitter or share on Facebook than on those I find by searching.  Fred has seen this dramatic shift on his own website. Earlier TechCrunch presented a similar observation and was quick to embrace a personalized short domain name (tcrn.ch).

In a recent article titled “How Twitter Might Send Far More Traffic Than You Think“, Search Engine Land, compares the statistics provided by Bit.ly and Google Analytics and is awed by the difference. My own sense is that before all of us get rolling on this Social Media Optimization (SMO) effort, it would help to take a hard look at how link statistics are gathered and tracked by tools such as Bit.ly.

Simply put link tracking tools store the number of times a short link has been looked up. When such tools first emerged they captured imagination of a lot of people as potentially a simple replacement for Google Analytics.  However, the statistics provided by link tracker function in tools such as Bit.ly can be very misleading.

Since only the link look-up is counted by link trackers, all search engine and Twitter crawlers that de-reference a short link get counted erroneously as look-ups. Most of the newer Twitter clients de-reference a short url, and show the target domain name, complete url or the title in the tweet message. Which effectively means that the moment you publish a Bit.ly link on Twitter, it’s link count could potentially shoot up to as many followers as you have, even if none of them actually clicked through the link.

In my view, this is one of the biggest challenge that Bit.ly and others of its ilk will face to present an actual view’ed link as against merely looked-up link.

In the near future, I anticipate that more people will use their own short domain names and their own url shortening service to protect their brands.  Pure play URL shortening services are bound to get commoditized. For pioneers such as Bit.ly to retain their market share, it is critical that they evolve to provide vanity shortening services and emerge to be the analytics tool of choice for SMO by providing ever more accurate viewed statistics as against looked-up statistics.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Tags: ,

10 Responses to “Link Tracking – (lies, damn lies &) Statistics?”

  1. Sagar Says:

    Hey Mayank! This is quite an insightful post. It compelled me to read Dany Sullivan’s post carefully :) It’d be interesting to see whether the next big thing on the web would be an all new and device/platform agnostic click/referrer analytics mechanism.

  2. Danny Sullivan Says:

    I’m awed by the traffic Twitter already drives that I can directly measure using Google Analytics. Twitter drives lots of traffic, if you have a good number of followers or put out a link that goes viral through retweets.

    I’m perplexed that link trackers show that even more traffic may be coming. And I can also see from my stats that lots of articles getting many views appear to have been directly navigated to — which is pretty unusual. That, with the gap between bit.ly stats and GA stats suggest indeed that many people really are clicking from Twitter but not being counted.

    I think if you check through Bit.ly’s post on link counting, you’ll see they’ve addressed some of the situations like robot clicks that you’ve raised. I doubt they’re perfect, but I think they may be providing a better view of visit to pages that JavaScript-based tracking services do, in terms of Twitter.

  3. Joel Mackey (@webaddict) Says:

    I have repeatedly tried to educate people on the fact that bit.ly numbers were showing loads in 3rd party applications. Just recently Bit.ly made some big changes and I’m almost positive this isn’t the case anymore. The comparison should be done again now that the service has evolved once more. That click statistics are almost spot on now by 100%. Check it out for yourself.

  4. Mayank Sharma Says:

    Hi Danny and Joel,
    I personally do believe that Twitter is directing a lot of traffic to your websites, but counting just the link lookup is inherently flawed. In fact we did a small experiment just after posting this blog. We created a bit.ly url for this post, and posted it on Twitter. The next instant we saw, that bit.ly’s count was already 4. This only means that some twitter crawler/indexer received the tweet and de-referenced the url mentioned in it. After that I hovered my mouse over the link shown in Twitterfox. Sure enough bit.ly’s count increased by one. We did this repeatedly from multiple desktop’s of several friends and the count just kept on increasing. Not one of these folks during this time had actually clicked on the link.

    I would love to know how bit.ly is trying to distinguish between a url lookup and a url click.

    ps: Sorry for the delay in comment moderation

  5. Is Twitter Sending You 500% To 1600% More Traffic Than You Might Think? | Search Engine Optimization & Internet Marketing (SEO & SEM) Blog Says:

    [...] at the Zebu Blog, Link Tracking – (lies, damn lies &) Statistics? also looks at the issue, questioning whether Bit.ly is overcounting. In a follow up comment, Mayank [...]

  6. Is Twitter Sending You 500% To 1600% More Traffic Than You Might Think? « Web design development service Says:

    [...] at the Zebu Blog, Link Tracking – (lies, damn lies &) Statistics? also looks at the issue, questioning whether Bit.ly is overcounting. In a follow up comment, Mayank [...]

  7. Jennifer Luec Says:

    I doubt whatever is said by Mr. Sharma above as I tested thoroughly what he had mentioned above and could not find any relevance between his words and the actual working of Bit.ly, twitter and Twitterfox. As per my knowledge though there can be some mismatch between the actual clicks and displayed clicks, but the number of clicks cant increase just by mouse hovering.

  8. Zebu Blog » Could This Be A Perfect Solution to Measure Your Real Traffic? Says:

    [...] The blogosphere is quite excited with the fact that Twitter is directing a lot of traffic to blogs & websites. But no one has been able to conclusively measure that traffic. Fred Wilson, struggled to interpret the data  from Google Analytics and measure exactly how much traffic came from Twitter. Meanwhile Danny Sullivian, ran his own experiment by tweeting a short link containing a tracking code and seeing how much bit.ly reported against Google Analytics report and his own server logs. The results seemed quite good but the experiment itself was not yet perfect. Bit.ly’s link counting is inherently flawed as I’ve explained in my previous blog. [...]

  9. Andrew Jensen Says:

    Makes perfect sense. I’ve been watching the url shortener stats vs Analytics click thrus and have been suspecting there was more going on than merely java scriptless readers. It’s got to be the link unravelers that are lending toward the bulk of the inflated “visits.”

  10. There’s Peanut Butter In My Chocolate – Social Media Is Polluting Your Web Analytics | The Adaptive Marketer Says:

    [...] are also some other articles on this… Here from Zebu Group… and here from MoreVisibility… That are also really informative on this [...]

Leave a Reply