Taking a hit over web traffic

A direct hitHaving been a musket-carrying pioneer in the bad old days of the Internet, I got a kick out of a brouhaha that arose the other day over traffic to the Obamacare site in California.

Peter Lee, the man who runs Covered California, told a celebratory gathering of Oct. 1 that his web site “had literally over 5 million hits on our web site today,” a number that the media cluelessly ran with.

The interpretation, it seems, was 5 million was the number of visitors to the Covered California site on the first day of open enrollment.

The catch was Lee’s use of the term “hits,” an artifact of the early days of the World Wide Web. Used properly by Internet pros — if at all — it means file requests upon a server (computer).

Hits doesn’t mean visitors (unique or otherwise) or pages, the two standard measurements of web traffic these days.

On your basic web page, the number of hits always would be larger than the count of unique visitors (“uniques”) or even “page views,” as pages typically call upon a series of files.

The relatively useless term “hits” remains as jargon, however, sometimes resulting in misunderstandings such as the one on the first day of the Obamacare signups. (Next time you hear someone tossing around the term, ask him to explain it and stand by for the humina-huminas.)

Anyway, Lee and his spokesmen later spun the “5 million hits” as accurately referring to page views. Well, it was a bit closer to reality.

The actual figure was about 514,000 unique visitors, according to the new official line. That was enough to stagger the enrollment system, which was taken down for tweaking at least twice in the first few days of operation. Covered California took the heat for that one, too, used as mounting evidence that the Obamacare launch was botched.

Nonsense. Anyone who’s launched a web site with multiple functionality knows launch is always “soft,” meaning if everything works every time when the traffic first hits, there’s divine intervention in the mix. There are no dress rehearsals in the web site business.

Lee and his exhausted staff deserve a break, but here’s hoping the boss lets the web guys (and gals) do the talking next time the topic is traffic.