What is a unique visitor?
According to IFABC Global Web Standards, a unique user (UU) is “An IP address plus a further identifier. The term “unique visitor” may be used instead of “unique user” but both terms have essentially the same meaning (see below). Sites may use User Agent, Cookie and/or Registration ID.” Note that where users are allocated IP addresses dynamically (for example by dial-up Internet service providers), this definition may overstate or understate the real number of individual users concerned.
Unique users is a common way of measuring the popularity of a website and is often quoted to potential advertisers or investors. A website’s unique users are usually measured over a standard period of time, typically a month. Use of performance indicators such as unique visitors/users is controversial, with Greg Harmon of Belden Research inferring that many companies reporting their online performance “may overstate” the number of unique visitors. Remember, it’s just an identifier of a computer, not a person. And usually, the computer is identified by a “cookie” which is most often specific to an individual browser on that computer. Since an increasing percentage of people in the United States (at least) now have access to a computer at home and at work or school, one may have to divide the reported total of unique users in half. Then, another increasing fraction of people regularly delete cookies from their machines—presumably both at home and at work—and yet another large fraction use more than one browser on each of their machines. This means that for a typical news site, for example, which people might typically visit more than once a day to keep up with breaking news, the reported unique users might overstate the number of different people by a factor of four. On the plus side, for those wishing to impress advertisers or investors, the reported number of sessions or visits and pageviews are probably more accurate, so that smaller group of people visits much more often and looks at more pages than the raw numbers would suggest.