One widely adopted kernel of wisdom about news online has become that the vast majority of traffic to a news site is made up of “casual” visitors or “fly-bys” that visit just once or twice a month. I think measurement error might be driving this statistic far higher than reality. I’m reading Matthew Hindman’s report for the FCC on local news consumption (summarized and linked to from here) and it again repeats this observation.

My roommate has a habit of clearing his browsers cookies and all private data every time he closes it. Yet, he basically visits the same set of news sites every single day. If these sites are using cookies to track his visits, as is the standard way, they are over counting there visitors number for him by 30 times. Let’s do some rough math to observe how much impact this could have on the results of a study of that data.

Let’s assume we have a site that has measured 130 unique visitors at an average of 10 pageviews per visitor for the month. In total they’ve got 1,300 pageviews. If 1% of their visitors browsed like my roommate did, they would actually have only 100 unique visitors, and each person would have 13 pageviews for the month. What if 2% of people did it? Then the average pageviews per person soars to 19.

Maybe news visitors aren’t so disengaged after all.