An impression is one of the most common digital marketing metrics you’ll learn about when trying to attract traffic online.
Impressions are among the many types of data collected by search engine tools like Google Analytics and social media business tools like Meta’s Ads Manager. But what is an impression, and are they important to track?
This article explains the definition of impressions, the two types, and why they matter.
- An impression is used to quantify the number of times a piece of content is viewed or displayed online.
- The content could be a paid ad, social media post, search engine results page, or web page.
- Impressions determine how much ad campaigns cost, which is why they’re important to track.
- Tracking performance helps you figure out the most effective social media platforms for your marketing efforts.
- What Does an Impression Mean?
- How Impressions Are Counted
- Types of Impressions
- Impressions Affect Ad Cost
- 3 Benefits of Tracking Impressions
- Use Impressions to Budget and Analyze Performance
What Does an Impression Mean?
An impression is a metric used to sum up the number of times a piece of content is viewed or displayed on a web page. The definition of “content” could be anything from an advertisement for a social media post (image or video), while the web page could be someone’s feed or a Google search results page.
For example, Pinterest ad impressions count the number of times your advertisement is displayed to Pinterest users.
Of all the metrics used to measure your online marketing campaign’s success, impressions can be one of the most confusing (and frustrating). The reason is that your audience doesn’t have to interact with or, in some cases, even see your content for it to count as an impression.
As long as social media sites or search engines load your content, the action (i.e., loading the content) will count as one impression, or multiple, as the case may be. This is the case even if the user didn’t see the ad or post because they were looking at something else.
Therefore, while an impression may sometimes be referred to as an ad view, the name isn’t 100% accurate.
How Impressions Are Counted
Let’s illustrate the implication of the above with an example. Suppose a Google ads advertiser pays to have their ad displayed on the first page, and Google loads the ad at the bottom of the page twice in one day.
In that case, it counts as two impressions, even if the Google ads advertiser’s target consumers don’t scroll to the bottom of the page to see the ad.
Below are some additional reasons why impressions aren’t too helpful for assessing campaigns:
- Impression counts don’t account for unique page views: Unfortunately, impressions don’t paint an accurate picture of how many people individually view ads. For example, if a visitor refreshes the same page 20 times, each refresh will count as a new impression.
- Bots may skew results: Similarly, impressions may account for ads loaded on pages opened by bots. As such, not every impression means a human being viewed your advertisement, meaning your campaign isn’t immune to what is known as impression fraud.
However, this metric should still be included in your strategy in the same way that clicks data is.
Types of Impressions
Impressions are categorized into two: served and viewable.
Served impressions measure the number of times a platform or search engine fetches and loads an ad or a link. It’s challenging to rely on these impression types because they’re extremely rigid. In other words, they register whether or not the content was loaded without exception.
As such, they don’t provide crucial insights, like whether your content got displayed, where it was displayed on the page, or if it was even seen at all. Also, served impressions count even if the ad is loaded on a page with mobile incompatibilities or if the user left the page before the content loaded fully.
Viewable impressions are the antithesis of served impressions, as they provide more helpful data and highly actionable information that can guide your campaign efforts.
Crucially, these impression types account for whether your content was viewed, not just the action of fetching and loading said content.
They will tell you if your ad was viewed and whether or not the user clicked on it, making your advertising results much clearer.
Impressions Affect Ad Cost
Given how little online impressions tell you about your online marketing efforts (compared to a metric like a click-through rate), why should you care about them?
The answer has plenty to do with paid advertising costs — impressions determine how much ad campaigns cost on a website, social media platform, or search engine.
A website owner may charge you a CPI (cost per impression) when you decide to advertise on their site. Therefore, you’ll need to track impressions to determine whether your ad is being served to the website’s visitors.
In light of the above, the number of impressions your content receives can tell you whether you’re getting enough impressions or (if not) what you can do to increase impressions.
Alternatively, social sites and search engines charge on a CPM (cost per thousand) model. Essentially, you pay per 1,000 impressions.
3 Benefits of Tracking Impressions
Here’s a look at the top benefits of keeping an eye on your impressions:
When combined with reach, impressions can be a valuable metric. Reach continues where impressions stop in that they reveal engagement data about your content. So knowing the number of impressions your content receives can provide a rough estimate of how much reach your content will get.
Tracks SEO Performance
Impressions can help guide your organic search efforts when measured against clicks in Google’s Search Console. You can estimate a page’s performance by calculating your click-through rate based on the impressions received on Google’s SERP (search results page).
Highlights Most Effective Social Media Platforms
If you’re marketing organically on multiple social media sites, your impression count can reveal the most effective platform for your campaigns. You can use this information to double down on the platforms that work while scaling back on the ones that don’t.
This is why it isn’t wise to disregard impressions — even with some caveats, they’re a useful metric for paid and organic marketing campaigns.
Although impressions aren’t the most insightful metric you can use to estimate your ad campaign’s success, they can be useful to advertisers from a cost standpoint and online marketers doing organic SEO.
For example, if you plan to show advertisements on the pages of an authority site or social media platform like Facebook, expect to be charged on a CPI (authority site) or CPM basis (social media). This information can be useful for budgeting, so ensure you factor impressions into your paid advertising strategy.
Now that you know what an impression is, use this information to inform your next paid ad campaign and improve your results.
Karl Barlett is a veteran in the marketing industry with over 9 years of experience in media buying. Karl has been instrumental in developing successful media campaigns for some of the biggest brands in the DTC world with an obsession to get the most out of every marketing dollar spent. Outside work, he enjoys video games and spending time with his dog, Louie.