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Online Metrics

In the print world, the key measures of circulation and readership are firmly established and widely understood. Not so with online, where there is a multitude of different definitions of what constitutes web traffic as well as systems for measuring it. Patrick Dye looks at the evolving world of web metrics.

By Patrick Dye

Back in the pioneering days of the internet, investing in an online operation that few people understood and even fewer wished to use seemed like a fine idea. Then came the dotcom crash and a little sanity returned to the market. Today, publishers and advertisers alike want to know exactly what return they are getting for their money. Web metrics – the measurement of website traffic - can be a complex and potentially controversial area but understanding their significance is vital to maintaining an effective web presence.

ABCE ruling

Like the web itself, web metrics are technology driven and so constantly evolving to track the changing patterns of website use. However, whilst the technology marches on, agreement over exactly what constitutes a useful measure of website traffic has taken a little longer to catch up. Finally in December 2006, ABC Electronic – the industry’s online auditing body – announced that Unique Users would henceforth be taken as the mandatory metric for all audited sites. This metric replaced the much-loved Page Impression which website owners had used for many years to indicate the popularity of their site. Why the drive for a single, pre-eminent metric? ABCE’s managing director Richard Foan explains: "As digital media become more powerful there needs to be a means of measuring and judging success in a non-commercial way."

The Unique Users metric is defined as the number of machines connected to a given page and is usually measured over a period of a month. To qualify for ABCE certification, media owners have to register with the body then report Unique User figures at least twice a year. Many major titles such as the Guardian, Times and the Sun opt to report on a monthly basis, others are less frequent. When auditing figures, ABCE asks that certain elements of website traffic are removed: "We would exclude search engine spiders and ask that automated traffic, for example from a web browser that has been set to revisit a sport site to gather results, also be separated out if it accounts for more than 5 percent," says Foan.

When ABCE announced the selection of Unique Users it claimed that "… media buyers, owners and advertisers now have access to a tradable and comparable online currency …" Others in the industry were less gung-ho in welcoming the change, believing that Page Impressions gave a more accurate, and certainly more flattering, impression of their website’s audience. Indeed Page Impressions – a measure of how many pages were downloaded over a given period - and site Visitors – how many people came to the site in that period – are still valid metrics recognised by ABCE and favoured by some website owners.

Hits discredited

The choice of Unique Users is significant as it indicates how much technology and users have changed the shape of the internet in recent years. In the early days of web traffic measurement, website Hits were bandied around as the metric of choice. Now largely discredited, Hits measure the number of pieces of data a browser takes from a site. This figure could be easily distorted, for example, by image-heavy pages with many individual packets of data to be downloaded. Then came the move to Page Impressions. "Advertisers still needed some indication of web traffic and Page Impressions worked irrespective of the number of elements on a page," says Tim Rodda, UK account manager for web analytics specialist, WebSideStory. "They also gave advertisers something they could relate to their experience in the offline world and answered the question ‘how many opportunities are there for us to be seen?’" Unfortunately, with the arrival of dynamic content such as streaming media, Page Impressions ceased to give an accurate idea of how busy a site is. "People are no longer moving from flat page to flat page but viewing dynamic data within a single page," says Nigel Gwilliam, head of digital at the IPA.

Changes in the advertising model also ensured that the Page Impression metric began to fall out of favour. "They had been used as a measure of the advertising inventory available on a site but most sites are virtually sold out now so it’s no longer valid" says Rodda. "The number of pages available for advertising is also irrelevant as people interact differently with the sites."

The Unique Users metric may have triumphed, but it is not without its flaws. If it is measured by recording the IP address of the visitor, there is a risk that some corporate users may be missed as many smaller companies employ a single IP address for all their employees.

Advertisers’ view

From the advertisers perspective, the debate over which metric is more valid has already lost some of its relevance. The internet is now familiar territory, a trusted medium that works, so they seek less reassurance: "It’s a measure of how much more secure advertisers feel about using the web that they accept Unique Users and don’t insist on page impressions," says Rodda. Technology is also on the advertiser’s side. By employing third party ad servers and their associated reporting functions, an advertiser can see precisely what traffic a particular banner ad has attracted, irrespective of the promises made by the media owner. "Advertisers are willing to be more generous in their acceptance of what they are told because they are quickly able to prove it one way or another," says Gwilliam.

The ability to track an online advert’s performance may have encouraged a more trusting relationship between advertiser and media owner, but it also calls into question the role of ABCE. "In print, if you don’t have an ABC figure you can’t get anywhere; it’s a hygiene factor for doing business. In the online world, it’s different because you can track an ad’s performance," says Gwilliam. So is ABCE obsolete? Probably not. Professional practices are always welcomed in business, and the ABCE stamp of approval still carries weight argues Rodda: "Publishers won’t use an audit as a straight indication of the numbers involved but as a public declaration that they subscribe to an industry standard and accept a public audit."

With the many layers of information that analytics tools now provide publishers, they have far more sophisticated sales tools to tempt advertisers without relying on Unique Users alone. From the media buyer’s perspective, even the absence of an ABCE audit has its uses: "Buyers will use ABCE as a negotiation tool and if a website has no certification it may still be acceptable to them but they will use this fact to negotiate down the rates," says Gwilliam.

Disputed figures

For some, the big numbers still matter. Witness the recent controversy over the Telegraph’s claims, in an ad campaign, to have the most popular website of the quality dailies. This was enough to have the Guardian’s director of digital strategy and development, Simon Waldman, presenting a wealth of evidence to the contrary on his blogging site. An even more disgruntled individual has reportedly complained to the ASA about the campaign. For the nationals then, their offline circulation wars carry over to the online realm: "Many of the big nationals are moving toward producing figures for daily Unique Users on their websites," says Alex White, director of the Association of Online Publishers. "Collectively they are taking a step closer to presenting a picture similar to that of newspaper readership which is reported on a daily basis."

Unlike their subscription-based counterparts in the trade press, newspaper sites still rely heavily on ad revenue, which may go some way towards explaining this jockeying for position. However, if the intention is to impress advertisers with the sheer bulk of numbers, it is a flawed exercise: "These figures are less important than circulation and readership figures are for conventional media," says Nigel Sheldon, director of digital at media planner Starcom Digital. "Our interest is in obtaining a certain audience at a certain time and achieving click-through and conversion rates."

The Web 2.0 effect

If the Unique Users figure has the power to spark controversy, then the future of online metrics looks set to become even livelier with the advent of so called Web 2.0 technologies and an emphasis on interactive media. Monitoring users of content served up via technologies such as streaming media presents many challenges. "We are already developing metrics for podcasts, streaming media and RSS feeds based, for example, on the average length of time a user displays a streamed video," says Foan.

When rich media is presented as a simple download, rather than being streamed, the only metric that can be accurately measured is whether or not the download has taken place, not if it was viewed. Yet, determining the number of users actually viewing this material is vital given the investment to the media owner that such content represents: "If you can’t measure it, you shouldn’t do it," says Rodda. "Why invest if there is no way you are going to get anything back from it?"

Measuring Monkey

One possible direction future web use could take is being explored by Dennis Publishing with its online only lads magazine, Monkey. The content is presented in a magazine-like format with the user turning pages as he progresses through the site. "The advantage to advertisers is that the reader is directed through the content," says online marketing manager Andrew Zincke. To allow for smooth progress through the content, pages are cached on to the user’s machine which presents some challenges in establishing actual Page Impressions. Dennis is currently working with ABCE to establish appropriate metrics. Zincke is acutely aware of the ground this product is currently breaking: "At the moment we are sitting out on our own with Monkey; it will be easier when there are others in this market to determine what numbers we should be looking at."

With the many competing interests and technologies driving online publishing, the challenges that lay ahead are considerable. ABCE’s Foan has no illusions about the complexity of the task facing his organisation: "To expect everybody in the industry to understand all the issues and agree on a panacea is unrealistic, but the metrics used will evolve as the technology changes."