Quick quiz. Which statement do you think is most true:
A) "Websites draw highly segmented audiences."
B) "Websites draw audiences that are demographically diverse"
C) "Web audiences are often more diverse than other population divisions, like ZIP codes."
The answer is D, all of the above.
These are conclusions reached by two scientists at Yahoo Research working with a Northwestern University graduate student, in a recent study called, "Demographic Diversity on the Web." Their findings are based on the actual (anonymous) browsing histories of 265,000 members of a paid Nielsen panel, not on survey data. Having a data set as large as 265,000 browser histories is a rare source that can both confirm and dispel theories that might seem obvious at the outset.
At the site level, two interesting trends emerge. First, the 10 most popular sites reach a whopping proportion of web users -- more so than the top 10 TV shows, movies, books, etc. The top sites are either social or functional (mail, search, games), leading to little in the way of collective experience that a top-rated TV show might yield. Each of Facebook's 500 million users sees a different version of the site, by definition. What drives the most traffic, therefore, is utility more than a certain type of content.
Looking at different surfing behavior among divisions of race, income, education, gender and age leads to very little difference on the most-trafficked sites. But things quickly change. The study looked at the top 100,000 sites and found that skews start to occur even in the top 100. "There's both substantial overlap and substantial difference," said senior research scientist Sharad Goel.
FoxNews.com skews 90% white in its audience. ESPN.com shows a bias toward males, but perhaps not as strongly as you might expect. Even among the most popular sites, you see 95% skews for different demographics. Jake Hofman, a Yahoo research scientist who co-authored the paper, is quick to point out a logical error people often make when interpreting data like this: Just because 90% of FoxNews.com visitors are white, doesn't mean that 90% of whites visit the site.
While the top 10 sites are popular with all demographics, users tend to spend different proportions of their online time there. Those under 25, men and minorities spend a much higher percentage of time on YouTube.com, for instance.
The research found that surfing habits can be predictive of demographics, but not as predictive as they might have thought at the outset. Knowing someone's browsing patterns can lead to a 70% to 80% accuracy in guessing gender, white or not white, and whether the household income is above the national average. But there's a big difference between 80% and 95%, Mr. Goel said.
We'll digress for a moment. As the internet takes over as the new No. 2 ad medium, Forrester says people spend as much time on the internet as they do watching TV (13 hours), a stat which Nielsen disputes. Nielsen says that the Forrester data is survey-based, whereas they have actual data showing that people spend as much as 34 hours a week in front of the tube/LCD/plasma, and less time online.
Back on topic: How does the kind of segmentation we're seeing in web visitors compare to TV? Again, we turn to Nielsen.
"TV is more of a collective experience," said Pat McDonough, senior VP-insights and analysis at Nielsen. Everyone can gather around and talk about "Friends," or "Lost," or even "Mad Men." Half of viewing time is spent with someone else, so you're less likely to see huge skews, especially along gender lines, since that someone else is often of the opposite sex. There's one major exception to that. For the period from Sept. 20 to Dec. 12, nine of the 11 top shows watched by men were NFL-related. The other two were "NCIS" and its spinoff, "NCIS Los Angeles." But it's not only men who are watching football. For women, the top NFL show comes in at number 11, but "Dancing with the Stars," the "NCIS" shows and a number of one-hour dramas round out their top shows.
"Nothing gets NFL football-like ratings ," said Ms. McDonough. But "pretty much everybody watches NCIS."
So what does this all mean for marketers? The Yahoo data would seem to show the web's utility for reaching both large and targeted audiences. In TV land, you'd likely have to move to smaller cable networks before you see the kind of demographic skews that appear in even high-traffic websites.