Measuring the Web Just Got More Complex

Nielsen Adds Yet Another Metric, Total Minutes, to Convoluted Process

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AOL media network used to rank fifth in Nielsen/NetRatings' online audience rankings, but last week it rocketed to first -- that's the kind of thing that can happen when the bean counter changes the beans.
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Source: Nielsen/NetRatings, U.S., home and work, May 2007

The Time Warner-owned portal is fifth in terms of unique visitors, but when measured by total minutes spent on the site, it beat its nearest competitor, Yahoo, by more than 5 billion minutes in May. As you might have guessed, much of that is due to the popularity of its AOL instant messaging program, which drives up the time people spend with the online brand (and is sure to provoke argument about what, exactly, should be included in the new audience rankings).

Total minutes is the newest metric Nielsen/NetRatings' will report as a way to rank websites' audiences. It was added because some web properties were getting the short shift under a more traditional page-view metric. When Nielsen/NetRatings made its announcement last week, many in the industry erupted, believing it was a replacement for page views -- it was not, said Nielsen in a note to clients later in the week.

Multiple metrics
It still will report a variety of metrics, including total audience, time spent, frequency of use and page views, as will its chief competitor, ComScore. The latest is just another metric to add to the measurement arsenal, which begs one question: Isn't having just one metric and measurement service one of the keys to the success of other media, such as TV or radio? How many different measures can a medium possibly have?

A lot, it turns out.

"To some degree it's about embracing the complexity these different metrics portray about the consumer," said Tom Willerer, director-insights and analytics, Starcom USA. "We never just look at one metric" when planning online media.

A big part of the complication is that the web is not just a marketing medium but a channel or a platform on which different media models run. It's impossible to measure online video in the same way one would measure a static web page, just as it would be to measure magazines the same way as TV in the offline world. And some sites are designed to deliver people quick hits of information -- like a Google search or check in on the afternoon's weather at -- whereas others strive to keep users surfing or viewing as many of its videos as possible.

Split duties
Plus, unlike TV, where a single measurement is used both for planning purposes and as a currency, the web relies on panel-based audience measurement, such as Nielsen/Net-Ratings and ComScore, to plan and third-party ad-serving data to measure the currency -- impressions served.

Incidentally, agency execs say they didn't much use page views in their planning processes; that metric was historically an important one for publishers because every new page view is another ad opportunity. But as more sites employ tools such as Ajax -- which allows web pages to update without having to reload -- page-view counts often become distorted anyway. The sites most helped by Nielsen/NetRatings' new metric are social-media sites and streaming-video sites.

"In a world with no rich internet applications, time spent on a site and page views are pretty synonymous," said Andy Fisher, director-analytics at Avenue A/ Razorfish. And it's foreseeable that increasing time spent on a site may turn out to be a bigger goal for publishers (already the portals that have basically maxed out audiences are striving to do this).
Manish Bhatia, president of Nielsen Online
Manish Bhatia, president of Nielsen Online

Quick hits
Sites that will be aversely affected are likely utility ones where users head for answers or information on the fly, such as and Google, which prides itself on how quickly it can get a user off its search engine and onto the site it's looking for.

"Page views are less relevant because of things like Ajax, streaming video," said Manish Bhatia, president of Nielsen Online. "But [as we add total minutes], it's not like we're moving away from other metrics; they're all still in the service."

But looking merely at the rankings of web publishers in broad categories such as page views, total minutes or unique visitors is a fairly narrow view of a highly fragmented space, warned Young-Bean Song, VP-analytics at aQuantive's Atlas. He likened ComScore or Nielsen/NetRatings' rankings of the top 10 or 20 web publishers to the U.S. News & World rankings of top colleges. "They can be useful and interesting, but at end of day, you're talking about what kind of degree and professors and classes a school has -- it's a more detailed exercise."
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