Tracking Web Traffic: Upstarts Trump Titans

Online Scorecard: CBS, NBC Beaten by About, Weather Channel Sites

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NEW YORK ( -- While NBC, The New York Times, Time Inc. and Clear Channel may be kings of the offline media world, it's a whole new ballgame on the web, where such stalwarts regularly are thumped by smaller players such as The Weather Channel and when it comes to traffic.
Weather Channel
In Ad Age's first ranking of the top web brands, some smaller 'offline' players such as The Weather Channel have found success online compared to larger media companies.
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That may sound surprising, but not when you consider the web's strength as a reference medium and the head start online-only properties have had in important navigation techniques such as search optimization.

"It's a totally different medium, and the web-based companies have designed and built content for this medium," said Larry Kramer, founder of MarketWatch, now owned by Dow Jones, and former president of CBS Digital Media. "Traditional media companies are still trying to figure out how they translate what they do for the web."

New definitions
This list, the first Ad Age has run, started with the top 100 web brands, as determined by unique visitors and measured by Nielsen/NetRatings, and from there was whittled down to media brands. But determining what's a media company and what's not isn't so clear on the web. That's partly because the internet has changed the definition of a media company. It's no longer just a site that creates content; it's also one that aggregates it. And it's not only a destination with professionally produced content; it's also one to which thousands contribute. At the end of the day, anyone with content can battle for ad dollars.

This definition comprises portals, including Google, which often is considered more a platform or tool than a media company, and Lycos, which attracted 21 million unique visitors last month. It also includes Wikipedia, which is not ad-supported but clearly is a common online source of information. And it includes sites such as, which is part internet-service provider but also has made great strides toward becoming a portal and a video site.

Nontraditional media players, such as the Amazon-owned Internet Movie Database,, and, rank highly because they're reference sites skilled at search optimization and show up near the top of virtually every web search. They dominate because people don't go to the web just to be entertained -- a tenet of many traditional media companies.

"If you're going to sit and watch a one-way broadcast of TV, why would you go to the two-way medium unless it's the only way you can get it?" Mr. Kramer said. "The web excels at one-on-one interaction, bringing together hard-to-find information or content and the person looking for it."

Getting there
Indeed, finding a site is paramount, especially as more and more traffic comes in through search. Sites such as YouTube and Blogger, which make it easy for external sites to link to them, get heavy doses of link love, which help them rank higher in search results. Many traditional media companies still are struggling to figure out how to index and optimize pages; several offering video were initially "lost" on search engines because they were Flash sites, which require extra work to get found by search engines.

Finally, too many traditional media companies focus only on content creation because that's a business they are in, said Charlene Li, analyst at Forrester Research. "But from an ad perspective, that's not the media business," she said. "It's about attracting audiences with content and selling advertising against that. ... In the future, it's also about aggregation."

Then there's always the question of measurement. This list uses unique visitors in part because it's a readily available metric. The top sites and aggregators tend to suck in the majority of the ad dollars, and the dispersion of revenue below the top publicly traded players is difficult to determine. And engagement remains an enigma, although metrics that indicate stickiness are coming up in more advertiser conversations.

That's good news for media brands whose traffic may not rank as highly as they'd like. "Don't get stuck on unique visitors," said Jeff Minsky, director of OMD Next. "Balance that out with time spent on site and metrics that are more relevant to the brands advertised."
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