Last week's Advertising Research Foundation summit on interactive media measurement brought together those who would count traffic to World Wide Web sites and the marketers and agencies that would desperately like to see such companies succeed.
But while progress is being made, both sides acknowledged that the tools are still crude and what Web site owners want to measure is anything but clear.
"The perfect solution cannot be implemented today," said Ariel Poler, president of Internet Profiles Corp., San Francisco, a company considered by many to be leading the drive to count how many people visit Web sites and how long they stay. "The best we can do .*.*. is give a pretty good estimate" of how many visits a site gets.
Companies on the Web want much more than that.
Marketers want to measure traffic to Web sites to gauge their effectiveness. Measurement is even more important for companies that sell ad space on the Web because they can use the information to set ad rates and show advertisers how popular the sites are.
"If there's no way to measure what it is we're doing or who it is that's seeing it, I can't see this medium growing into anything," said Donna Goldfarb, market research manager at Thomas J. Lipton Co.
The problem with Web measurement is that there isn't a one-size-fits-all solution. Marketers using the Web to build brand awareness may want to count "exposures" to their Web site, said Katherine D. Paine, CEO of the Delahaye Group, Portsmouth, N.H., which provides consulting services for Web site owners. Those looking to convey information should monitor information requests, she said, while those selling ad space might track their visitors' habits.
While most of the audience of 220 agreed that measuring exposures-the number of times an ad is seen-is important, there was no consensus on how a Web ad should be priced, whether by cost per thousand or some other measure.
Another problem hindering accurate measurement is "cache-ing." Some commercial online services such as America Online store popular Web pages on their own servers so they can be called up more quickly. But records of that traffic never make it to the Web site owner, depriving them of a true accounting of the visits to their site.
Several at the conference urged companies that cache to turn over their records to site owners. Some suggested site owners should get tough and say they won't allow their pages to be cached unless they see the traffic reports.
"I haven't spoken to any of those auditors," said Lyn Chitow, VP-Internet services at America Online, who didn't attend the conference. "I'd be happy to do it though."
Ms. Chitow said cache-ing is a benefit to AOL customers.
"It provides the average consumer [working] with low-bandwidth speeds [the ability] to participate in the Web," she said. "That's why we support it."
"Right now, there's not an industry standard," Ms. Chitow said, adding that, if approached, she'd be happy to discuss one. "We're staying away from the fog."
Jane Hodges contributed to this story.