Not dismissing the importance of site traffic to publishers and advertisers, Forbes.com’s traffic numbers — and those of other brand name publishers — deserve a second look. If you haven’t seen it, Forbes.com has been out-ed for touting a Web audience that’s greater than comScore Media Metrix pegs it at. According to a New York Times story, while the financial site says its audience reaches over the 15 million mark, in actuality, the measurement firm tracks Forbes and related sites like ForbesAutos.com at 7.3 million unique visitors last month. Apparently, about a million of those visitors are attributable to the autos site, not the financial and business news site. Forbes claims that its internal numbers “still showed about 15 million visitors a month, with ForbesAutos.com accounting for about 2 million of those,” according to the story. ComScore switched up its methods for estimating global audiences recently, adding to the confusion.
Since Web site traffic has been measured, the site publishers themselves have been known to inflate numbers, and use the most flattering third party measurements as their go-to external numbers. In every walk of life, from body weight scales to fuel emission gauges, people, governments and corporate entities alike gravitate towards the measurements that make them look best. It’s only natural.
Just last week I visited with About.com to discuss their big health content push for a story. CEO Scott Meyer made sure I was aware that About’s Health and Fitness section gets top traffic scores from Nielsen//NetRatings, which put the section in its top 10 list of health, fitness and nutrition Web destinations in July. For a measurement comparison (which, by the way, the Times story doesn’t bother to include when it comes to Forbes.com’s numbers), I contacted site traffic measurement firm Hitwise. Far lower than Nielsen, Hitwise placed About’s health section at number 592 in its health site traffic rankings in August. Both Hitwise and Nielsen counted WebMD and MSN Health in their top fives — the rest of the top fives differed.
My Hitwise contact chalked up the glaring disparity to differing metrics. The fact is that assessing mass amounts of traffic across the ever-ebbing Web is a beast of a task.
While many believe online site measurement is in serious need of standardization, or at least a little cobweb-clearing (including, as featured in the Times story, Forbes CEO and Interactive Advertising Bureau Chairman James Spanfeller), quantity isn’t always what’s important to advertisers. This is especially true of the kind of brand advertisers that flock to sites like Forbes.com in the knowledge that they’ll reach a select contingent of high-earning, highly-educated consumers there.
Like Nielsen’s TV ratings, site traffic numbers are important primarily when it comes to wooing advertisers. When making initial buying decisions, those advertisers surely consider site traffic. However, what they really care about in the end is ROI. Intel, Samsung, Scottrade and Nasdaq are advertising on Forbes.com because of the quality of its audience. While reach is important for many campaigns, if particular goals are met, those advertisers will probably be back again regardless of where Nielsen puts them in the rankings.
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