In Search of Standards

Since the dawn of the web as an advertising vehicle, much ink has been spilled and chins wagged about the need for standards. Almost immediately after there was some recognition that the web could be used as a potentially effective medium for reaching and communicating with an audience, the industry at large started clamoring for standards.

Many coming from the offline media tradition were used to working with standards – units of measure that helped quantify just what it was planners and buyers were planning and buying. Those standards may not be elegant, but there are now standards for measurement in place which help guide the media and marketing professional in determining what quantity and quality of advertising units they were buying and what level of impact their communications efforts might have.

Ratings, share, reach, frequency, households, demos, and impressions all of these served, and still serve, as currency in the media business. All of these have developed over years and years of trial and error, competition, use, and, finally, plain resignation to the dominant paradigm.

The Internet was new, and though it looked a little like print and a little like broadcast, it was clear that it was none of these things. Yet, in order to move the medium into the industry’s field of vision, there had to be a way to talk about it that was analogous to what was already known and understood. There had to be a way to, first, quantify the medium so that it could be bought, sold, and monitored like other media. Then something “one step beyond” had to be attached so the web would be seen as a medium like no other a “killer app” that would allow it to be distinguished from the rest of the media pack.

The “hit” was quickly seen as a terribly inadequate device for accomplishing the aforementioned and is now a sign of someone who is either new to or does not understand the Internet. You better be Casey Kasem or a Sammy Sosa if you talk about hits these days.

So it was that the early pioneers fell upon the impression and the click.

The impression, which has served as the “atom” of the material advertising universe, is a term that traditional advertisers all understood and which most accurately describes the ad unit that the web could most easily accommodate. The click was that “killer app” for the medium, which showed that the instant impact of an advertiser’s message could be measured.

However, both of these terms were quickly confused with other terms that infiltrated the lexicon: page views, ad views, visits, uniques, etc.

Because of this confusing Tower of Babel we’ve now been living with for nearly four years, it is time we got back to defining terms, agree to their meanings, and establish a bed of standards upon which online media can lie.

Impression, Ad View, Page View

This is where the most confusion lies. In traditional media, the impression is defined by a rating point times the universe or target, divided by 100, since a rating point is really a percentage unit (e.g., 1 rating is 1 percent, 2 ratings is 2 percent, or 1 percent twice over). So, if I’ve got a million people in my target, and I’ve run 100 targeted ratings points against them, I’ve got one million impressions. This is just what it sounds like – a single ad exposure makes a single “impression.”

For online, the impression is a single ad exposure, too. And though it isn’t very good media currency (next time I’d like to talk about sessions and actual AUDIENCE as being a better, more meaningful advertising item to exchange for dollars), it is understandable.

But sites don’t really sell us impressions. They sell us page views. And page views are not an accurate representation of an impression; they are the number of pages that load during a session. And those pages aren’t all unique.

Some are the same page loaded several times due to a phenomenon known as “nesting.” The basic principle is that an HTML document consists of a number of elements that are containers, with contents consisting of characters and possibly other elements “nested” within them. Sometimes a browser can handle only a few nested items before reloading once, twice, sometimes as many as 10 times. Each of these ends up being counted as a page view.

I don’t want to buy page views. I want to buy a unique impression, or an “ad view.” An ad view is when the ad is counted, once it has been completely sent out from the ad server. Though I cannot determine whether or not it has loaded in the browser (Solbright is working on this, however), I do know that the ad has left the server. Think of it like a train. Once the caboose has cleared the platform and passed out of the station, the train is considered a successfully departed train, even if it derails a mile down the track. Most third-party ad servers count impressions this way, making that impression representative of an ad view.

The next time you are buying media from a site, ask whether or not the site is selling you ad views or page views. Ask about nesting on the site. Do what you can to negotiate for ad views. Even if it comes at a slight premium, you will yield much greater efficiencies, and you may see your click through rate increase because the responses will remain fairly constant (barring some things I will discuss in a moment).

Click or Visit

As some of you may know, there is a difference between a click and an actual visit. Most of what publishers refer to, and many advertisers still refer to, is the click. The click was that first nonstandard media metric that made the web so alluring. The problem with it is that it is not always counted correctly, and it doesn’t necessarily translate into a person engaging your brand.

The visit is a much better marker of advertising that is successful at eliciting the impulse response and product engagement. A click differs from a visit because it can come from someone clicking on an asset by accident or from a newbie who thinks it’s like an application that needs to be clicked twice. Or maybe the user clicks but backs out because the page loads too slowly. Not only that, clicks result from bots and spiders combing the site to update search engines and directories. A visit, on the other hand, is an actual unique on the site.

The next cost per click deal you work, again, see if you can negotiate a cost per visit instead. Yes, this might come at a premium, but you may find greater efficiencies because you decrease the amount of phantom inventory and narrow the application of your back-end metrics strictly to real inventory and tangible activity.

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