New NetRatings Metrics: A Work in Progress

The proliferation of rich media apps such as AJAX has many publishers and advertisers ditching the pageview metric and searching for something better. Nielsen/NetRatings believes its new “total minutes” and “total sessions” metrics provide a more reliable and fair gauge of user engagement across Web sites. Some think the measurement firm ought to go back to the drawing board, but even NetRatings recognizes the new metrics are works in progress.

“I think [NetRatings] could do a better job by rethinking it more,” said Jim Satloff, CEO of Inform, a company that provides links to relevant content to Web sites to help build pageviews and increase time spent by users.

While NetRatings’ average time per person and average number of sessions metrics typically reflect what the average user does, the total minutes and total sessions measurements provide information from “a ranking perspective,” said Scott Ross, director, product marketing for NetRatings’ NetView service.

The total minute clock starts when a user enters a site and continues as long as that user is on a site and the browser window is in focus. If a user shifts to interact with a separate browser window, the clock stops until the user returns to that browser window and site. This accounts for users who have multiple browser windows open at the same time.

The first time a user enters a Web site or an application, a session is credited to the site publisher. If a user is inactive for more than 30 minutes, the session ends. If a user visits a site in the morning, leaves and returns later that day, it counts as two sessions.

The pageview metric has long been the benchmark for measuring site volume, said Ross. For now, the company believes total minutes to be the best volume metric it can design, considering the fluctuating state of online publishing and advertising. NetRatings will continue to measure pageviews, as well as average time per person and average number of sessions, he added.

Considering the growth in streaming video and music, online games, as well as increased usage of applications that dynamically alter content on Web pages without the need to refresh the page, NetRatings believes its total minutes metric better reflects audience engagement. For instance, the measurement firm found MySpace users produced over 10 times more pageviews than those on YouTube, but were on MySpace just 3.6 times longer than on the video site.

So considering people interact with different sites in different ways, the company believes the total minutes metric is a more relevant way to measure site volume. “We’ll still report on pageviews, we’re just deemphasizing those,” said Ross, adding, “Staying silent and letting pageviews decrease in relevancy — we didn’t feel [this] was a reasonable option.”

Some aren’t convinced the new metrics are especially relevant. “To look for a proxy for the pageview is a noble task, but I don’t think [the new metrics] mean anything but for the sellers,” said David Smith, CEO of integrated media agency Mediasmith. “I can’t imagine how time spent is a substitute for pageviews…or how it helps the sites to estimate their [ad] inventory,” he continued.

Inform’s Satloff argues more time spent doesn’t necessitate higher value for a Web site. “Time spent is not a linear function,” he said. He contends, for example, the 10-second period from an hour to an hour and 10 seconds is not necessarily more valuable from an advertiser perspective as the initial 10 seconds spent on a site. Satloff has developed his own logarithmic formula to assess the value of increasing time spent, adjusting for diminishing returns in value of time spent.

Ross acknowledged Satloff’s argument, but notes, “Each increment of volume is potential for serving advertising.”

Interactive Advertising Bureau SVP Sheryl Draizen called the new metrics “fundamentally good,” but added, “We should continue to innovate.”

The IAB released its own set of rich Internet application ad measurement guidelines in May, in an effort to determine how to count ad impressions in dynamic Web environments. According to Draizen, the trade group is “still gathering and incorporating feedback” on those proposed guidelines.

Draizen stressed the need for transparency in how NetRatings is implementing the new metrics. The IAB recently pressured NetRatings and its competitor comScore to have their methodologies audited, a process currently underway at both firms.

Once the industry is closer to settling on best practices for serving ads in rich applications and streaming platforms, said Ross, NetRatings hopes to create a composite “ad opportunity” metric. However, “It takes time for ad practices to mature,” he said. “Metrics in a vacuum are worthless.”

Zach Rodgers contributed to reporting this story.

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