Traffic Ratings: Are They Gospel?

A July 14 article in The Industry Standard brought a smile to my face, as do most articles that question the validity of the tools we use to gauge site traffic. The article, entitled “The Danger of Trading on Ratings,” described the effect of Media Metrix traffic figures on the investment community’s view of content sites.

Having written a piece or two that questioned media planners’ reliance on Media Metrix, I was happy to see that other journalists were peeking under the hood and asking, “Huh?”

The investment community and the online media planning community use Media Metrix in different ways. While planners may use it in an attempt to understand a site’s user base from a demographic standpoint, investors tend to be more concerned with overall traffic figures. Still, the Standard article raised some of the same questions about Media Metrix’s methodology that media planners should have been thinking about when they initially subscribed to the service.

Among those questions…

  • How can we expect to reasonably project traffic numbers and audience statistics from the surfing habits of a panel of 50,000 web users?

  • How should we measure work usage, considering that it’s very difficult to get businesses to agree to have a ratings firm install tracking software on their employees’ computers?
  • What about WAP-enabled devices, library and school usage, and other sources of Internet access that aren’t measured by Media Metrix?
  • Is there a better way?

There is a tremendous need for online audience research these days. Media sales organizations need some sort of traffic numbers to show planners why their site is better than the next guy’s. Investors need numbers to gauge a content site’s growth over time. As planners, we need these numbers in order to get a better understanding of the audience served by a given site. As we know from our college economics classes, where there is a need, there is a business opportunity.

To fill this need, companies like Media Metrix, @plan, and Nielsen//NetRatings developed their own distinct measurement methodologies and jockeyed for position as the standard for audience measurement on the web. As time went by, the influence of these measurement companies grew to the point where today it’s not uncommon for web advertisers to specify “Get our Media Metrix numbers up” as an objective for an ad campaign.

To many e-marketers, the notion of getting more qualified users to their sites is not as important as conveying the perception of increased traffic. Acting on such a notion is dangerous and misguided. However, it correctly suggests that there’s a significant difference between actual traffic and traffic attributed to sites by the various measurement companies.

But what can be done to make online audience measurement more accurate? Maybe the measurement firms should do away with the idea of panels altogether. Perhaps a logfile-based solution might be more accurate. Sure, there would be downsides to switching to this method. Unique visitor totals would be skewed by annoyances like dynamic assignment of IP addresses, proxy caching, and the lack of distinction between users at home and users at work, but it may be better than trying to extrapolate traffic figures from the surfing habits of only 50,000 web users.

Here’s something else to consider: What happens to the accuracy of audience measurement as our society begins to access the Internet from more locations and from a variety of devices? Personally, I access the Internet in several different ways from my computer at home, from a different computer at work, from my Nextel phone, from kiosks in the airport, and even occasionally from a Palm VII. What happens in a couple of years when I decide to buy that Internet Fridge or when my new car has some sort of Internet terminal in the dashboard? Activity from these devices would show up in a site’s logfiles but wouldn’t necessarily be measured by Media Metrix’s PC meter.

Regardless of where online audience measurement heads in the next couple of years, I’m happy that the industry is placing current measurement methodologies under the microscope. Nothing bad can come from your own assessment of these methods, so you should review them carefully and maybe make some suggestions for moving the measurement industry forward.

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