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The debate over which site had the most November page views reflects the difficulty of tallying Web traffic, and billions of ad dollars are at stake
On the Web, the competition for most popular site can be as intense as the race for the pennant or even the Presidency. So news that up-and-comer MySpace.com beat incumbent Yahoo! (YHOO) for most monthly page views for the first time in November understandably grabbed headlines.
According to comScore Networks, News Corp.'s (NWS) MySpace racked up 38.7 billion page views in November, compared with 38.1 billion for longtime leader Yahoo. But the dispatches concerning the upset were the online equivalent of the famous headline "Dewey Beats Truman."
Almost immediately, the results were called into question. UBS (UBS) analyst Benjamin Schachter left voicemail messages for investors and reporters warning against making decisions on comScore's potentially unreliable data. Yahoo was still the undisputed leader, measured by other key metrics, including unique visitors and time spent on the site. Besides, Nielsen//NetRatings (NTRT), comScore's main competitor, still had Yahoo leading page views in November: 33.4 billion, vs. 29 billion for MySpace and the rest of News Corp.'s Fox Interactive Media properties.
Focusing on Ad Impressions
The discrepancy has revived complaints about the accuracy of reporting agencies' results, which often differ from companies' own audience measurements (see BusinessWeek.com, 10/23/06, "Web Numbers: What's Real"). It also underscores the rivalry between comScore and Nielsen//NetRatings for recognition as the most trusted source for Web-traffic data. The winner, if one emerges, may set the standard for how site popularity is measured, influencing how marketers dole out billions in online ad dollars each year. Recognizing the high stakes in that tussle, comScore and Nielsen//NetRatings both are refining their tactics.
For starters, in the first quarter of 2007, comScore plans to change how it determines the amount of advertising a Web company shows its audience. To do that, comScore will focus on ad impressions, or the number of times an ad shows up on a page, rather than the number of times a Web page is viewed. The results can vary, depending on how a Web page is designed.
For example, Yahoo and Google (GOOG) are among companies that use a technology called Ajax that can change an ad, influencing the number of ad impressions, even if the user doesn't refresh or click to a different page. Yahoo attributed the 9% drop in its page views, which allowed MySpace to overtake it, to its inclusion of Ajax. Thus, page views—long used by industry analysts to estimate how many ads a company can serve and, thus, potential revenue—is no longer a reliable measurement.
Time Spent on a Site
ComScore is also planning to launch a set of entirely new ad metrics in the second quarter of 2007, according to comScore Chief Executive Officer Magid Abraham. "We are developing some proprietary metrics that are a much better replacement for page views and are actually a better measure of engagement," says Abraham.
Abraham is tight-lipped about specifics, but he says the new techniques will better reflect the influence of new technologies. The company will focus more on time spent on a site than page views. It's worth noting that, by that estimate, Yahoo is the clear winner. Its users spent 42.7 billion minutes on its pages in November. MySpace's users spent a total of 13.8 billion minutes, says Abraham.
Nielsen//NetRatings is also working on its measurement techniques in response to new technologies. The firm developed a proposal several months ago on how to track Ajax and improve tracking on other technologies such as streaming media, says Manish Bhatia, NetRatings' vice-president of global operations and U.S. sales.
Changing the metrics alone, however, isn't enough to satisfy everyone. The Interactive Advertising Bureau, an organization of advertisers and major Web companies, is calling for an external audit of both comScore and NetRatings by the Media Ratings Council, the body that certifies measurement practices of media ratings firms such as radio's Arbitron (ARB). "At this point, the only thing we know is that the results are consistently different. What we don't know is why," says Sheryl Draizen, IAB's senior vice-president and general manager. "The differences between the numbers reported by comScore and NetRatings are obviously a big issue for the industry as a whole."
Both comScore and NetRatings say they have begun working with the MRC to get certified. But Draizen says the process is not happening fast enough. "It should be a major priority for them," she says. "It is a real issue to have such different numbers in the marketplace."
For Internet companies and advertisers, determining whose numbers are correct is more important than just crowning the rightful platform king. At stake are the tens of billions of advertising dollars destined for the Web. Internet advertising is estimated to reach $16.4 billion this year, according to research firm eMarketer. The number is expected to grow to $25.2 billion in 2010. Which companies get that money, particularly dollars earmarked for promoting brands and not just directly selling merchandise, will depend largely on who can verify their ad inventory and the size, composition, and engagement of their audience.
May the Best Metric Win
ComScore and NetRatings each believes its own methods the best. ComScore insists that its method of allowing new measurement methods will establish it as the clear innovator. It also boasts that it is able to better measure college students because it offers its software for download over the Internet in exchange for games, screensavers, security software and other items. "We feel we have the advantage," says Abraham.
Nielsen has an edge with its study panel, which was selected via random telephone polls and thus, according to Bhatia, more representative of the general population. He argues that only a particular kind of computer user is comfortable downloading free software over the Internet. "Fundamentally, the quality of the result comes from the quality of the underlying panel," says Bhatia.
Who will win? That will depend largely on who is able to respond fastest to the new technologies that impair the relevance of old metrics, says Peter Daboll, a former president of comScore who now heads Yahoo's global market research department. "Internal server log data, panels—all have their limitations," says Daboll. "I think frankly we just need more innovation."