Alex Burmaster, European Internet Analyst at Nielsen Online

Digital Thought Leaders

Making sense of the ad opportunity today

September 2007

The recent press and debate about what and how we measure in the online landscape have been particularly welcoming to me. The recent furore around the ‘death of the page view’ certainly seems to have put the publishing and ad worlds in a collective spin. The metric that has been held, dearly or not, as the most relevant gauge of the advertising opportunity online has come under threat - and everyone is scrambling to make sense of what happens now. The other issue that has thrust measurement science into the spotlight concerns the debate between the Telegraph and the Guardian about the former’s claim to being “Britain’s number one quality newspaper web site.”

The page view debate highlights what you measure and the Telegraph issue highlights how you measure it - areas we’ve been trying to educate the industry about for years. Unfortunately, measurement science isn’t the most glamorous topic when trying to engage publishers, advertisers or agencies. However, these issues have changed things completely.

Firstly to the page view issue and what you measure. A page view, in simple terms, reflects an html or text page download in response to a user request. Consequently, it’s always had shortcomings when reflecting user engagement and ad opportunities in areas like web applications, online games and streaming video or audio – where content is refreshed without downloading a new html/text page. The increasing use of AJAX programming, which improves web page usability by avoiding the need to reload an entire web page following a user request, similarly erodes the relevance of the traditional page view. This has resulted in a perverse situation, where publishers might be reluctant to improve the user experience of their site as it could be detrimental to their ability to maximise ad sales on it.

It’s important to remember, however, that the page view still measures active engagement on the majority of sites so it will remain a relevant metric for a while. Our goal is to work with the industry on developing a next generation ‘page view’ that is relevant to the whole online experience today. One that supports, for example, partial page refreshes (AJAX), pre-loaded pages (Flash) and streaming. However, what are advertisers and publishers to rely on in the meantime?

Popularity, of course, is a benchmark that tends to stand the test of time but one that doesn’t give the advertiser a sense of how visitors interact with a site. Engagement, if it is possible to truly measure such a thing, can be indicated online by a variety of metrics – not just the number of pages a visitor views but the amount of times they visit a site or how long they spend there.

Of course, all these metrics can paint a wildly different picture of where might be best to advertise. Pages viewed per person tend to show social networking sites as the best bet, whereas the portals – with their variety of offerings - come out well when looking at sessions per person. Conversely, the online games sector tends to perform most strongly in terms of time per person.

In the short term, and for simplicity’s sake, time spent is probably the best indicator of user engagement today and as a proxy for ad inventory, as it covers all web environments and provides an accurate trend in a pre- and post- Web 2.0 world. However, this needs to be analysed with care, as longer doesn’t always mean better. Companies involved in search, such as Google and Cheapflights, are likely to be much happier with lower time figures per visit than other sectors as their aim is to help people find what they’re looking for as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Popularity is obviously still a key metric in gauging the ad opportunity and one that is illustrated by the Telegraph vs. Guardian debate I mentioned earlier. This is issue number two and concerns how you measure. When it comes to the broadsheets, our January data showed the Guardian as the most successful in every metric – popularity, total page views and pages, sessions and time per average visitor. It was also the leading broadsheet in terms of both Unique Audience and total visits during the period that the Telegraph claimed to be “the UK's most visited quality newspaper web site”.

Just as there are many ways to measure success, there are many ways to measure the same thing. Different approaches can lead to different results as the debate between the Telegraph and Guardian so publicly shows. This proves how important it is that you, whether an advertiser, publisher or agency, understand what your research company can measure and exactly how they go about measuring it.

If your research company uses panels, you need to know how they are recruited so that they are as balanced and representative of the entire population as possible. For example, are they recruited online or offline or both? It is vital to ensure the panel you are receiving information from and, consequently, basing your strategy on, isn’t dominated by heavy Internet users. This is a major problem with many online panels and one that causes data to be over-estimated. After all, making sense of the ad opportunity today depends on the data being representative of reality.

As European Internet Analyst, Alex Burmaster is responsible for identifying key trends from the Nielsen Online and the internet research suite and conveying the impact these Internet trends have on society today – both from a commercial and sociological perspective. Alex has six years of experience in Internet research with specialist knowledge in online sectors including communities, retail, music, search, gambling and sport

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