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Web site traffic: Who's counting?

Internet companies, including PointCast, continue to grapple over how to measure traffic at Web sites for advertisers.

Internet companies continue to grapple with how to measure traffic at Web sites for the purpose of selling advertising.

After this week's release of new industry guidelines for measuring site traffic for advertisers, PointCast's top marketer is pushing ad-supported Internet services to go even further.

"We want to call on the Internet community to start setting its own standards to become a mature medium that has its own accountability, and so that we as an industry can start to regulate ourselves," Jaleh Bisharat, senior vice president of marketing, said in interview after a keynote speech at a Jupiter Communications conference in San Francisco.

PointCast is particularly interested in standard ways to measure ads in Internet broadcasting, an area largely not addressed in guidelines published Monday by the Internet Advertising Bureau. PointCast is an IAB member.

"The industry definitions need to be extended to push [advertising]," said Lisa Gerould, PointCast's director of advertiser marketing. "From the very beginning, we have tried to create a differentiated and eventually standard-setting measurement and traffic capability. It's more sophisticated than what's on many Web sites."

The IAB's first ad measurement guidelines--developed by a committee of Web publishers and firms that count visits to Web sites--also are endorsed by a group of major advertisers and ad agencies, a significant boost.

CASIE, the Coalition for Advertiser Supported Information and Entertainment, said the IAB guidelines define a "clear, practical set of media metrics for online media" that will allow for greater comparability of Web site measurement.

"When you bring in CASIE, which represents the advertisers and agencies, then you have a much more rounded point of view that all parties can trust and embrace," said Peter Storck, Jupiter's top online ad analyst.

"We [IAB] were responding to a call for action from the advertising community to publishers that if we are reporting this stuff, it should be in a comparable form," said Kate Everett-Thorp, an IAB director and vice president of CNET: The Computer Network (publisher of NEWS.COM). "This is a starting point for a response for that." Everett-Thorp chaired the 37-member task force of the IAB that drafted the ad-measurement guidelines.

Storck said the online ad industry needs standards, adding that the new medium is moving fairly swiftly in that direction. "Overall, there's a fair amount of chaos, but it's still early, and the trend is from chaos to order. We're somewhere in the middle."

PointCast's Bisharat also called on Web publishers to obtain independent audits of their Web traffic, a standard practice in other ad-supported media and a step that many Web sites already take. Storck agreed, calling audits "supremely important."

The IAB guidelines were drafted by a 37-member committee that include Web publishers @Home, Firefly, Lycos, MSNBC, Nando.net, Playboy, Prodigy, Starwave, Yahoo, and ZDNet, plus several vendors that handle Web traffic measurement for sites.

Starwave, which runs ESPN SportsZone and other content sites, has committed to implementing the new IAB, as have MSNBC and CNET. NetCount, a leading service that counts traffic for Web sites, is backing the IAB rules too. Ad-serving software from NetGravity also supports the IAB guidelines, Everett-Thorp said.

The PointCast executive also called for standardizing more specific measurements than are commonly used today, areas where PointCast's method of delivering ad messages differs from the standard ad banners most sites use.

"The IAB report does focus on the Web site model and spends a lot of time defining things like visits," said PointCast's Gerould. "Visits are not terribly meaningful in the Internet broadcast space."

One emerging area in Net ads involve what are called "interstitials" and "intermercials," ads that pop up on a user's screen while waiting for other content to download. Jupiter estimates that 5 percent of Internet ad spending today is in these two categories but predicts that this figure share will jump to 25 percent by 2001.

Everett-Thorp said the new guidelines do address interstitials, but not the "intermercials" used by PointCast. However, she said IAB plans to update the guidelines within six months to address new technologies, including offline browsing--a feature in the new Web browsers from Microsoft and Netscape.