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A better way to count clicks?

New rules for tallying Web traffic could draw more ad money online--and cost some sites dearly.

A correction was made to this story. Read below for details.

Web publishers may soon have to change the way they count visitor traffic, whether they like it or not.

An Internet standards body is hammering out new rules for tallying traffic numbers on Web sites and their content partners, in an initiative called the Nomenclature Project. Under changes proposed by the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) and its members, publishers will have to work under more stringent rules about what can and can't be counted as part of their site.

One prominent issue comes down to branding. For example, sports news site ESPN.com attracts an estimated 15 million unique visitors a month, according to the audience-metric firm Nielsen/NetRatings. Included in its traffic are an estimated 1.2 million unique visitors from content partner Active.com, an activity event site that displays a small logo from ESPN.com at the top right-hand corner of its pages.

Theoretically, under proposed rules that are still being worked out, ESPN would have to change Active.com's pages in order to count that traffic. In fact, ESPN must be the dominant brand on the page, or comprise 75 percent of the brand attribution, in order to count it, according to proposed rules. ESPN could not be immediately reached for comment.

Everybody suffered a little pain, but it's for the gain of the overall industry and the audience measurement business.
--Leo Scullin,
vice president, IAB

This change could affect ESPN.com's rivalry with the likes of No. 2 sports-news site, FoxSports.com, which according to Nielsen, draws about 13 million unique visitors monthly. However, FoxSports.com, a channel on MSN, might have to change branding on one of its popular sites, Scout.com, for it to retain the same traffic figures. "I'm keenly interested and support this project," said Andrew Hossom, director of marketing at FoxSports.com.

Why is this important? In one word--advertising. The sites with a bigger audience can command more advertising dollars. And up to now, there's been no one way that everyone agrees to tally that Web traffic. Nomenclature Project organizers hope the changes, which are not yet finalized and should go into effect in the middle of next year, will help Web publishers and their advertisers get a better understanding of how many people are visiting which sites, and how often.

"The measurement companies have had different hierarchies, and each partner site was able to roll up traffic in different ways, causing great consternation around the industry," said Leo Scullin, an IAB vice president who is driving the initiative.

The project has been in the works for the last two years. Scullin agrees that it could cause problems for some publishers, but he believes those issues have been identified well before the rules changes takes place.

"Everybody suffered a little pain, but it's for the gain of the overall industry and the audience measurement business," Scullin added

A maturing medium
IAB company members are working on the project with audience measurement firms including ComScore and Nielsen. Other IAB members include Yahoo, MSN and CNET, publisher of News.com. ComScore did not return a request for comment.

Mike Saxon, Nielsen's vice president of media products, said the project is remarkable because publishers are working hard to put aside competitive differences to settle on much-needed standards for counting traffic.

"The primary goal is to make investors and advertisers comfortable," said Saxon, who is working with the IAB committee on the project. He said Nielsen supports the changes, but he's unclear whether they will take effect next year.

The initiative is part of a long-running campaign by the Web publishing industry to cast the Internet as a mature, accountable medium for advertising. More importantly, it's designed to make Web ads easy for advertisers to buy, so that traditional advertisers of TV, print and radio will be comfortable shifting their spending to the Internet.

The changes come at a time when industry ad sales are steadily growing. Interactive ad sales are rising at roughly 25 percent

 

Correction: This story incorrectly stated the number of people at home that Nielsen/NetRatings monitors to estimate total traffic to Web sites. The company draws such data from 24,000 people.
annually, according to estimates. To keep the momentum, executives believe they need to smooth out kinks in the system.

"The way traffic is measured today is a very top-line view of the quality and loyalty of a given audience," said Adam Gerber, a former director of innovation at ad agency MediaVest Worldwide who's now handling advertising for Brightcove, a service that helps companies bring video online. "A media buyer needs a much clearer view of how audiences (find a specific site) because the Web is so dynamic."

Some would argue that agreed-upon metrics are a long time coming.

The online ad industry took more than a few lumps during the dot-com bust because it looked so complex to digital newcomers on Madison Avenue. Web advertising's appeal was not only in the promise that it could deliver a targeted ad to the right buyer at the right time--which didn't pan out then--but also in its measurability. For the first time, advertisers could see data on when a visitor "clicked" or responded to their ad.

A blessing and a curse
But the Internet's measurability turned out to be a blessing and a curse. Publishers had various methods of tracking clicks, ad delivery, visitors and page views (the number of people who look at a page), much to the bafflement of advertisers. Wading through the various data often taxed the patience of ad buyers. And advertisers were often disappointed in the response to their ads.

On the flip side, Web publishers have long been disgruntled over discrepancies in traffic figures from their own records and those of the audience-metric companies, the main supplier of figures to advertisers. Companies like Nielsen/NetRatings rely on relatively small representative panels to estimate total traffic to a Web site. For example, it monitors roughly 24,000 people at home and 4,000 people at work to extrapolate figures. Publishers typically draw data from in-house analytic tools that measure actual traffic to their sites.

Related to that issue are variations in how publishers and metric firms count traffic, as well as how they "roll up" various Web sites into their properties.

"Traffic assignment is a huge issue," said Mark Friendler, CEO of GameDaily, a gaming news and download site.

"A lot of companies are rolling up any sites that will assign them their traffic to have the largest possible number to be on the radar" of an advertiser, he said.

Since the Internet bust, industry leaders have been trying to clean up the messy spots. One project finalized this past year, for example, pushed to create new standards for counting advertisements as they are delivered to a page. In that instance, the Web publishing industry reached consensus on counting ad "impressions" as when the visitor has the opportunity to see the ad on the page, or when the graphic is fully loaded on the page, as opposed to when the graphic is merely sent from an ad server. Some top sites are still changing their pages to meet the standard.

George Ivy, of the Media Ratings Council, an organization that looks at media measurement and accuracy across all media, is working on the standardization project with the IAB. He said that the ultimate goal of the project is to develop common methods for how to count the number of unique visitors to a site. Before that can be accomplished, he said, the task force must devise rules for what counts as a page view--can it be counted twice or only once for content partners?--and how digital tags known as "cookies" play into it.

For example, a certain number of visitors can be identified as "persistent" when they have a browser cookie set and associated with their computer. But many other visitors delete cookies and change computers. "How do you identify traffic from people that don't use cookies?" Ivy said.

Traffic from co-branded Web sites will also be a focus. Publishers that supply content to third parties would have to forgo traffic they used to count on their books. So regardless of whatever short-term pain the project causes, boosters are adamant that it will be a long-term gain for the Web publishing industry.

"It's a great project," said Gerber. "That's because it's going to drive organization and standardization for how content is effectively reported and measured."