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Net metrics inching along

The online industry has yet to establish a consistent, accurate method to measure who is visiting Web sites and why, several experts say.

Web audience measurements have become the golden fleece of the Internet, the underlying fabric behind the way companies spin eyeballs into revenues.

But the online industry has yet to establish a consistent, accurate method to measure who is visiting Web sites and why they are doing so, according to several experts who expressed their views yesterday during an interactive forum called "Rating the Ratings," hosted by Web community site The Globe.

Audience numbers are the basic means by which Internet companies gauge how well they can draw Netizens. As a result, Net firms employ monthly ranking reports by Web metrics leaders RelevantKnowledge and Media Metrix to attract advertising dollars.

The complexity and apparent ubiquity of the Internet also has sparked a demand among major players for more detailed demographic information. This allows companies to sell more targeted advertisements.

However, the panel of industry executives and analysts expressed the shortcomings of the methodology. "I think it's important to remember that no rating service has got it completely 'right' yet in terms of online measurement," said panelist Chris Charron, an analyst at Forrester Research.

"Trying to get a representative sample of domestic/international, work/home users will take time. In the meantime, I think advertisers and Web observers have to keep things in perspective," he added.

In many cases, panelists pointed out, companies receive varying degrees of data from audience reports. Often, companies tout a higher set of data while disguising more lackluster figures to keep up with the competition. This practice underscores one problem in these measurements.

"Potential advertisers and [existing] advertisers are looking for all the data they can gather about this new medium," said Mark Bernstein, vice president and general manager of CNN Interactive, who also participated in the forum. "Inaccurate data can result in inaccurate ad purchases. Today, the danger is that too many people use the ratings data without the appropriate caveats and knowledge of their weaknesses."

Jeff Levy, chief executive of RelevantKnowledge, said he realized how information from his company is used. "I don't think that many people use information from ratings companies for anything other than 'chest pounding.'

"It may not be the real world, but Wall Street seems to bid up or down public Internet stocks when they make big moves in the ratings," he added.