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Top of Mind: The Most Stubborn Web Ad Metric

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The comic Jackie Mason once mused that if a newspaper were introduced after the computer, consumers would be overjoyed that they could read the news without having to plug anything in and could enjoy a lightweight, disposable medium that they could take into the bathroom.

Mason might have added another selling point: With a newspaper you don’t have to click on five pages to read one story.

One of the most irritating experiences of reading online—aside from those horrible takeover ads that block what you are trying to look at—is the widespread practice of cutting information into little pieces to gin up ad revenues.

Some publishers have gotten particularly adept at this by providing the top 50 of this or that with a separate page for each entry. TMZ also runs features like “Memba Them?!” which shows an old picture of a has-been star and then compels the reader to click to the next page to see what that star looks like now. Though all this clicking may be a tedious waste of time for the reader, it is the natural outcome of the online advertising industry’s reliance on impressions, which I’m afraid is here to stay.

A story broken up into five pieces yields five more impressions than a publisher would have gotten otherwise. This is based on the universal belief that more is better—more impressions means more opportunities to sell ads.

Where did this belief come from? It’s a mistaken metaphor. Publishers have interpreted the Web as an extension of print when it’s really something totally new. The analogy is carried out further by calling the URLs “pages” and, in the early days, by referring to entities like Slate and Salon as “Webzines.”

While time spent on a site might have been a better measure of a consumer’s engagement and exposure to ads, the ability to measure raw numbers has proved too enticing. Initially, the only way to measure traffic was “hits,” meaning any single access to a Web server. From the start, the measurement was problematic, though, because highly graphic Web pages counted as multiple hits. By 1996, publishers were awash in alternative potential Web ad metrics including page views, uniques, impressions and click-throughs.

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