IQ News: On the Right Track? User-based Web measurement firms are on the way.




CNN.com has always found itself in a comfortable position near the top of the Web audience rankings. According to its own records, it boasts 34 million page views per week, apparently topping such rivals in the news category as MSNBC.com and The New York Times site. So when PC Meter recently reported CNN’s traffic was well below MSNBC’s numbers (a finding naturally trumpeted by the Microsoft gang), CNN hotly disputed the data, citing fallacies in PC Meter’s methodology.
“If you look at page views on a weekly basis, [CNN] is so much greater,” says Richy Glassberg, senior vice president for Turner Interactive marketing and sales. “We do not buy [PC Meter] because we don’t feel it adequately reflects the marketplace.” Most critically, notes Glassberg, PC Meter has yet to count Web traffic that flows from the workplace–which is where most CNN addicts get their fix.
The controversy was not the first time PC Meter, which renamed its service Media Metrix last month, has come under attack. As the initial firm to take a Nielsen-style audience-based approach to Web measurement, PC Meter has gotten a lot of attention, both positive and negative. It’s a division of NPD Group, an established research firm. And absent much other data about Web users as a whole, sites and media buyers and sellers have relied on PC Meter’s rankings. But critics charge that its survey base is full of holes, since it covers homes but not offices and PC but not Mac users.
Media Metrix is hard at work plugging its holes and expanding its reach. Hot in pursuit are several startup companies that also are developing user-based Web measurement and planning systems. Such newcomers as plan, Relevant Knowledge and NetRatings are racing to sign up clients and build relationships with influential new media agencies and buyers.
Like Nielsen does for TV, these firms begin their research at the audience level, monitoring users’ paths on the Internet and gathering key demographic and preference tidbits. (How old? How many cars, kids, soft drinks, vacations, credit cards? And so on.) Then their software tools slice and dice such consumers and their Web site habits according to the needs of advertisers.
“Telling someone to advertise on Yahoo! is like telling someone to advertise on CBS,” says Mark Wright, chief executive of plan, one of the measurement newcomers. Wright notes that for the Web to mature as an ad medium, its research must be able to tell advertisers which sites perform best based on specific user interests and activities, such as sports-crazed young males or health-conscious new mothers.
For now, most Web sites rely on server-based traffic systems, such as I/Pro and NetCount. Such information is helpful in defining the character of a Web site and gauging what gets clicked and what gets overlooked. But media buyers wonder about the veracity of data released by publishers. “For every site measuring its own traffic,” asks Steve Klein, media director at Kirshenbaum, Bond & Partners, New York, “how does all that stuff getting collected get policed?” Says Steve Goldberg, group manager of Microsoft’s advertising business unit, “Until now, it has been difficult to put third-party data in media kits and presentations,” because server log data is susceptible to tinkering.
Thus the movement toward user-based data. But for such systems to be accepted in the ad community, the quality and reliability of the samples and the tracking methods are critical. “User-based measurement is appealing,” says Klein. “But why have a sample base if it’s ultimately a measurable medium?”
Mary Ann Packo, president of PC Meter, notes that the reformulated Media Metrix has added 800 business users to its sample group, with a near-term target of reaching 2,500 such users. “Our goal is to properly reflect people who have access” to the Web, she says. Media Metrix works by installing software on the computers of its panelists, which tracks their activity on the Web and online services.
The newcomers claim they’ve built a better Web trap. Atlanta-based Relevant Knowledge, for instance, says it will offer a larger survey base, software that takes up less memory on computers, and real-time “projectable” data. The company was announced in February by two former Turner Broadcasting System executives, Jeff Levy and Rich Cobb. Six months later, the service has yet to begin officially (November is now promised), though it has gathered an impressive beta client list, including CNN Interactive (a Turner Interactive property), Microsoft, Sony Online, NBC Online and CNET.
“The new media market has got to fall in line with other media,” says Levy. Media buyers and sellers “want the same types of information.” Relevant Knowledge plans to gather such data from a base of 25,000 panelists, who will be paid $25 every six months to use its software.
A larger Web user database is promised by plan, which was launched on July 1. Based in Stamford, Conn., plan’s executive team includes Wright, the founder of Inforum Inc., a software toolmaker for the health care industry; Karl Spangenberg, from Infoseek and Datamation; and Susan Russo, who held top positions at Rodale Interactive and Hearst New Media.
To cull its 40,000-strong base, plan has signed a 10-year exclusive agreement with The Gallup Organization to handle phone surveys and sampling. Each quarter, 10,000 new users will be added, while the oldest 10,000 are dropped. Their demographics are taken over the phone, while a $2 incentive is used for them to go to a Web site to update their preferences. plan customers can then match Web site ad rates and specs to the consumer demos, lifestyles and brand affinities they want. Initial clients include CNN Interactive, IBM, Lycos, Microsoft, Modem Media, Starwave and Wired Digital.
NetRatings, in Santa Clara, Calif., is still largely under wraps. Founded by Dave Toth, a former product development manager at Hitachi, the company will begin to form a panel and publish results of a beta test toward the end of the fall. According to Tim Meadows, vice president of marketing, NetRatings intends to offer audience numbers that give a global view of Internet usage. It also will track such areas as e-commerce and product development.
So it’s still early in the measurement wars. Others are expected by 1998, such as research firm Millward Brown and Nielsen itself. For buyers and sellers alike, the result should be a system that finally works. Says Glassberg, “we’re interested in all the new competition.”