Buyers: Sites Gaming Up Page Views?

Most plying the online media trade say they’d be happy to see the page view disappear as a metric. But for all the talk about engagement and time spent, and the adoption of nifty publishing technologies like XML and Ajax, the page view just won’t die.

Indeed, many publishers deliberately still use every trick in the book to drive up their page view numbers—from posting news stories that run across four pages to driving users to endless slide shows. Some even complain that more nefarious methods are at hand, such as trying to game third-party researchers like comScore and Nielsen Online. And now, with the ill-defined ‘stream’ quickly becoming the de-facto version of the page view for video, similar questions—and accusations–are being aired.

The practice of auto-refreshing content—common for sites that offer timely news, sports scores, stock quotes and the like—is a sore spot for some. Every site does it differently, but the idea is to provide users who’ve been on a particular Web page for a long period of time with the most up-to-date content—and sometimes a new ad.

Nielsen Online claims its methodology doesn’t count any page data that isn’t user driven. “We want to know, did someone actually click on a mouse or a keyboard,” said Dave Osborn senior vp product, Nielsen Online (which, like Mediaweek is owned by The Nielsen Co.). For its part, comScore requests that publishers utilize alternative URLs when they auto-refresh content—and they watch out for those that do not.

FoxNews.com refreshes content on certain pages every 10 minutes. “The intent isn’t to grow page views. It’s about the user experience,” said Jeff Misenti, vp and general manager of Fox News Digital. He doesn’t think page view gamesmanship is a major issue: “I’ve never heard anybody accuse us of doing anything malicious.”

Others have quietly accused comScore of being vulnerable to auto-refresh deception. Not so, retorted Josh Chasin, chief research officer: “Nobody is refreshing content to game comScore. They are doing it to attract and retain audiences. Fake traffic doesn’t have a whole lot of value.”

And fake traffic could have the unintended effect of driving down click-through rates—not good in this performance-obsessed era. “You’d end up hurting yourself by doing that,” said Moritz Loew, senior director of sales at MSNBC.com.

Still, buyers are often wary of tactics like auto refresh. David Rittenhouse, media director at neo@Ogilvy, wonders whether it’s necessary that “the whole page needs to be refreshed along with the ad,” Though it’s not a common concern, Rittenhouse has been suspicious in the past that some sites might dial up auto refresh rates when they take on a major ad buy or are nearing the end of a rough quarter.

While auto-refresh is generally accepted, philosophies vary widely about the practice of automatically starting video when a user visits a site. FoxNews.com, CNN.com and MSNBC.com run little if any auto-start video. In the business space, both Forbes.com and CNNMoney.com do—and as a result often deliver more total streams than competitors. Jim Spanfeller, president and CEO of Forbes.com, said that since video still accounts for a minority of the site’s traffic, “The intent there is to acclimate our user base to the fact that we have video,” he said. So far, users haven’t screamed, but “We could change our minds.”

That’s what ESPN did in January, when it dropped auto-start on its homepage following a redesign. “We got a fair amount of feedback from people, particularly in office environments, getting in trouble,” said John Zehr, senior vp, digital product, ESPN.com. “We’ve moved away from it.” The industry has yet to build a consensus on auto start video—so much so that sources said the Interactive Advertising Bureau has established a special sub committee to tackle the issue.

Buyers generally seem uncomfortable with auto start. “I’m all for experimentation,” said Adam Shlachter, digital practice lead, MEC Interaction. “But you don’t want to be shouting at the front door as soon as a user logs on. I think it’s very interesting that CNNMoney does this but CNN does not. There are even different strategies in the same company.”