There is no bigger issue facing the news business today than how to make the Web pay. And there is no bigger obstacle to solving that problem than figuring out how many people are visiting, how long they’re sticking around and the like.
As I found out last year when I was reporting a story on young news consumers for CommonWealth Magazine, the internal numbers compiled by Web sites like Boston.com and BostonHerald.com can be as much as three times higher than the numbers reported by Nielsen/NetRatings, the source of the leading apples-to-apples statistics used by advertisers.
The dilemma: Nielsen says it’s more accurate to ask people which sites they’ve visited than to look at a given site’s statistics, because an enormous percentage of those statistics are based on automated hits from search engines. News-business folks respond that Nielsen greatly undercounts the number of people who log on from work and from overseas.
Now, according to this article by David Cohn in the Columbia Journalism Review, help may be on the way. The Media Rating Council, a nonprofit group that helped standardize television and radio ratings nearly 50 years ago, has turned its attention to the Internet in an attempt to figure out all the metrics that should be of value to advertisers: how many people, how many different people, how many pages they’re calling up and how much time they’re spending with a given site.
These problems are far more difficult to solve than you might imagine. As Cohn points out, increasing numbers of privacy-minded people are setting their browsers to eliminate cookies every time they quit. The result: they’ll be counted as “unique users,” rather than return users, whenever they visit a particular Web site.
And if someone leaves a Web page on her screen while she goes on a 10-mile bike ride, how is that supposed to be measured?
The news business thrived on the lack of knowledge over whether any given subscriber would pore through the paper that day or toss it in the recycling bin unopened. Online, advertisers demand to know a lot more than that. So far, it’s proved impossible to answer their questions. Maybe that will change soon.