INTERNET: Calculating the Net response

New, more sophisticated methods of auditing Web site response are good news for advertisers, writes David Sumner Smith

New, more sophisticated methods of auditing Web site response are good

news for advertisers, writes David Sumner Smith



Advertisers can now benefit from independent auditing of Web site

activity. Soon it will even be possible to obtain precise measurements

of responses to advertisements.



Amid a tidal wave of technical advances, media excitement and

unparalleled hype, businesses are beginning to recognise three primary

routes to generating revenue on the World Wide Web.



Subscriptions to online information services are worth pounds 78m and

will rise to pounds 623 by 2000, according to US Web analysts Jupiter

Communications.



This is greatly exceeded by use of the Web as a sales channel, with

goods worth pounds 335m expected to be sold by the end of this year - a

figure that Massachusetts-based Forrester Research suggests will rise to

pounds 4.3bn by 2000.



Fastest growth however, is forecast for the use of the Web as an

advertising medium. Online advertising was worth pounds 24m in 1995, of

which the vast majority was spent by businesses in the US.



Forrester expects the figure to double this year and then rise 60-fold

by 2000, when Web advertising will be worth pounds 3.1bn. Its projection

is consistent with that of Jupiter Communications, which forecasts

pounds 3.3bn in the first year of the new millennium.



Microsoft led all Web advertisers in the first half of 1996 with

expenditure of pounds 1.9m. Toyota was the only non-IT company to rank

among the top 15 advertisers. The rankings are dominated by technology-

led brands such as Netscape, IBM, AT&T, Infoseek and Yahoo!, but the

market place is expected to be transformed in 1997 by the entry of more

motor manufacturers and non-technology advertisers.



Growth in Web site advertising was spurred by the announcement in

October of moves toward global standards of traffic measurement and the

auditing of Web sites. Thirty-two members of the International

Federation of Audit Bureaux of Circulations (IFABC), including audit

organisations BPA International and the Audit Bureau of Circulations

(ABC), unanimously agreed to develop a common set of minimum measurement

and reporting standards to create an international trade mark for

inclusion on Web site activity reports.



The proposed standards are due for discussion during December at a

follow-up meeting in Frankfurt, when it is hoped that IFABC members will

give their approval.



‘We look forward to helping the interactive industry establish a

worldwide currency which will unlock all the hidden wealth in those Web

sites,’ says Richard Foan, deputy chief executive of ABC, and co-

chairman of the new standards committee. ‘Agreement is an excellent

starting point, from which we look forward to a global standard

recognised by the world’s media buyers.’



Agencies, clients and media owners have been quick to support the move.

‘The Web is a global medium and it demands a global auditing standard,’

says Marianne Caponnetto, IBM’s director of media strategy.



Rich Hamilton, senior vice-president of DMB&B, says: ‘The entire

advertising and Web industry will benefit from IFABC’s initiative.’



Tamper-proof record



To take part in an audit such as those by ABVS Interactive, a Web site

administrator needs to download monitor software and answer a series of

questions to configure the package.



The monitor runs as a separate process on the Web server, performing

several functions including the creation of an independent, tamper-

proof, record of usage activity. The data is collected over the Web

every hour, passing on to a separate audit host.



The audit process involves a comprehensive set of analytical and

verification routines to review current and historical Web server

activity data, producing audit reports to consistent IFABC standards.



The reports are available online or in printed format, with monthly or

quarterly updates likely to become the common standard because of the

speed of new media growth. The audit information provides an insight

into Web site usage which is more accurate and detailed than audits into

print journals and very much more sophisticated than television ratings.



An independent audit by ABVS Interactive of the Lycos search engine

revealed that it attracted 101,264,250 page impressions during August.

An audit by BPA International of The Economist Group’s d.Comm site, not

only analysed the socio-demographic profile and geographical location of

the 12,021 registered users, but also noted the most popular day of the

week (Tuesday) and even the most popular hour of the day (around 4pm),

for accessing the service.



‘At last advertisers can obtain reliable information on the readers of

Web sites,’ says Chris Kirk, publisher of the d.Comm site. ‘They will

also be able to study their online audience to a level of detail that is

simply not available through traditional audit certification. This will

be the breakthrough required to convince advertisers to seriously

consider the Internet in their marketing strategy.’



Web site operators use a variety of internally developed and off-the-

shelf software packages to count traffic volumes on their sites. While

sufficient for internal management reports, the lack of common standards

impairs the influence of such data on potential advertisers.



‘Accountability and comparability have been the building blocks for

print and broadcast media as legitimate advertising mediums,’ says

Richard Foan. ‘There’s no reason why advertisers shouldn’t expect the

same from Web sites.



‘Independent auditing provides assurance to advertisers that activity

counts have not been misrepresented or manipulated,’ Foan explains. But

site owners need to make sure their page is worth visiting before they

start measuring popularity. ‘Sites must give a useful reason to continue

a dialogue with visitors,’ says MCA Group’s managing director Craig

McCulloch.



Ian Prager, of media buyers Prager and Partners, says: ‘We have seen

dramatic growth in usage of the Internet but very little data on which

everyone could rely. The combination of lack of knowledge, technical

naivety and inconsistent measurement standards has presented lots of

problems in the past. That’s why we greet this important IFABC

initiative so positively. It’s good news to have a common currency.’



‘The days of counting ‘hits’ are long gone,’ says Ajaz Ahmed, director

of AKQA. ‘Smart advertisers already work to these standards, so in

theory it doesn’t add anything.



‘In reality, independent audits are important for the credibility of the

Internet and represent an important step forward, providing that enough

Web site owners subscribe to the standard.’



Initial signs are positive. ‘As soon as the standards are finally agreed

we will seriously consider independent auditing,’ says Colin Landsley of

Conde Nast Online.



‘Provided that the measurements have been set by people who genuinely

understand the Internet, rather than a committee of autocrats, then this

will be a step forward in legitimising the Web as an advertising

medium.’



David Stubley, business development controller of the Channel 4 Web

site, is already convinced. Independent auditing by ABC is to begin

immediately and he forecasts that ‘the majority of serious players will

have come on board by the end of the first quarter of 1997’.



Numerous preliminary discussions support this bullish projection,

according to Foan, who notes that three other clients have signed up

before the IFABC standards have been ratified. Fees start at pounds 500

per certificate, with other charges relating to the individual Web site.



Already work is under way to test ad-specific audits, described by

Michael Lavery, president of ABVS, as ‘the next progression in Web site

accountability’. These will report page impressions for specific

advertisements and hot-link transfers to the advertiser’s own Web site.

‘Page impressions and transfers are essential components of the overall

measurement of the Web,’ says Lavery.



‘These measures provide verification and accountability for both content

providers and advertisers,’ he adds.



Some advertisers are already considering how to use this unparalleled

quality of audience and response measurement. The Yahoo! search engine

has for some time been taking ads from selected advertisers on hot-link

terms.



Other Web sites are fiercely opposed, pointing to an authoritative study

by ACNielsen which found that hot-link rates can vary between 2.4% of

visitors to a site, and more than 17%, depending on the specific design

of the advertisement.



Alex Letts, of SMI Advertising, says: ‘Auditing hot-links may be the

ultimate measurement. But saying that it is the only measurement of

value is like saying direct response is the only form of advertising

with any value. Passive viewing and exposure to Web advertisements is

important too, and independent auditing will go a long way to verifying

its value.’



What can be measured?



Hits



A hit is simply a request to the Web site’s server for a piece of

information. Each element of a page (text, photos, graphics) is an

individual piece. One page request could therefore register as several

hits.



Registrations



Some Web sites require registration in return for access. This data can

provide a useful insight into audience profile, but can be misleading as

a measurement of traffic. Registration figures can legitimately contain

many duplicates as people forget their passwords and re-register.

Conversely, some people who register never return to the site again.



Page requests



Requests to a Web server for a specific page on a Web site give a clear

indication of the activity levels on a site or even on each page or

section. Page requests do not reveal, however, how many people have

visited the site.



Ad specific audits



An independent audit can measure the number of requests for any specific

page. Advertisers can thereby obtain accurate data on the number of

times that their advertisement was displayed, though this does not

reveal the number of people who have seen the ad.



Hot-links (click-throughs)



Banner advertisements on a Web site page are usually connected through

to the advertiser’s own site by ‘hot links’, allowing viewers to

respond immediately to the sales message with a simple click. Hot links

provide easily quantifiable measurements of responses to ads, but oblige

the advertiser to operate their own Web site.



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