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
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.’
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
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
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
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
What can be measured?
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
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.
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.
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.