Andrew Walmsley on digital: Clicks are losing measure of the web

Anyone who has spent any time working in digital starts to look differently at change, and it's sometimes hard to take seriously what are seen as ground-shaking moves in traditional media - a newspaper moving to a smaller format, a radio station reducing ad minutage.

It seems the digital media world is reinvented every six months, and we revel in that warp-speed evolution, even if we don't always know where it'll lead. So it will come as no surprise to anyone that the way we measure online media is all set to change (again).

In the beginning there was the 'hit'. A hit describes a call on a server to send a file, and since a web page is made up of lots of elements (pictures, text and so on) and each of these is a file, one page could return 20 'hits'. This meant it was a pretty useless way of gauging traffic to anyone other than a network engineer, and it was rapidly abandoned (though the term is still misused) in favour of the page impression.

Now we were talking a language that media folk could understand. A page impression represented the viewing of a single web page, and since this was analogous to the way people look at newspapers, everybody felt pretty comfortable about it.

Of course, wily editors responded by splitting stories across multiple pages to boost the count, and media buyers widely misinterpreted it as being a substitute for circulation. The reality is, it never really mattered how many page impressions a site did in a week unless you were buying the whole site. Web display advertising is generally bought on an impressions basis. I might buy 100,000 impressions over a week; the fact the site delivers 1m impressions overall is a matter of supreme indifference to me, as long as I get what I paid for.

So we started measuring unique users, the number of people (computers) visiting a site, and combining this with page impressions - effectively measures of reach and frequency respectively. This is how it remained for the next few years, and everyone was pretty happy with it. Unfortunately, it is now becoming redundant.The way the web works and presents itself to users is changing, largely driven by three technologies: RSS, Ajax and Widgets.

In 'traditional' web pages, the only time a server actually sends a file to you is when you click on a link. An Ajax page is different. It's actually an application, monitoring what you're doing and downloading stuff unseen by you in anticipation of what you might do next. This means that when you click on something, the response is instant as the data is already there.

This often means you don't even have to click; all that you need is anticipated and delivered within that page. Visit www.ba.com, for example, start to enter the name of your intended destination, and it will suggest options before you finish typing: 'Lon', for instance, will result in the suggestions Londonderry, Long Beach and London. Type one more letter and the redundant options disappear.

Similarly, RSS feeds information constantly into your computer; you don't need to visit the site to get your team's score; it is delivered to you.

Widgets, meanwhile, are small applications you install on your PC which perform tasks, often automatically retrieving information such as the weather forecast.

So the page view has become decoupled from site use. This has huge implications not just for publishers, but for advertisers too, because it also undermines the click as a measure of interaction.

This is challenging because we really don't know where it will lead, but ultimately it's healthy. People are obsessed with clicks, but they're a pretty blunt measure of interaction. If the impact of this change is to make people think harder about how their communications work, it can only be a good thing.

- Andrew Walmsley is co-founder of i-level.

30 SECONDS ON ... LONDON AND LONG BEACH

- In London, rush-hour traffic moves on average at 13km an hour.

- The oldest bird on record is Cocky, a cockatoo, who died at London Zoo at the age of 82.

- The most expensive shoes in the world are ruby slippers from Harrods.

- In 1631, two London bible printers accidentally left the word 'not' out of the seventh commandment, which read 'Thou shalt commit adultery'.

- In Long Beach, California, it is illegal to put anything other than a car in your garage. It is also illegal to curse on a mini-golf course.

- Moses parted the Red Sea for Cecil B DeMille's 1923 black-and-white film version of The Ten Commandments on the flat seashore of Seal Beach, southeast of Long Beach.

- The first Miss Universe contest was held in Long Beach in 1952.

- Actress Cameron Diaz attended Long Beach Polytechnic High School.

- The Long Beach Grand Prix is watched by 300,000 people.

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