PUSH TECHNOLOGY SKEWS WEB AD MEASUREMENT ACCURACY

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By: Steve Outing

The ability for Internet users to have delivered to them specified Web pages — as opposed to having to pro-actively go out on the Web and view them — has been around for a while now. You can use a cient application like Freeloader and instruct it to regularly retrieve this column, for example, then read it off-line.

Now, that functionality — known as “webcasting” — is being built in to the Web browser itself, obviating the need for such third-party products and services. The preview version of Microsoft Internet Explorer 4.0 has a feature that allows a user of the browser to specify a particular Web page or pages and have them delivered. You might get just this column, or you might instruct the browser to get the E&P home page and documents that are linked to from that page. (That is, content from the site one level down.) Content might be delivered to you on a user-specified timetable, or whenever the page content changes.

What this does to the various independent “push” technology vendors that have appeared in the last year is significant, but that’s a topic for another day. More important from a publisher’s perspective is what this does to advertising and site usage measurement.

Good news, bad news

“Push” is a two-edged sword. Certainly, delivering content to consumers (who request it) is a great way to increase the number of people who see your content and efficiently deliver content that people really want. Get enough people to “subscribe” to your Web pages via the new browser features and you’ll experience a profound increase in traffic on your site. But here’s the down side: many of those delivered pages will never be read, yet your server will record them as site traffic, which potentially mucks up the validity of page and ad measurement.

It’s realistic to project that as much as half of those who receive a Web page as a delivery will never see it. That is, it will be delivered to their browser mail inboxes, and be recorded on the publisher’s server as being delivered — hence, a page impression. But the fact is, many consumers who have subscribed to these regular deliveries of Web pages routinely ignore them.

I’m a classic example, having signed up to receive several publications’ Web pages on a daily basis through Netscape’s Inbox Direct program. (Inbox Direct is Netscape’s program for helping publishers deliver subscription HTML e-mail.) Occasionally, I’ll look at them, but often days go by before I check my HTML e-mail box, and I just delete them all to clear out space. Why don’t I just unsubscribe from receiving those pages? Because occasionally I like to view them, and I know I just have to go to my HTML mail box to view them without the trouble of cruising numerous Web sites to get the information.

For a user who subscribed to the home page of a site plus an additional level of links, 10 or more pages — including all the ads — might be downloaded by the browser, yet the user might actually look at only one or two. It’s not hard to imagine a serious overcounting problem with widespread use of Web browsers’ push features.

Recently, I interviewed an executive at a large publishing company that is a Netscape Inbox Direct partner. The publisher sends out daily mail to more than 100,000 subcribers. (The service is free.) He told me that he is very dubious of that number, and guesses that as many as half of those delivered pages are never read by the recipient. He also fears that many people sign up for the deliveries, but stop reading them for one reason or other, and never bother to unsubscribe because they forget how — or it’s less bother to delete the messages when they come in each day than to figure out how to unsubscribe.

Web sites that count delivered Web pages in combination with traditional “pull” traffic are inflating the number of people who actually see their pages. While this is a minor problem now, as Web browsers add this feature to their full-release versions later this year and more people begin having pages “pushed” to them, the scope of the counting accuracy problem will broaden significantly.

In the future, this could be a potentially large problem for advertisers, who could end up paying for ad impressions that consumers never see. If half of the delivered or “pushed” pages are ignored or deleted by the consumer, yet the ads are delivered and an impression recorded on the publisher’s end, we can imagine that advertisers are not going to be happy.

A Microsoft spokesman working on the Internet Explorer 4.0 project confirmed that the push feature of the new browser does pull down all elements of a page that a user subscribes to — including ad banners. If the browser only received the HTML version of a page and did not grab ad banners off the server as well, this wouldn’t be such a big issue. Under that scenario, ads wouldn’t be pulled off the publisher’s server until the consumer actually opened the delivered mail. But that does not appear to be the case with Explorer 4.0.

Overstating the case

Publishers need to be aware of these issues, and as they deliver more content (as opposed to having consumers visit the site and pick it up) they must be cautious not to overstate their site’s traffic when making a pitch to advertisers. Of course, there may be no accurate way to measure how many people who receive a piece of subscribed pushed content actually see it before deleting.

The realization that the new browser “push” features could be a problem for site measurement is just starting to set in, and most Web advertising people who I contacted for this column admitted to not having thought through a solution yet. David Barlin, a spokesman for I/Pro, the San Francisco-based Web site auditing and measurement company, said the topic is being discussed and numerous solutions have been proposed — but it’s too early to talk about one technique being an answer to the problem that I/Pro would implement.

Future ways of delivering accurate site measurement statistics might mean separating traffic between those who visit your Web site and “pull” pages from those who receive it as “push.” Publishers concerned about this issue might consider having two separate pages — one for Web site visitors, a mirror page for delivered-page subscribers. The Web site visitor stats can be viewed as an accurate measure of audience, while the pushed-page stats must be viewed with the non-reading audience in mind. Another option would be to create Java ad banners that have the ability to report back to the publisher’s server when they are actually opened. (Thanks to Matt Cohen, chief technology officer for New Century Network, for those ideas.)

Cohen points out that this is just the latest example of publishing and advertising models changing constantly in the Internet environment. “We don’t have the luxury of having a static world,” he says, and Web publishers will have to come up with new solutions in order to keep site measurement statistics accurate — and advertisers happy.

Another 1 million e-mail subscriber service

In my last column I noted that TipWorld had reached 1 million subscribers to its free daily e-mail newsletters. Another service that features free e-mail news delivery, Denver-based Mercury Mail, announced late last week that it too has hit the 1 million subscriber mark. Mercury Mail allows users to subscribe to various news and information services, from headline news and sports to local weather forecasts to personalized stock portfolio reports. Mail arrives in either text or HTML format. The service is entirely supported by advertising.

I mention this as further evidence that e-mail is being proven to be a lucrative component to the strategy of Internet publishers. How many Web sites can boast 1 million subscribers?

Best in Texas

In a recent column I mentioned that the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s Web service won a Best in Texas award from the Associated Press Managing Editors. I should have noted also that the Amarillo Globe-News, a Morris Communications newspaper, won the award for best Texas smaller-circulation newspaper Web site.

Movin’ On

Jim Tuchler is leaving his job as head of new media for Howard Publications in order to become a partner at Inforte, a computer consulting firm, where he will be in charge of Internet/intranet development. Tuchler ran CaluNet.com, the Web site for The Times of Munster, Indiana, the largest paper in the Howard chain.

Tommy McGloin has been appointed as the general manager, or “mayor,” of Digital City Los Angeles, while Brad Davis has been named general manager for Digital City Washington. McGloin, who has been with Digital City since its inception in 1995, formerly was marketing manager for Investor’s Business Daily. Davis most recently was vice president and director of sales for regional news networks for National Cable Communications.

Life’s a beach

This will be my last column until I return from a much-needed vacation. Stop The Presses! will resume on Friday, May 16.

Steve

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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at steve@planetarynews.com

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company

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