Tracking Internet Usage Proving to be a Tangled Web

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You can do a lot with the Internet ? except, it seems, satisfactorily measure how people use it.

Trackers of Internet usage have recently been tinkering with their methodologies in an attempt to properly reflect the ever-changing patterns of Web users and the shifting face of the Internet itself.

Yet instead of providing more clarity, these recent changes are causing confusion among businesses that depend on the information to make ad-spending decisions. The result has been hesitancy to commit more marketing money to the Internet, say advertising executives. That threatens to stifle the continuing surge in Internet ad spending, which numerous sources estimated would increase 25 percent to $22 billion (?16 billion) this year.

Web site publishers and marketing professionals said part of the problem is the continuing failure of major providers of Internet audience data ? chiefly Nielsen Co. and comScore Inc. ? to adequately explain their recent changes for them.

“It’s encouraging to see third parties demonstrating innovation, but it’s still an imperfect world,” adds Ben Crain, vice president of RAPT, a privately held, San Francisco-based digital advertising consultant and media buyer.

Both companies have made major changes in the way they measure activity on the Web. Nielsen has de-emphasized page views, once its core measurement of Web activity, and instead began focusing on the amount of time spent on a Web site, saying it is a more accurate measurement of user engagement.

ComScore recently began ranking Web sites based on “visits,” which it defines as the number of times a person accesses content within a Web site, with breaks between access of at least 30 minutes.

The changes by both companies show each is trying to keep pace with the Internet landscape. Yet they also have created lots of confusion among their customers.

For instance, Nielsen’s new time-spent measurement was introduced June 12. There was so much confusion about what Nielsen was doing, it essentially had to reintroduce the measurement two days later.

The first set of rankings using comScore’s new metrics shocked many people by vaulting America Online to the top slot in many rankings, supplanting perennial champions Yahoo Inc. and Google Inc., which led to criticism of the new metrics.

“We’re still scratching our heads over what they are doing. We’re still asking ourselves, ‘How exactly are we any better using these reports?'” said Mike Cassidy, chief executive of Undertone Networks Inc., a New York marketing firm.

Meanwhile, their findings continue to be questioned, and flaws continue to emerge.

For example, this month Nielsen said search-engine queries for No. 3-ranked Microsoft Corp. jumped about 80 percent in June, a curious development for a search engine that had been continuously losing market share.

Microsoft said the gains were the result of a word game promotion, in which players had to form words out of a jumble of letters. As part of the game, Microsoft’s search engine automatically hunted for Web pages that contained the word being guessed at.

The promotion raises the question of whether these clicks were the result of using automated means, and therefore shouldn’t be counted.

Nielsen product manager Scott Ross said the company sees no need to change the June search-engine rankings. Yet, he conceded that critics ? including Yahoo, operator of the world’s second most popular search engine ? may also have a point about Microsoft using questionable means to spark the surge in popularity.

“Is what we do provide the best common denominator that could ever be created?” he said. “Today it’s the best common denominator.”

Andrew Lipsman, a spokesman for comScore, said the company has made “significant improvements” in the way it measures audience engagement.

“The Internet landscape changes very quickly, and it is always a challenge to keep up, but comScore has proven its ability to respond to and meet these challenges with our continued track record of innovation,” he said.

ComScore and Nielsen are the top providers of metrics, but not the only ones. HitWise, NPD Group and others are also a major part of this industry. However, Nielsen and comScore draw the most business, and therefore have the most influence on Internet ad spending.

Every week, it seems, there’s a hot new Internet site to scout out or different kind of Internet ad to understand. It can be confounding even for veteran Internet ad buyers.

Without an adequate way of sorting through it all, the resulting confusion threatens to stifle spending, especially in new forms of Internet advertising. That hesitancy favors traditional players, such as Google, and makes it tougher for upstarts to gain traction, experts said.

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