Canadian Magazine Industry News
16 March 2009,    
What you need to know about online metrics
As advertisers increasingly look to the Web as the place to promote their wares, understanding online metrics is a must for Internet publishers. But while the level at which customer interaction can be measured online is astounding, determining how and why data and metrics from different analytic tools vary can be a maddening exercise.

The basics
According to Rob Young, senior vice president planning services at PHD Canada, a Toronto-based media agency, there are generally two ways of measuring your online ad exposure. The first is through third party ad servers, which use cookie technology to track and report audience. The second is through specialized Web analytics program such as Omniture and Google Analytics. These tools can vary in price as well as reporting methods, so it is imperative to research the needs of your company before signing on.

Why are my numbers from different sources so different?
In short, different tracking systems use different methods. Here are just three examples of the kinds of discrepancies that can arise:
  • “If you have video on your website, you can add certain codes so that Google Analytics can track metrics such as when a video is started by a user,” says June Li of ClickInsight, an online marketing optimization and Web analytics consulting firm. “But if you want to see how long the streaming has lasted, you have to use your log files.”
  • With third party servers, log files are created as soon as a page is served, says Nima Asrar Haghighi, account director of search and Web marketing services at Cornerstone. With Google Analytics, though, a browser needs to fully load before information is captured. “If someone click the back button or maneuvers to another page, then the data won't be captured,” he says.
  • Dynamic IP addresses can also cause problems for log files, Li says. If an IP address changes every time a user logs on from the same location, for example, then that person will show up as a unique user each time they visit.
While reports may differ from tool to tool, keeping consistentwith your Web analysis is the only way to successfully gauge growth, says Jim Sterne, chairman of the Web Analytics Association and founder of the eMetrics Marketing Optimization Summit.

What about panel-based measurement?
Organizations comScore Media Metrics use what is known as panel-based measurement— a “sampling” method similar to the one used on for television ratings—to measure website traffic.

While panel-based measurement is useful for larger sites with broad reach, smaller sites that cater to more niche audiences could potentially be left in the dark.

Brant Lowe-Bernie, president of comScore Media Metrics Canada, concedes that while current panel practices may not provide robust information for smaller sites, there are programs being introduced to change that. Canada is now serving as a testing ground for an initiative that could broaden the spectrum of comScore’s reporting capabilities. Called panel-centric hybrid measurement, this method would allow tracking in areas not currently captured, including activity on computers outside of panelists’ work and home.

“What we are looking to do is blend census measurement with the panel and see if we can come out with a much more capable way of measuring,” explains Lowe-Bernie.

Are there no standards?
Lack of standards in the industry means that companies will often define metrics in a completely different way than their competitors. Because of this, international organizations such as the Interactive Advertising Bureau and the Web Analytics Association are continuing to work hard to create transparency in the murky world of Web traffic data.

In January, the Interactive Advertising Bureau of Canada (IAB) called for participants in a Tripartite Industry Committee for Online Audience Measurement in Canada to “help advance excellence in the area of online audience measurement.” Bringing together agencies, advertisers and online publisher research professionals, the goal of this committee is to ensure accuracy in online audience measurement by identifying gaps between IAB stakeholders needs, solidifying requirements for vendors such as comScore, and the analysis and application of U.S. Audience Measurement Guidelines for the Canadian market. What this hopefully means for publishers is reliable standards for panel-based audience measurement in the future.

Recent talk amongst marketing folks has revealed that click-through rates alone don’t hold the answers to ad effectiveness that advertisers are looking for. The way in which Web analytics are measured is constantly changing as we begin to understand just what the habits of Web users are and how it translates into a solid ROI for advertisers. Because of this, IAB has recently released a document on Click Measurement Guidelines intended to help decrease ambiguity in online marketing.

In a press release, Sherrill Mane, senior vice president, industry services of the IAB, stated, “It is critical that the advertising industry agree upon the precise definition and measurement of a click and establish procedures for weeding out fraudulent clicks.”

The IAB has also previously released guidelines for general ad impressions, digital video commercials and audience reach measurement.

Where do the audit bureaus fit in?
Website auditing through audit bureaus such as BPA/Canadian Circulation Audit Bureau (CCAB) and the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) are options to explore for reporting website activity. BPA announced last year that publishers can include top-line data for websites on circulation statements without increasing fees.

Much like with any measurement tool available, methods of compiling data differ between bureaus. While BPA/CCAB has teamed with Nielsen Online, ABC allows its clients to use the tracking tool of their choice and audits the results based on that method.

Scott Hanson, senior VP of electronic and centralized auditing at ABC, explains that while the bureau does not provide code for its client’s Websites, it does verify that pages are tagged correctly and that certain kinds of traffic – i.e. spiders and robots – are filtered out.

“We feel that ABC needs to be source-agnostic,” Hansen says. “We are here to work with whichever (tool) works for the customer.”
— Rachel Debling
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