Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Page views or time spent - hey Nielsen, both are worthless

Augustine: extremely insightful piece by Allen re: metrics used far and wide today and account for billions of dollars of advertising spent.

So the big buzz over the past day is that Nielsen/Net Ratings will no longer use page views as their telling metric, replacing it with time spent on site. Yawn. My post yesterday describes the analytics apps we use on CN.

Let's take a brief look back at metrics. In the mid-90s, sites used "hits" as the primary metric. I remember the days at CKS when a newbie would run around the office talking about how many hits his or her client Web site received. I just laughed from my Aeron chair. Then to prove a point, I took a client site, added 100 blank images and the next day showed them why hits was a stupid metric. But I couldn't change the industry so I just kept working. I also remember beta testing the first WebTrends version and emailing the product team about how poor hits were as a metric. CKS rocked though.

Then in the late 90s, the shift moved to page views. Another joke of a metric. On the surface it seems better than hits, right? Now we are only counting each view of a page no matter how many images and other items are on it. Not so fast bub. In 1999, a large percentage of the big players realized that this could easily be manipulated by splitting content into multiple pages. There went page views.

Now comes word that Nielsen is moving to "time spent" as the default metric for reporting. Sounds good right? So if someone spends 10 minutes on my site, and only 5 on yours, my site should appear to rank higher, correct? Let's push out the easy issue here which is that sites are sometimes hard to navigate which will artifically raise your time spent on site. If you and I serve the same content but it's 40% easier to find it on my site vs. yours, then you appear bigger. Love that! Now we will see half-assed sites coming out just to scam this "new" metric.

Here is the real issue. We need to go back to the drawing board, erase everything we know about metrics and analytics and start over. Using a metric that has already been used and abused won't cut it. But Nielsen knows where their bread is buttered and when companies like Microsoft change their web site to reduce pageviews by 30-40% (by my estimation), the page views metric would have to be changed to satisfy their clients.

So how does this new metric reporting system handle YouTube with regards to watching videos? Is that considered time spent on site? Is an embedded video counted? What about RSS feeds and widgets? Content vs. application sites? It sure feels like Nielsen just put all of their currently tracked metrics into a hat and pulled one out.

Some others discussing the news:

  • Scott Karp has an interesting perspective from the Google side of things. Scott notes that Google uses clicks as their metric.
  • Andy Beal makes an excellent point about tabbed browsing - I hadn't thought of this!

The bottom line is simple - It's time for new standards and systems for reporting. As opposed to 1996, we have so many new ways of communicating and I would think starting the discussion should be easy. While it may take a long time for us to agree, let's get the conversation started.