AJAX, New Technologies, Put Online Ad Measures to Test
At Yahoo's finance site, stock quotes update automatically and continually,
the numbers flashing green and red as prices rise and fall. Wall Street investors
can easily leave a single Web page up all day.
AJAX -- the software trick used on the page, Yahoo Inc.'s e-mail service and
elsewhere -- is enabling flashier, more convenient sites. It's also contributing
to Yahoo's decline in page views, a yardstick long used for bragging rights
and advertising sales.
"These technologies have outgrown the metrics," said Peter Daboll,
Yahoo's chief of insights and the former chief executive of comScore Media Metrix,
the measurement company that declared Yahoo second to the online hangout MySpace
in page views. "It's really important as an industry to come back down
to earth and off this chest-thumping about who's biggest."
More important than "truckloads of page views," Daboll said, are
visitors' loyalty and their willingness to respond to ads -- qualities harder
to measure. If a page updates on its own without reloading in its entirety,
people may be sticking around longer than the measurements suggest.
Experts say the stubborn attachment to page views also may be keeping some
sites from improving their usability.
Jakob Nielsen, a Web design expert with Nielsen Norman Group, notes that many
news sites force visitors to click multiple times to read longer stories in
sections, even though he would much prefer scrolling down a long story and avoiding
"Because you are measuring the wrong things, you are driving your project
in the wrong direction," Nielsen said. "You are not maximizing what
causes value. You are maximizing the things a computer can count easily."
Many Web sites and advertisers, however, continue to value page views, and
MySpace officials say their users continue to return frequently even as the
site requires full page reloads for just about everything.
"Over time, page views have been a pretty accurate measure of a site's
popularity," said Michael Barrett, chief revenue officer for Fox Interactive
Media, the News Corp. unit that oversees MySpace. "A page view doesn't
necessarily equal an ad opportunity, but [is] an important barometer."
The leading measurement companies aren't about to abandon page views, either,
even as they develop supplemental measurements for gauging consumer interaction
"People kind of cling to it, even if they know it's flawed," said
Gregory Dale, chief technology officer of comScore. "They want to see this
According to comScore, MySpace managed in just three years to edge out Yahoo
as the busiest Web site in the United States by page views. In December, MySpace
had 41 billion page views compared with Yahoo's 36 billion, down 2 percent from
a year earlier.
Yet Yahoo remains arguably the Internet's leading brand -- both in terms of
the number of unique monthly visitors and the average time spent, according
to comScore. Over the past year, Yahoo's monthly audience grew 3 percent. To
throw even more confusion into the mix, rival Nielsen/NetRatings has Yahoo leading
in page views as well.
Even before AJAX, techniques for measuring Web audience have come into question.
Through much of the 1990s, Web sites touted "hits" -- the number
of elements pulled from a server. But that rewarded sites heavy with graphics
and photos, even though too many can be distracting, especially with dial-up
connections the norm at the time, design expert Nielsen said.
Companies like Nielsen/NetRatings _ no relation to the consultant or his firm
-- started refining which hits should count, said Dave Osborn, a director at
Nielsen/NetRatings. All elements in a single page are counted as one, and thus
"page view" was born.
It became a good gauge for advertising potential because it's roughly proportional
to the number of ad impressions -- whether a site typically displays one, two
or more on a single page. Advertisers look to it in deciding where to place
Marketers also turn to unique audience -- the number of visitors to a site
in a given month, whether that person visits once for 10 seconds or several
times. The measurement is reflective of a site's reach as advertisers like to
know they aren't displaying ads to the same people over and over, even if the
site draws significant page views.
Together, the two measures have served Web sites and advertisers adequately,
despite frequent inconsistencies between comScore, Nielsen/NetRatings and often
a site's own logs. Adjustments were made along the way to account for new techniques
such as pop-up ads, which appear to a computer like a regular page view and
thus could artificially inflate a site's count.
But now comes AJAX, "the first that has changed the model of page views
from an impression measurement perspective," said Sheryl Draizen, senior
vice president with the trade group Interactive Advertising Bureau. Her organization
has convened a working group to set industry standards on how ad impressions
should be counted in light of AJAX.
Other technologies that could deflate page views include Really Simple Syndication,
or RSS, which pulls a news site or blog's new entries, allowing a visitor to
bypass a site's home page -- and ads -- for the item of interest. Likewise,
someone can watch a three-minute video clip without needing to retrieve a new
In such cases, visitors may view fewer pages, but they are more engaged and
thus more likely to pay attention to any advertising, said Steve Rubel, senior
vice president with the public-relations firm Edelman Worldwide.
"It's easy to get eyeballs now but it might not be the right eyeballs,"
Page views have their roots in traditional media, comparable to a newspaper's
circulation or a broadcaster's viewership. Although measures for those media
have had to adapt to developments such as the rise of video recorders, they
were seen as the best available.
With the Internet, it became possible to measure not only how many people viewed
an ad but what they did with it. Google Inc., in particular, has been adept
at pushing an alternative model of charging only when a visitor clicks on an
Jesse James Garrett, the Adaptive Path LLC president who publicly coined the
"AJAX" term two years ago, suggests scrapping page views entirely.
"Page views have been a broken metric for a long time, and the industry
has tried to put a good face on that," he said. "Now a new technology
has come along to force the industry to deal with the fact that page views are
... not a good way of measuring audience engagement."