The Web is in its infancy, especially where advertising is concerned. But it's growing up fast.
Several new ventures aim to bring the $1 billion Web advertising market to the next level by offering advertisers and Web site managers reliable information about who and how many people are setting eyes on what.
Circulation analysis is one of the invisible underpinnings of successful mass media, television, radio and print included. Knowing how many people are listening or watching is especially important for TV and radio, which depend on advertising for their revenues. And advertisers feel comfortable enough with the demographic and circulation figures they get to lavish big bucks on major broadcast campaigns.
The Web, on the other hand, has no universally agreed-upon way of letting advertisers know who they're reaching when they buy banners and other marketing gizmos. The industry is quick to point out that things are about where they should be, given that the Web is such a new medium. But recent developments may foreshadow the shape of the Web when it's fully-grown.
A new entry into the Web traffic market, Atplan, uses the resources of the Gallup Organization to provide wide-ranging data on who looks at what sites. Gallup pollsters conduct phone surveys of 40,000 Internet users, asking where they spend time online and comparing the data against 100 leading Web sites.
Ted West, an old-timer in the interactive ad game, and executive vice president at Softbank Interactive Marketing, thinks the new service has great possibilities. Softbank is the parent company of ZDNet News publisher Ziff-Davis.
"We'll be able to ask for professional households with incomes of $200,000 or more living in the Pacific Northwest and interested in golf, and they'll be able to rank-order the Web sites in their sample," West said. "It's killer. This is where the medium is going."
Atplan uses a less automated approach than the current leader of the pack, NPG Group's Media Metrix division (formerly PC Meter). Media Metrix installs audit hardware in home PCs to track how often people go online and where they visit -- not unlike Nielsen's TV ratings system. The results are more precise than Atplan's, but have their own limitations: Media Metrix doesn't measure Web use in the office, which West and others claim gives a distorted picture of what's popular. Media Metrix recently announced it was adding office computers to its tallies.
Speaking of Nielsen, that company is coming up with its own initiatives in the traffic analysis area. For about a year, Nielsen Media Research has been quietly testing methods for collecting data about not just the ways people explore the Internet, but also how they use hardware and software.
"We're in the process of rolling [the system] out now, on a very slow, methodical basis, to test what works and what doesn't work, in terms of collecting samples and processing the information," said Nielsen's Jack Loftus. "We're taking it slow. We're not running out there ballyhooing, 'We have 100,000 homes and such-and-such data.'"
When its system is unveiled, probably early next year, it will at first focus on the home. Possibilities include installing audit hardware on the computer systems, which could be collected on a floppy disk and mailed back to Nielsen, or transmitted over the Internet.
Web advertising takes the next step. Part 2