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Sizing up Internet Benchmarking Tools: The measurements for success of your online site vary depending on your strategyA magazine publisher has two Web sites. They both attract roughly the same number of visitors, who view roughly the same number of pages.

But one of them is failing. Can you tell which one?

CondeNet's answer was swoon.com. The relationship hub, until recently the online content conduit for Conde Nast titles Mademoiselle, Glamour and GQ, was shut down despite the fact that both its audience and usage came close to that of sister site concierge.com, a travel site that remains a firm fixture in CondeNet's online plan. In one month, in fact, the "dating, mating and relating" destination site of Swoon.com received 5.9 million page requests--100,000 more than concierge.com.

Welcome to Web metrics, where a few numbers can mean many things, and a lot of numbers can add up to very little indeed.

"There are lots of things that translate into success and revenue on the Web," says CondeNet president Sarah Chubb, explaining how a strong audience demographic enables concierge.com, with 676,000 monthly unique users, to virtually match ad revenues with CondeNet's most visited site, epicurious.com, which draws 900,000. But for swoon.com, the revenue potential simply wasn't there. "In fact, both of those sites had managed to attract and retain a really loyal audience," Chubb said of swoon.com and phys.com, the health site that was also shut down. "But when we Looked at Swoon we saw it didn't belong to a category that had revenue attached to it, and there was no real e-commerce potential."

Divining a Web site's future from the morass of usage statistics available may be a bit like reading tea leaves, but for many sites--especially those lacking the customary measures of revenue and profit--indicators like page views and visitors may be the only ones to go on at the moment.

"Practically no one is making money, says Rob Garrett, president of AdMedia Partners. The situation forces investors to look elsewhere for signs of a site's viability--usually, Garrett says, at how much its audience is growing and how long they're staying. But there is some disagreement even there, along with a general confusion over what success on the Web means in the first place.

"The question is, 'What is the strategy?'" says Dana Chinn, director of Internet business projects at 101communications LLC and a member of American Business Media's Electronic Media Committee. "If the strategy is for the Web site to be its own business unit, or if the strategy of the site is simply to serve the print subscribers, the metrics of success can be very different."

Likewise, success is measured differently by different parties. "We have many constituencies," says Mitchell Prayer, president of Nationalgeographic.com. "For advertisers there is one set of metrics, e-commerce there's another set, and for editorial there's another set."


The common metrics of Web successor lack thereof--revolve around measures of unique visitors, the number of different people that access a Web site over a given period, page views (sometimes called page impressions) and visits. Those are the primary metrics audited by ABC Interactive (ABCI), the Audit Bureau of Circulation's Internet division, whose reports are utilized by both advertisers and investors.

"A site will want to show itself in the best light, so they'll pick the combination of statistics and the presentation that shows them off the best they can," says Dick Bennett, ABCI's senior vice president of auditing. "That can be in conflict with the way the advertiser or investor wants to evaluate them, and that's why the ABCI report renders the information in a consistent format."

But unlike pure-play Web companies, magazine publishers have been slow to jump on the auditing bandwagon, says Bennett. One reason is money. Internet auditing, usually done on a monthly basis, costs well over twice that of an ABC print audit--a tough bill to swallow when so many Web sites already cannot cover expenses. And while ABC endorsement is a must-have in print, advertisers are not yet demanding audited Web figures.

Yet Web metrics are not always what they seem. While unique visitors, or unique users, is often broadcast as a significant indicator of success, the two methods for calculating that number yield wide discrepancies. Both--representative audience measurement as used by Media Metrix and Nielsen/NetRatings, and log-file data gathered at the site's server--pinpoint the same metric from opposite directions.

The first does so from a user's perspective, by monitoring a sample audience and then applying the results to the entire online universe; the latter does so from the perspective of the Web site, by tallying actual requests to the site's server. The differences lie partly in methodology and partly in each method's shortcomings. Log-file data, for instance, can be inflated by "spiders" or "bots," automated programs that access Web page--for various reasons--or, conversely, deflated when pages are "cached," that is, stored and accessed from another Web site. Representative sampling, on the other hand, accurately measures only the largest, broadest sites, for which a sufficient sample can be obtained.

Illustrating the difference in metrics is CondeNet's epicurious.com, where log-file activity indicates nearly twice the unique visitors estimated by Media Metrix, says Chubb. She attributes the difference to Media Metrix's relatively small at-work sample, noting that site data indicates many of epicurious.com's visitors log on during the workday.

"In the ad sales world we sort of have to live with Media Metrix, but when we're looking at the site's ongoing success or what the business opportunities are, I look at our numbers," Chubb says.

Nationalgeographic.com also utilizes both log data, monitored with WebTrends software, and representative measurement from Nielsen/NetRatings, which Prayer says allows him to compare his site's performance against that of other sites.

Niche sites with highly defined audiences, such as 101communications' flagship MCP.com for Microsoft Certified professionals, don't even show up on representative radar, says Chinn.

A Web site's relevance to its audience is better measured in page views than audience figures, says Chinn. The pure number of unique visitors doesn't necessarily mean you have a successful Web site, she says, but rather that you've constructed a useful and easy-to-navigate site. "If you want to draw a comparison to magazine circulation," she adds, "page views is probably the closest."

Page views can work in the same way as reader-response mechanisms. At Nationalgeographic.com, high page-view figures tell Praver that visitors want functional, detailed features--such as its interactive mapmaking machine--and are willing to spend time using them. Nationalgeographic.com's average user views between seven and 13 pages per visit, Praver says. "That indicates when people come to the site they're exploring and digging deep. It's not the type of site where you come, look at the home page and then leave." Log-file data, Praver adds, provides instant feedback on how people are using these utilities.

An important metric for advertisers, visits--the number of times a site is accessed--in combination with visitor data determine how many users come back, and how often, says ABCI's Bennett. "Where 'unique users' talks to reach, 'visits' talks to frequency," he says.

Advertisers, however, also want to know definitively how many of their messages reach the Web audience, meaning that ad impressions and click-through rates are important metrics as well.

But ad impressions, running in the millions per month, can be mind-boggling to smaller, less sophisticated advertisers--and a tough sell for publishers. Felix Macgowan, president of Boulder, Colo.-based Inside Communications, which publishes Inside Triathlon and cycling magazine VeloNews, offers as an example a client who buys 150,000 impressions for a given month--a small share in VeloNews.com's monthly cycle of some 6 million impressions--and then wonders why he doesn't see his ad when he calls up the site. The result: while VeloNews retains 90 percent of its print advertisers from year to year, its Web site holds on to only 10 to 15 percent. "They just don't come back," Macgowan says.


So recently, Macgowan has begun pushing sponsorships--where an advertiser's message is a fixture on the page--but expects it will be several months before he sees any results.

Another small publisher, National Trade Publications, of Latham, N.Y., also wrestles with a disconnect between advertisers and the impressions concept. "They [advertisers] just don't get the concept that when they contract for 1,000 impressions, it may take two weeks or it may take six months for those impressions to be delivered," says National Trade president Humphrey Tyler.