Quantifying Internet Traffic Remains Elusive

In large markets around the globe, Internet traffic measurement devices used to create advertising rates are being called into question.

In smaller markets like central Arkansas, however, media buyers are still putting their faith in homegrown numbers that some argue can easily be manipulated.

Finding a "be all, end all," as one media buyer put it, for quantifying Internet traffic is becoming increasingly important as online advertising soars — it rose 35 percent in 2006 to a record $16.9 billion — and advertisers are beginning to demand a bigger return on their cyberspace investments.

Just during the first quarter this year, online advertising jumped to nearly $5 billion, a 26 percent increase from the same period in 2006, according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau. The IAB, according to its Web site, is the only association dedicated to helping online, interactive broadcasting, e-mail, wireless and interactive television media companies increase their revenues.

"We're seeing more and more clients showing openness to advertising on the Web," said Melissa Wilcoxson, media director at Mangan Holcomb Partners, a full-service advertising firm in Little Rock. "The results of advertising online have the potential to be a lot more visible than other forms of media, and for the most part clients can get a pretty accurate reading on how many eyes saw their ad and how many went on to go ahead and click it."

But international Internet advertising specialty firms, which from the beginning said the World Wide Web had the promise to offer the most accurate ad tracking possibilities out of all the mediums, tend to gloss over the fact that nobody knows for sure exactly what consumers are seeing online.

"There are some discrepancies depending

on who's doing the audit, but it's no less an exact science as the way newspapers and television ratings are tabulated," said Amanda Vega, CEO of Amanda Vega Consulting of Phoenix and New York, which specializes in online placement. "It is possible to find a universal way in which the accuracy of hits and demographics is calculated, and I think we're moving more towards finding that."

Some national media buyers say the handful of independent companies offering online traffic measurements have been found overestimating visitors by more than double and leaving out whole segments of Web surfers altogether, like those online during the workday.

A recent report by the Los Angeles Times had three outside measuring companies record visitors to the San Francisco Chronicle's site, www.sfgate.com. ComScore Networks reported 2.4 million, Nielsen/Net Ratings quoted 3.7 million, and the Audit Bureau of Circulation counted 7.6 million.

That's quite a disparity.

"It's true: There is no one source to go to in order to get 100 percent reliability on how many and what kind of visitors are seeing ads online," said Jason Marlin, director of digital strategy at the Chicago branch of Stone Ward of Little Rock. "But there are a number of services that can narrow down demographics and still get a pretty good ballpark figure on who's going where ... it's accurate enough for traditional clients to find value in advertising online and see some tangible evidence that people are seeing their message."

Though Internet advertising is still considered to be in its infancy in smaller markets like Little Rock, five media buyers at several of the city's largest firms say it's growing at a rapid clip. And nationally, where large companies are dedicating as much as 20 percent of their enormous advertising budgets to the Internet, some clients are beginning to demand more accuracy.

Looking to a Third Party
Two of the largest companies tabulating Web traffic, Nielsen/NetRatings and comScore, were the recent target of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, which has been adamant about upgrading the way interactive media is counted and assessed for advertisers.

After leaders from both companies met with the IAB in late May, they agreed to timetables for the auditing of their systems by a third-party auditor.

Seventy percent of advertisers said they'd rather place ads on sites that have been audited by a third party, while 84 percent agreed that a third-party audit would become increasingly important, the Interactive Advertising Bureau said.

Both companies use computer-based panels to measure audience, which is similar to the system used by Nielsen to measure television audiences. Nielsen/NetRatings selects a group of people and then uses software to track where they go online, which then translates into traffic patterns for the whole Internet.

"If it's done in a similar way to how television ratings are done, then I'd have to agree that there would be some questions as to exact accuracy," said Tim Whitley, new-media manager for KARK-TV, Channel 4, which recently launched a new Web site format he says is attracting a slew of new Internet advertisers.

Serving Up Numbers
The second-most common way Web traffic is counted comes directly from the computer servers of the site's publisher.

"I suppose there are some out there who could tell clients whatever numbers they want, and I'm sure that happens, but it will all show up when that advertiser isn't seeing the return on its investment," Whitley said. "The numbers we get on a printed report from our server is what we use, and that's what we show clients when they want to see numbers."

National media buyers generally agree that random audited reports from server logs are still better than numbers released by Web site publishers that were not audited.

Locally, however, media buyers and publishers in central Arkansas have not yet seen the demand from advertisers to move beyond the information that server logs provide.

"In this market a lot of advertisers are just starting their first foray into advertising online, and we try to show them as accurately as we can exactly what that medium can do for their business," said Chip Taulbee, associate publisher of Arkansas Business' parent company, Arkansas Business Publishing Group. "We go about analyzing Web traffic in a number of ways with a few different programs, and when clients see their investment translate into more business, there's no reason to inflate the numbers ... at that point the ROI speaks for itself."

Wilcoxson, Mangan Holcomb Partners' media director, agrees.

"There are some companies that provide third-party audits, but it just isn't that big of a deal in this market yet," she said. "If it gets to a point where clients are demanding to verify traffic and if they feel like they're not getting what they're paying for, then there will be more of an emphasis put on the accuracy of those numbers. But I just don't see a struggle between any significant discrepancies at this point."

'It's an Internet Landscape'
Internet advertising reached a milestone in 2006 when it surpassed radio ads in annual spending.

According to TNS Media Intelligence of New York, a provider of strategic advertising intelligence to advertisers, advertising agencies and media properties worldwide, television advertising last year totaled $65.4 billion. Newspapers and magazines accounted for about $60 billion, nearly split down the middle, while radio brought in $11 billion.

"We believe that Internet marketing is an extremely important and relevant part of the advertising landscape that is growing and changing almost by the hour," said Dan Cowling, president of The Communications Group, a full-service advertising firm in Little Rock. "It's an Internet kind of landscape out there these days, and you better be knowledgeable about how to capture and optimize that if you truly want to stay relevant with your clients."

Cowling agrees that measurement standards are evolving, and clients locally will increasingly demand accurate traffic controls as smaller markets increase Internet advertising. The Communications Group, he said, is working with a Florida company to develop controls for pay-per-click advertising that will monitor patterns 24/7.

On the Rise
Taulbee, who inaugurated an Internet marketing director position that was created at ABPG in 2006 because of the growth of online advertising, said he advises clients to spend as much as 20 percent of their budget on the Internet, while dropping the remaining 80 percent in one of the company's various print publications.

"That number will probably grow as advertisers become more savvy, and we're already seeing that," he said.

Vega's Internet advertising specialty firm places about $15 million in ads online annually, placing Internet ads for large companies like Banana Republic. She said a level playing field could be created by having a single, go-to source in measuring online traffic.

"Even though it's probably not as accurate as it could be, it's still more accurate than television or newspapers," she said. "They don't know what's going on in TV because it's all based on surveys, and with newspapers, they even count a pass-along rate. ... Are you kidding me? When's the last time you passed along a newspaper?"

One thing everyone can agree on, with the backing of statistics to prove it, is that Internet advertising is on the rise.

"There's no other medium at this point that has the potential to reach the exact demographic and audience an advertiser is aiming for like the Internet," said Stone Ward's Marlin. "Like anything else, it'll grow into itself and its potential will be harnessed and maximized to the fullest."