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Hits or misses

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 21, 2004



You know that computers run the Internet. You know computers are efficient and flawless counting machines. Conclusion: Internet websites must know with excruciating accuracy who is visiting them. Right?

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Wrong.

Surprising as it may seem, most websites have no idea how many people view their content. This inherent fuzziness is causing problems for commercial websites, especially online publications desperate to make money from Internet advertising.

The challenge: How can you charge for ads when it's nearly impossible to tell advertisers how many people will see them?

Newspaper sites in particular need to know who's visiting and how often. With few able to charge for online subscriptions and still keep their audience, advertising revenue becomes crucial to making the sites financially viable.

In the nation's 13th-largest market, the online version of the Tampa (Fla.) Tribune and WFLA-TV, called TBO.com, uses no less than six different methods - from outside surveys to in-house counts - to try to measure its audience. "Each measurement has its frustrations," says Kirk Read, general manager of TBO.com. "No method seems to be exact, so we use a number of different resources.... We're still trying to get our arms around it."

Smaller newspapers with less money to spend on research are even more in the dark.

"You'd think that the Web would be the most easily measured medium because all the interaction is electronic, and we can track the interaction. But it turns out to be not so simple," says Greg Harmon, author of a white paper on counting traffic at newspaper websites for Belden Associates of Dallas, a newspaper research and consulting firm. One of the "holy grails" that websites seek is a way to monitor their audience and understand its demographics without having users register.

How fuzzy are the numbers? Consider the widely used gauge called "unique visitors." That's commonly regarded as the number of different computers that visit a website as measured by that website's log or counting software. But actually, it measures the number of Web browsers that access a site. So if someone uses Explorer to reach a site, then accesses it again from the same computer using Netscape, the website logs two unique visitors.

In any case, websites don't want to know how many computers visited them. They want to know how many people did. Therein lies the rub. For example, if an Internet user visits, say, this newspaper's website (www.csmonitor.com) at 10 a.m. from her work computer, then checks in again at 8 p.m. from home, she'd be counted as two unique visitors. On the basis of its own surveys, Belden estimates that half of the daily users of a newspaper website access it from more than one computer. "That's a lot of double counting," says Mr. Harmon in a phone interview.

The spider in the Web

That's not the only problem. Computerized programs, often called "spiders" or "webbots," drop by to map the website on behalf of search engines, such as Google. "Spiders can lie about who they are" and when they visit, says Joel Abrams, who's been studying the visitor-counting problem for csmonitor.com. They can get mixed in with real human users and increase unique visitor counts by 10 to 15 percent, Harmon adds.

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