Websites seem to think in millions. Web traffic is always a million this or a million that with unique users in the hundreds of thousands. For the major online publishers in South Africa, the numbers have always been big and impressive.

In theory websites should be able to measure their big readerships with far more precision than any other content medium. Unlike like traditional media, which rely on samples and make generalisations about their audiences, Internet sites can tell, with almost pin-point precision, exactly how many readers are visiting.

It’s the great advantage online publishers have over their print, television and radio counterparts and it is for this very reason that the Internet is regarded by many as the “most measurable medium in the world”. It’s the medium’s big selling-point; it’s innate strength.

In theory, says Online Publisher’s Association (OPA) measurement committee head, JP Farinha, internet sites are able to measure which customers look at what content, how much of it they consume, and at what times they do so.

“They are able to do this because every time a user looks at a web page, a request has to be made to the server on which the site resides. This allows the site to identify the user and to log details such as the page they have viewed, and the time. When the data is analysed over a period it is possible to identify user sessions, session length, specific content viewed and patterns of content consumption,” he says.

The internet’s ability to form a direct one-to-one relationship with its readers means it should be able to measure its readership with far more accuracy than any other medium.

But that’s the theory. In practice it hasn’t quite worked out that way. So, it is somewhat of an irony, that, for the past few years, the most measurable medium in the world has been unable to measure its readership as rigorously and authoritatively as it would have liked to.

While there is no doubting the veracity and integrity of the readership figures being put forward by reputable online publishers, it’s been difficult to get a completely accurate picture of website readership in South Africa. The state of reporting website statistics and traffic has been in a state of limbo for some time.

It’s a thorny issue that has caused both division and unity within the industry. The issue has often lead to fierce and public debates between competing websites over reported readership numbers, negatively affecting the credibility of the industry as a whole.
Farinha, who when not working on OPA business is the GM of generalist portal iafrica.com, insists that the readership numbers the big online media houses have been reporting have not been “inaccurate” but rather “incomparable”.

Says Farinha: “Like any media, different methodologies of measurement will produce differing results. To date every site has had their own measurement methodology and technology which means that we have not been able to compare like-with-like.”

Senior General Manager of Media 24 Digital Russell Hanly, who publishes major news site, News24.com, concurs that website readership numbers have been accurate based on the individual methodologies being used by the websites. However, the numbers could not be compared or measured up to other sites.

He adds that there has been a “lack of consistency in how page views and unique visitors were measured from one site to the next” and therefore “nothing reliable for advertisers to compare sites on an equitable basis”.

Managing Director of Independent Online (IOL), Howard Plaatjes, admits he has seen “pretty wild claims out in the marketplace from time to time… but I cannot be the judge of that. Any industry in its infancy will have teething problems and this industry is no exception…. simply put that as we all developed on different platforms we were getting different readings.”

It’s a statement echoed by PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC), the company which served as independent auditors for most of the big online publishers in South Africa in the past. PwC had the largest market share of online firms in South Africa.

Says Bevan Lane, PwC security department manager: “Due to the variety of systems (counters, log files) and the confusion regarding definitions (page impressions, unique users) I believe that there may been inaccurate statistics published in the past. Most people have put in reasonable controls to ensure that the statistics were as accurate as possible though.”

He emphasises that the biggest issue has been the lack of a uniform approach by major online publishers in South Africa.

“In the past we had many types of counters and log files and firms often interpreted these systems in different ways. We also did not enforce a uniform way of setting up web pages and ensuring that the log files could not be tampered with…” he adds.

The issue came to a head last year when IOL and Media24 Digital became embroiled in a public spat with the erstwhile online statistics auditing body ABCe, which was accused of not providing clear, unambiguous figures and generally failing to gain credibility amongst marketing and advertising decision makers.

Says Farinha: “Up until recently, Internet site stats were submitted by media owners to ABCe, the electronic arm of ABC. These stats were verified by auditors and published by ABCe. Over the last two years a number of online publishers became increasingly unhappy with the way the numbers were reported. These publishers eventually ceased reporting figures to ABCe which then ceased reporting figures to the market.”

Says Lane of PwC: “The state of reporting stats and traffic in South Africa has been in a state of limbo since most of the big players in the industry left ABIS/ABCe. There have been many conflicts and other issues, which have negatively affected the credibility of the reporting of statistics in the past. “

According to Russel Hanly, the issue first arose when Media24 Digital challenged IOL’s unique visitor stats and it was discovered that IOL was unable to measure unique visitors in the manner required — instead they “counted unique hosts and multiplied by a factor of two”.

Adds Howard Plaatjes: ”There never was a public disagreement between IOL and News24. Both companies disagreed with the methodologies applied by ABCe for the collation of statistics. We felt that the ABCe did not understand our businesses and were not properly representing the industry at the Audit bureau of circulations. ABCe decided to publicise our dissatisfaction with their reporting methods which led to us confronting them to find a solution.”

No solution was forthcoming, so the only solution left was for publishers to search for their own solution. So, ironically, it was this initial conflict that brought publishers together. Many online publishers, tired of the perennial statistics tap dance, saw the need to co-operate with the competition and put their heads together.

It was this very issue that precipitated the formation of the non-profit industry body called the Online Publisher’s Association (OPA) (http://www.opa.org.za). The body, which represents most of the country’s big web publishers, has worked tirelessly since its formation less than a year ago to come to grips with a wide range of issues facing online publishers. Sorting out the internet statistics quagmire once-and-for-all has been key.

So the question remains: How are internet sites counting their readers?

After a fairly exhaustive selection process, the OPA chose a New York and Sydney-based company called RedSheriff to patrol South Africa’s web traffic and run a centralised, authoritative statistics system.

RedSheriff’s plan is to first start the system off on the online publishers and then sell the concept to the rest of South Africa’s web community, which will eventually go a long way to standardising web statistics in the country. With the endorsement of the major online players, RedSheriff hopes their measurement system will catch on — a business and marketing model they have applied successfully in other countries.

By using the RedSheriff systems, it now means that South Africa’s major websites will use one central statistics system. It means they are now measuring apples with apples. It means they will have an accurate gauge of the kind of readerships websites in South Africa are attracting relative to each other. It means online publishers should now be able to harness the unique measurability features of the internet.

RedSheriff is recognised as the largest provider of web analytics in the world, operates in 52 countries, with an impressive list of big online companies such as Yahoo!, BBC Online, MSN, AOL, CNN, Lycos, MTVi, National Geographic, General Motors, HSBC, and Forbes. Now South African online brands such as M-Web, News24, IOL, Ananzi, Sunday Times Online, Business Day Online, Mail & Guardian Online, iafrica.com, Moneyweb, Moneymax, Itweb, Supersport, Tiscali and CareerJunction are set to join this list.

In the near future, finding out who the top 20 online publishers in South Africa are, could be as simple as visiting a website that has a live, real-time list. For advertising agencies this means access to one system telling them where the online eyeballs are blinking.

It means advertisers will now be able to fully exploit having a relationship with the most measureable medium in the world. It could provide a huge boost to the local online advertising market. In New Zealand, where RedSheriff was recently implemented, the company claims there has been an advertising increase.

RedSheriff CEO, Richard Webb, speaking to Brainstorm from Sydney, claims that in New Zealand, online advertising spend grew an impressive 30% in the first six months after launching the new RedSheriff stats system in that country.

“RedSheriff will provide the market and online advertisers with a single accurate trusted source of online audience measurement metrics … The market has clearly moved beyond simple web analytics to a more sophisticated understanding of a large number of business related metrics. We strive to expand the number of metrics offered monthly…” says Webb.

Online advertising remains one of the most important revenue streams for many online publishers, so sorting out the measurement mess and gaining the confidence of advertisers in a medium that is still relatively new is crucial.

Joanne Scholtz, who is Online Media Director at FCB and who has been in the industry for more than six years, sees the power of measurability lying within consolidated reports across a number of environments used and held by the advertiser and/or agency. She says a major sore point advertisers have with the industry is a lack of “comparable data with other media types: Reach and frequency and demographic profiles”.

“Online data, the little that there is, is isolated, not audited and inconclusive. It also varies dramatically from resource to resource. One thing that is truly frustrating is that the data cannot be split by section of websites, so one cannot tell how the profile and number of users vary from one portal’s entertainment section to another news site’s entertainment section,” says Scholtz.

“One must also understand that the gap between the best information available for an online campaign and the worst reporting from a media owner is miles apart. Here at FCB, we have implemented our own tools (DART for Agencies) to deliver the best of the measurability of the web. In no other medium does the client have to deploy an additional tool to get an accurate indication of reach and frequency,” she says.

Scholtz says the online advertising industry saw a boost in 2003, but could be even further boosted with measurability improved, perhaps leading to more brands testing and embracing the online environment because they now have a better means of measuring their returns.

“From what I know of Red Sheriff, I believe it is a powerful tool that will empower advertisers and make lighter the task of online planning, which currently requires a lot of time and resources. One may find more brands embracing online, but not necessarily investing large portions of their budget in online. The percentage spent online will increase over time, with increased measurability of ROI. Many of the brands who have not “tested” the online environment are brands that have no means of measuring the return,” says Sholtz.

It’s particularly important for online publishers to get their acts together, because innovations in other interactive mediums such as mobile and interactive TV are starting to erode the internet’s competitive advantages in this arena.

Says Sholtz: “I don’t think online advertising is new anymore… It’s here to stay and a lot of people have invested a lot of time in getting online respected and understood. As long as advertisers are meeting their business and marketing objectives with what online has to offer, it will remain and grow. The online consumer is increasing, the activities people do online are increasing and if a marketer’s target audience is online — how better to reach them than on the web, where they are now spending more time?”

By choosing to bed with an overseas statistics body, it means South Africa will be able to benchmark itself against overseas websites that employ similar stats systems. In a very short space of time we will know with alarming accuracy where South Africa’s big online players stack up compared to the rest of the world.

Says Farinha: “The new system will mean that every site uses exactly the same technology and methodology to measure site statistics. We can therefore publish all member site statistics in a single report confident that the numbers are directly comparable. The actual statistics will be more accurate as well since we are moving to a counter-based system from a log-based system.”

He’s right. The internet has come a long way from the old measurement standard of simple page impressions. One of the peculiarities of the early web meant that due to technology constraints, readership figures could not be measured. Page impressions was the dominant measurement – the crude equivalent of counting how many times a reader turns a page in a magazine and newspaper. It was open to manipulation and definition problems (“what is a page?”) and never quite gave an adequate picture of useage on a website.

But that’s history. Internet sites can measure readerships or “unique users” and now, says Farinha, the added benefit of the industry being on the same system means that it will be able to calculate the unduplicated number of Internet users of the OPA member sites.

The fix does not come without pain, however. Many online publishers are bracing themselves for a few sobering surprises. The new system could see some readership “declines” as their sites adjust to the new system. A minority may even see their readership “increase” on the system. But whatever happens in the short term, the consensus is that the benefits of consistency will accrue in the long term.

News24’s October stats claim 772 000 monthly unique visitors, generating daily average page impressions of 457 000. Says Russell Hanly: “We anticipate a drop in unique visitor levels for two reasons – Red Sheriff focuses on repeat visitors and not gross monthly unique visitors who visited the site once and uses counter technology rather than log analysis. Media24 has closed access to foreign visitors in respect of News24, Wheels24, Women24, Food24 and Health24.”

IOL, who reports figures in the region of about 800 000 monthly “quality unique visitors predominantly older than 18”, say they are not anticipating any major changes to their stats on the new system.

Farinha expects the effects to vary from site-to-site: “Some publishers methodologies are closer to that of the new system which will mean less of a difference, while others may see quite dramatic changes. It is probable that where there are differences that will reflect less than what was last published because of the fact that most sites have been using log-based analysis while RedSheriff uses counter-based analysis which typically will report less.”

Adds Webb: “In countries we enter with no standards we typically find that there may be more than one website claiming to be the largest. This cannot happen with a single standard. After the initial shock the business moves on and welcomes the vibrancy of the new more transparent market environment. I expect a similar response in South Africa, but a response everyone is now expecting.”

Matthew Buckland is editor of the Mail & Guardian & Guardian Online @ www.mg.co.za. He also served on the OPA’s measurement committee.

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