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CYBERCULTURE | POSTCARD FROM CYBERSPACE / DANIEL AKST

Tracking That Advertisers Can Count On

June 10, 1996|DANIEL AKST

Have you ever wondered who pays for all that great stuff you find out there on the World Wide Web? Or who will pay for it when the providers get tired of footing the bill?

The answer, so far, seems likely to be advertisers. Information providers on the Web are hoping that companies with goods and services to sell will pay for all the eyes drawn to a site by its attractive content. This model is well established in the world of print, where publications such as the L.A. Weekly and the Los Angeles Reader, as well as a good many trade magazines, charge readers nothing but make advertisers pay to reach those readers.

The big problem, though, has been figuring out the number and nature of the visitors to any given Web site. The traditional method, if you'll pardon the expression in this context, has been counting "hits," which is highly inaccurate. As measured by typical software, a hit is registered not just when you visit a given page, but for each of the graphics that comes through the line to your modem, for error messages and for other unrelated factors. In general, hit counts substantially overstate the amount of traffic coming to a Web page.

What's needed is not just more accurate counting, but some reliable third party to certify that the numbers are legitimate. Web sites, after all, have a financial incentive to exaggerate visitor counts when their ad revenue is at stake. Advertisers also want some standards in the measurement of Web visits; otherwise, comparing two sites would be like comparing inches and quarts.

Several young Internet firms have rushed in to meet these needs, and one of them was in the news recently when the Price Waterhouse accounting firm bought part of NetCount (http://www.netcount.com/), a provider of just such services. Hollywood-based NetCount is especially strong among entertainment-oriented Web sites. The company says its customers include a number of sites run by MCA, Warner Bros., the popular Time Warner Pathfinder site (http://pathfinder.com/) and the Nando Times (http://www.nando.net/), one of the best Web newspaper sites.

Speaking of newspapers, the nonprofit Audit Bureau of Circulations, a creature of the newspaper industry, is moving into this field as well with a product called WebFacts, developed by a small firm called MarketArts. For a fee, the bureau plans to offer independent certification of Web counts just as it does newspaper circulation.

The issue of Web user data is so important that an advertising industry trade organization known as CASIE (Coalition for Advertising Supported Interactive Entertainment) has been established to define standards for third-party audience verification. CASIE is also supposed to define standards for information gathering that respects privacy. You can read all about CASIE and get a summary of its "Guiding Principles of Interactive Media Audience Measurement" at http://www.commercepark.com/AAAA/bc/

Meanwhile, the leader of the pack in this whole field is I/Pro (http://www.ipro.com/), based in San Francisco, which provides a variety of services for Web sites that want reliable data for themselves and their advertisers. I/Pro says its customers include such well-known Internet names as Netscape (http://home.netscape.com/), Yahoo (http://www.yahoo.com), ESPNet SportsZone (http://espnet.sportszone.com/) and USA Today (http://www.usatoday.com/).

Among other things, I/Pro offers I/Audit, which consists of third-party verification of Web site data. To avail itself of this service, a Web provider pays I/Pro a fee and receives special software that runs on the provider's Web server, gathering for I/Pro data about visits to the site. I/Pro analysts assess this information for anomalies and other problems and then, satisfied of its accuracy, provide it in a standard format.

But I/Pro can go much further. Usually, Web sites that don't require users to register can't tell for sure who you are when you access the site; all that is captured is the Internet Protocol number assigned to the server from which the access originated. Although these numbers sometimes refer to an individual's computer, they often serve a great many computers and so are of limited value. For instance, when I dial into the Internet from home, the IP number assigned to my machine is one of many issued to AT&T WorldNet, my Internet service provider.

That's where I/Pro comes in. Basically, it takes the quite limited data available about the users of a given Web site and matches them against a database of information about the organizations whose domains are reflected in that data. Thus, the report might tell you that 25% of the users accessing your Web site are from a particular region, institutional setting or even company.

It's noteworthy here that I/Pro is partly owned by Dun & Bradstreet Corp. (http://www.dnb.com/), the corporate information specialists; D&B also owns Nielsen Media Research (http://www.nielsen.com/), the TV ratings people, with whom I/Pro has an alliance.

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