US, Europe to unite on Web traffic standards

Two online ad research organisations have announced that they will join forces to establish standards for the measurement of site audiences.

          Taking a critical step toward the future of global online media buying and evaluation, two online advertisement research organisations announced Friday that they will join forces to establish standards for the measurement of site audiences.

          At the Worldwide Online Media Measurement conference in Paris, the US and European online audience measurement committees of the Future of Advertising Stakeholders (FAST) announced that they will work together to persuade the industry to agree on guidelines for how to define and gather site traffic counts.

          "We have a unique and important opportunity to build a global (measurement) platform -- and make our lives that much easier from the outset," said conference co-chairman Scott McDonald, research director for Time Warner Inc.

          The conference, a joint effort of the Advertising Research Foundation and the World Association of Research Professionals, had been scheduled for fall 2001. But European members requested that the event be scheduled immediately, because country-level traffic measures were beginning to appear.

          "We reached a stage this year where, if we weren't careful, the US and Europe were going to start to diverge," said Adam Phillips, meeting co-chairman and managing director of Real Research. Phillips represents the World Association on the FAST Europe steering committee.

          The importance of the topic brought together more than 200 attendees from 32 countries. At issue is how best to define and measure the audiences of online media. There are currently three ways in which this is done. "Site-centric" measures involve analysis of the records gathered by a site's servers. This information can be gathered via homegrown or packaged software, and the results are sometimes audited by a third party such as I/Pro or ABC Interactive.

          "User-centric" measures come from tracking the behavior of surfers as they move around the Web. Ratings firms such as Media Metrix and Nielsen NetRatings are the most popular sources of this type of traffic figures. The final measure, "ad-centric," is the way a third-party ad serving firm such as DoubleClick or the site itself tracks how many ads are viewed in a particular online ad campaign.

          The result is that online advertisers regularly receive not only three different types of audience figures for each ad campaign, they often receive numbers calculated differently by parties using the same type of measurement. Each method has its merits and problems. The FAST guidelines are not intended to choose the best type of audience measurement. They are meant to simply provide common definitions and best-practice methodologies to minimise differences within each type of traffic measurement.

          At stake is the credibility and growth of global interactive advertising. Attendees said that having reliable, accurate site audience data is critical to advertisers' ability to easily measure the effectiveness of their investments.

          "We wanted to bring the worldwide online media measurement committee together to begin sharing expertise and get a shared vision of the future," said Jim Spaeth, president of the Advertising Research Foundation. This essentially translated into two days of US companies parading past the speaker's podium to share the cumulative results of two years of studying how best to measure site traffic.

          But the US is unique in its approach to measuring media audiences. Though the US supports competition within providers of the same kinds of media research, European countries and others often have industry committees that agree on audience measurement methods and pick a monopoly provider of that information for a particular medium. Many in Europe are eager to prevent these committees from officially sanctioning Internet traffic providers at the country level.

          "We don't want the medium to be packaged up and regulated," Phillips said. "Over-regulating the market in this early stage will stifle development." Indeed, officially sanctioning the proper way to measure digital media would be risky, because its precise definition continues to evolve into areas such as streaming media and wireless access.

          The spirit of cooperation ran high among the attendees, but even after years of study and meetings, the U.S. alone has yet to agree on such online audience measurement principles. And after years of debate, the groups reached preliminary agreements on global TV audience measurement standards only last year. Though it seems a long shot that the entire world could come to agreement on Net measurement, experts are hopeful.

          "Local players are not entrenched, so we have an opportunity to harmonise global (measurement efforts) from the ground up," said Time Warner's McDonald. "We don't have a choice. The medium itself is global. The issues are universal. The problems of counting (audiences) are the same across countries."

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