Sheriff brings order to NZ, seeks new territory

Red Sheriff will be taking its redeveloped online customer profiling tools "back home" to Australia this month.

Red Sheriff will be taking its redeveloped online customer profiling tools “back home” to Australia this month.

The online measurement firm says its latest methodology and software will not only give internet businesses a perspective on audience make-up and user behaviour on their own site, but let them compare those figures with the performance of their competitors.

Red Sheriff began business in Melbourne, but now has its head office in New York. It won a contract last year, along with Auckland’s Phoenix Research, from a consortium of New Zealand web publishers and advertising agencies to supply comparative market figures to replace the discontinued Nielsen NetRatings scheme.

The new system, which was developed for the contract, recruits users at random by popping up a request form asking for participation and supply of basic demographic information, such as age, gender, ethnicity and salary level. It publishes no information on individuals’ behaviour, but simply aggregates statistics for day, week and month periods, says South Asia executive Philip Whinnen.

Subscribers access these statistics through the web in the form of tables, which they can tailor to rate themselves against their closest competitors or against a broader spread of the market.

NZ Red Sheriff representative Mark Long acknowledges the potential suspicion that a volunteer user sample is self-selected and may be biased in a particular direction, but says the sample was carefully checked against a phone survey conducted by Phoenix, to ascertain that it was reasonably representative of the internet-using population.

The only significant skew detected was toward heavier users of the internet, simply because they were more likely to encounter the survey pop-up in a given period, Long says. But as the exercise has run longer, “lighter users are participating and the distribution is skewing back to normal”.

There is also a slight apparent bias towards the higher paid, but the tendency of people to inflate their salaries for surveys may partly explain that, Long says.

In the first publicly presented set of results from the survey, Red Sheriff claimed last month to show that portal sites like XtraMSN and Nzoom, usually the market leaders in terms of usage, were increasing their apparent audience massively as the Iraqi war developed. Traditional news sites like Stuff and the NZ Herald experienced a relatively stable readership over the same period.

But to what degree is the market lead for portal sites influenced by the fact that many users retain such a site as their home page, and may not look at it when they launch their browser? Whinnen acknowledges the possibility, but says the same factor operates for any portal site so portal competitors are still “comparing like with like”.

Sceptics suggest the home page factor may still give XtraMSN an advantage, as it is the default page with the Microsoft browser in New Zealand and some users may not know how to change their home page, or not bother.

Long suggests that no matter how fleeting the sight of a page, “it is still an opportunity to see the content, and that has to be counted”.

There is a way of detecting a user’s home-page setting so this factor could be eliminated, Whinnen says, but Red Sheriff does not use this technique as users might see it as intrusive.

A wide range of factors, from survey data and automatic collection, is analysed, including the user's display colour-depth and resolution settings. Some publishers' advertisers may wish to know such facts, Whinnen says, to verify that painstaking design is having an impact.

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