Mary Ann Packo is president and chief operating officer of Media Metrix in New York, a company that measures consumer Web usage for clients such as major Web retailers and publishers. Media Metrix recently merged with one of its prime competitors, Relevant Knowledge, to provide a more standardised way of measuring Web usage.
CW: What major consumer trends emerged on the Internet in the past year?
PACKO: There’s been a real narrowing of the gender gap. When we began measuring in January 1996, [the Web audience was] 82% male and 18% female. It’s getting very close to a 50/50 split [between] men and women.
And when we began measuring [Web use for] news, information and entertainment, only 40% of people were going to those sites.
Now that’s over 80%. ... Media and marketing are kind of merging out there. Portals are [also] offering things for sale.
CW: For people trying to sell to consumers via the Internet, what are the most important things going on?
PACKO: We’re clearly seeing increased traffic to what we call shopping sites. That is our fastest-growing [category].
The book category, music category, computers, support and perhaps the auction-type category are getting dramatically increased traffic.
CW: What are we likely to see this year?
PACKO: One thing we look at every six months is the fastest-growing sites. We’ll be doing that again after the year-end numbers. The first half of  had a lot to do with community and relationships on the Web — sites like Tripod and GeoCities. Then there’s the whole personalisation issue.
CW: Sites offering personalised information and content?
PACKO: We’ve seen that trend with the portals providing more and more ways of providing ‘stickiness’ [enticing people to stay on a site once they have clicked in].
They started adding content, news. ... Now you’ve seen them add in these personalised features — “Yes, you can get a free home page here as well,” or “Yes you can visit these areas [news and entertainment].”
CW: What are the best strategies for companies trying to attract consumers to their sites?
PACKO: There are two distinct strategies: Appeal to the user in many different ways, or be specialized and draw a defined audience.
CW: Which is working?
PACKO: In terms of traffic, we definitely see the portals with lots of different offerings attracting really strong traffic. We [also] see great repeat traffic to specialized sites. It depends on the company’s business purpose for the site.
CW: Was 1998 the year the Internet came of age, with events such as the Starr report being released on the Web?
PACKO: We clearly do see traffic driven by news events. The Starr report was one of our all-time highs in terms of daily usage.
Also, things like natural disasters really drive a lot of traffic to the Web -- hurricanes, tragedy, natural disasters.
CW:Are you surprised by the pace of consumers’ adoption of Web technology?
PACKO: There have been very aggressive growth projections. I think it’s tracking very close to the projections [analysts] have made.