Anyone who’s spent any time in digital starts to look differently at change, and it’s sometimes hard to take seriously what are seen as ground-shaking moves in traditional media – a newspaper moving to a smaller format, a radio station reducing ad minutage. It seems the digital media world gets reinvented every six months, and we revel in that warp-speed evolution even if we don’t always know where it’ll lead.
So it’ll come as no surprise to anyone that the way we measure online media is all set to change (again).
In the beginning there was the ‘hit’. A hit describes a call on a server to send a file, and since a web page is made up of lots of elements (pictures, text etc.) and each of these is a file, one page could be twenty ‘hits’. So this was a pretty useless way of gauging traffic to anyone other than a network engineer, and it was rapidly abandoned (though the term is still misused) in favour of the page impression.
Now we were talking a language media folk could understand. A page impression represented the viewing of a single web page, and since this was analogous to how people look at newspapers, everybody felt pretty comfortable about it. It felt like it gave us an idea of the scale of usage of a site – something we could benchmark.
Of course, wily editors responded by splitting stories across multiple pages to boost the count, and media buyers (coming from a press background) widely misinterpreted it as being a substitute for circulation.
The reality was, it never really mattered how many page impressions a site does in a week unless you were buying the whole site. Web display advertising is generally bought on an impressions basis – I might buy 100,000 impressions over a week; the fact the site delivers a million impressions overall is a matter of supreme indifference to me as long as I get what I paid for.
So we started measuring unique users, the number of people (actually computers) visiting sites, and combining this with page impressions – effectively measures of reach and frequency respectively.
And so it’s been for the last few years, and everyone was pretty happy with it.
Unfortunately it’s becoming redundant.
The way the web works, the way it presents itself to users, is changing – largely driven by three new technologies, RSS, Ajax, and Widgets.
In ‘traditional’ web pages, the only time a server actually sends a file to you is when you click on a link. All the time you’re looking at the page, there’s no traffic from the server. An Ajax page is different. It’s actually an application, monitoring what you’re doing and downloading more stuff unseen by you in anticipation of things you might do next. This means when you click on something, the response is instant as the data’s already there.
It also means you often don’t even click – all you need is anticipated and delivered within that page. You can see an example of this at www.ba.com – enter a destination city, and it will suggest options before you finish typing – “Lon” suggests ‘Londonderry’, ‘Long Beach’ and ‘London’, type one more letter and the redundant options disappear.
Similarly, RSS feeds information constantly into your computer – you don’t need to visit the site to get your team’s score, they’re delivered to you. Increasingly popular, widgets are small applications you install on your PC which perform tasks, often automatically retrieving information for you like the weather forecast.
The consequence of this evolution? The page view has become decoupled from site usage. This has huge implications not just for publishers, but for advertisers too – because it also undermines the click as a measure of interaction.
This is challenging because we really don’t know where it’ll lead, but ultimately it’s healthy. People are obsessed about clicks, but they’re a pretty blunt measure of interaction. If the impact of this change is to make people think harder about how their communications work, it can only be a good thing.