When advertisers want to know how many eyeballs are glued to a TV show, they look at the Nielsen ratings. And when they want to know how many people are reading a particular magazine or newspaper, they consult the Audit Bureau of Circulations.
But in cyberspace, they have nowhere to turn. The growing legion of advertisers looking to promote goods and services on the Internet's World Wide Web--in large part because the Web promises to make it possible to target an audience as never before--are finding that measuring the audience so far remains more art than science. And they're none too happy about it.
"With [print and TV,] you know the value of the space you're buying," said Steve Feuling, vice president of marketing for Palladium Interactive, a Larkspur, Calif., entertainment software company. "But it hasn't been worked out on the Internet."
There are plenty of efforts afoot to deal with the problem. A Nielsen subsidiary, Internet Profiles (I/Pro), hopes to do for the Net what its parent company does for TV. A Los Angeles-based start-up, NetCount, has the same goal. And a host of companies are developing and marketing software that enable Web sites to monitor their own traffic.
But the industry is a long way from a universal standard for measuring the Web. And basic disagreements continue over issues ranging from whether there should be a standard size and shape for Web ads to whether rates should be based on the number of people who see an ad or the number of people who click their mouses on it to get more information.
"What's needed is a common vocabulary," said Evan Neufeld, online advertising analyst with the New York research firm Jupiter Communications. "It's a medium in transition."
For the many thousands of Web sites that hope to make a living off advertising, the measurement problem looms large. Only 200 Web sites are generating ad revenues at the moment, with the top 10 Web sites generating 60% of that, according to Jupiter. Those numbers aren't likely to improve until there are better data on how many people are seeing what.
The traditional measure of Web site traffic is "hits." Each time a Web server sends a file to the browser of a visitor, it's recorded as a hit. But because hits are generated for every element of a page, including graphics and text, it can be a misleading metric.
Furthermore, even though it's usually possible to measure the number of distinct visits to a Web site, or to a particular page, it's hard to tell if 1,000 visits mean 1,000 people, or 100 people visiting 10 times. And what advertisers really want to know is who, exactly, those visitors are--or at least how rich they are.
On the question of how many people are seeing what, some answers are starting to emerge. I/Pro and NetCount both offer services that will track the number of visitors to a sight, what they do while they are there, the number of times a particular ad is shown, how long it's displayed and how often someone clicks on it.
I/Pro was first on the block, opening its doors 1 1/2 years ago and, President Mark Ashida says, it currently audits nine out of the top 10 sites on the Internet. "We consider NetCount to be the Macintosh of the Internet," Ashida said.
But NetCount, which is backed by accounting firm Price Waterhouse, contends it has a far better methodology. Whereas I/Pro relies on its customers to hand-deliver their computer logs for analysis, NetCount installs its software directly on the client's computer and takes the information from there.
Both companies hope to do for the Web what the often-maligned Nielsen ratings still do for television: provide a measurement standard for determining advertising rates.
Advertising executives doubt that one company will emerge as the source. Instead, a number of companies will implement different kinds of measuring systems, probably following some general guidelines being developed by the Coalition for Advertising Supported Information and Entertainment, a trade group. The group released recommendations for Web advertising standards two years ago and is preparing an updated report this month.
For the moment, many advertisers are frustrated with the lack of good information and the complicated analysis that is therefore required. Paul Ratzy, interactive director for Los Angeles-based advertising agency Fathom, says placing Internet ads is labor-intensive and expensive.
"It's a very tricky financial proposition for us," he said. "We can buy $1 million in print advertising in a quarter of the time, and with a quarter of the people, it takes to buy Web advertising."
"Web measurement is pretty murky but is evolving every day," said Paul Grand, president of NetCount. "That means now the [advertisers] are stuck with what's available."
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Commercials in Cyberspace
World Wide Web sites that have garnered the most advertising revenue for the first three quarters of 1996 and advertisers that have spent the most on the Web for the same period. In millions of dollars:
Firm Revenue 1 Netscape Communications $17.9 2 Yahoo 11.3 3 InfoSeek 10.7 4 Lycos 7.5 5 Excite 7.3 6 Cnet: The Computer Network 6.2 7 ZD Net 5.4 8 WebCrawler 5.1 9 ESPNet Sports Zone 4.1 10 Pathfinder 3.6
Firm Ad dollars spent 1 Microsoft $5.8 2 Netscape Communications 4.1 3 AT&T; 3.8 4 IBM 3.6 5 Excite 3.4 6 Infoseek 3.3 7 McKinley Group 2.8 8 Nynex 2.8 9 Lycos 2.6 10 Yahoo 2.6
Source: Jupiter Communications
Researched by JENNIFER OLDHAM / Los Angeles Times