On the web, 1 + 1 doesnít always equal 2.

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We are going to use the simplest methodology that replicates what is done in traditional media. There are all kinds of services that use all kinds of cockamamie technology.
-- Scott Schiller, VP at Sony Online, quoted in an Interactive Week story on auditing net-based advertising.

I last wrote about the trouble with keeping track of net ads almost a year ago in WI#21. Back then I tried to imagine if the magazine ad world were like the web:

You don't know the addresses of your subscribers. In fact, your readers misrepresent themselves big-time. You can't even be sure if they tell the truth about their sex, location of their residence, or even the nature of their employers. Second, someone at the printing plant screwed up and you don't even know how many issues were printed. Third, many newsstands didn't distribute your issue, because they were closed for random holidays that you knew nothing about. Fourth, readers have passed along your magazine in their own distribution network and you don't know how, why, or how many are doing this. Finally, many libraries carry your magazine, but they tear out the ads before putting them on the shelves.

In the past year, things havenít gotten any better. Web ad tracking services still undercount pages delivered to proxy servers. They also miss those of us that turn off graphics in our browsers and turn off the delivery of ad banners, as well as those banners that are already cached on our local hard disks. They still count pages that search engines like Yahoo grab as they move through our sites.

The problem really isnít the fault of the various web ad tracking services. It is a problem with the way that all web servers maintain their access logs. To demonstrate this, I ran my own access log through about half a dozen different analyzer programs. To my surprise, there was little agreement on just about any metric: the total number of hits, the proportion of Microsoft vs Netscape browser users, the pages most often accessed, and so forth. Sometimes, the numbers were off by more than five percent. Why the difference? I donít know, although I suppose it could be because some programs counted gifs and jpegs as actual page hits.

Nobody thought about this issue of advertising back in the early 1990s when the web was being created. Indeed, back then the words Internet and advertising werenít spoken in polite company.

But here we are in 1997. Real money is now at stake and the web ad biz is now an Industry. A lot more people are now buying, selling, and building web ads. And we have curious events such as counting the ads Yahoo places on Netscapeís site and Netscape places on Yahooís site as real money. Yet, no actual dough changes hands. But I digress.

To get a feel for advertising, naturally I tried it on my own web site, using DoubleClick as both the rep to buy ads on my pages as well as to serve up the actual ads themselves. DoubleClick and I have agreed to end our relationship: they want more megasites that offer millions- o-clicks (and while I am happy to see traffic on strom.com continue to increase, I ainít no Dilbert Zone) and I donít really need the $20 or so they send me every month.

But while I was part of their network, I got a chance to view their reports and here from others who are running serious web sites. And surprise, surprise, these others are trying to reconcile the reports they get from DoubleClick with their own web site access logs. You can read this page, which says to fix the problem and to make the two counts closer, webmasters should do several things, including restricting access to web crawlers (thereby making it harder for people to find your page) and put all navigation cues inside images (thereby forcing people to keep images turned on as they browse and waste time).

Another web ad service, Focalink, posted this page, that says it doesnít matter that our numbers donít agree with the siteís own log files: what counts is that we make the same mistake consistently.

Neither of these explanations is very satisfying, if you are about to spend your own dough on buying some web banner spots. Indeed, I go back to our friend quoted at the top from Sony, Yiddish notwithstanding, who wants out of the whole business of trying to resolve the counts altogether.

So whatís your typical media planner (the person responsible for placing millions of dollarsí worth of ad banners around the web) to do?

I think many of them will quickly tire of trying to learn the ins and outs of hits, page views, click-throughs and the like and opt for entire site sponsorships, targeted deals, and deals between web and other media.

This could mean that banners, at least how we know them, will go away. In their place we could see interactive banners, such as the Virtual Tags that First Virtual Holdings is working on -- these banners donít transport viewers out of the site, and are also fun to click around on. You can view some samples here.

I have another recommendation: forsake ads entirely and instead develop ways to exploit the links and connections present in the web itself. This way, sponsors can deliver real value to surfers.

Iíll give you an example from my own experience. Last week I bought some tickets to Thailand using Microsoftís Expedia. It was slow, it was frustrating, but it did the job, and yesterday the tickets arrived in the mail. Also yesterday, a message arrived in my email with all sorts of neato stuff about Thailand. It was sent by the Expedia server that knew I was going and scanned its database for fun facts for travelers. Now, it probably took some Microsoft programmer about two hours to write some VB script to pull this off Ė but in the meantime, when I have to buy some other air tickets, Iíll probably come back to Expedia.

Site-keeping and self-promotions depít

Iíve got a few things cooking for Interop -- moderating a panel session on personal web servers on Monday afternoon, and teaching an all-day workshop with Ed Tittel on Wednesday. That doesnít leave much time for cruising the show floor, let alone visiting with you-all.

David Strom
david@strom.com
+1 (516) 944-3407
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entire contents copyright 1997 by David Strom, Inc.