Rankings: A New Web Order

Nielsen now rates by time spent on a site instead of page views

In May, 1991, Billboard abruptly changed how it calculated its top 200 album chart. Using Nielsen SoundScan data, which tallies up sales at thousands of retail outlets, the industry icon became purely reflective of the week's top sellers. (Previously, retailers were merely asked to name "hot" records, a system that was easily gamed.) A new order of pop music was revealed, and country, hard rock, and hip-hop began flexing their true muscle on the charts.

This month, Nielsen again flipped around a key ratings measure. It will now rank Web sites by how much time users spend on them, and de-emphasize total page views as the prevailing metric. Nielsen's move is a nod to how habits and technologies on the Web have changed, thanks to video and applications like Ajax, which delivers fresh content to Web pages so users no longer need to click through more screens to see more stuff. The theory is that time spent is a better measure of (pain-inducing buzzword alert) "engagement" with a given Web site, although this remains a highly inexact science. But, wait, there's this voice in my head asking all kinds of questions...

Does this significantly reshape the Web's top ten?

Not entirely. The big guys, like Yahoo! (YHOO ), are still the top players. But in May, the first month for which data are available, three new entries not on the top-page-view list cracked the time-spent top 10: Electronic Arts (ERTS ), because video gamers stay put for a long time; Apple (AAPL ), whose iTunes is more of a time-suck than a click-generator; and Microsoft's (MSFT ) software home page (read: not MSN.com). Dropping off the list were largely free classifieds site Craigslist, social network Facebook--all those party pics eat up clicks, not time--and Comcast (CMCSA ). AOL (TWX ) goes from #6 to #1, while Google (GOOG ) slips from #1 to #5.

Boy. Bad news for Google, huh?

No. Advertisers don't buy Google for page views or time spent. They buy Google for its ad networks, which remain ubiquitous. Don't expect this to make a molehill out of Mountain View.

Wait a minute. Did you say AOL?

Two words for you: Instant Messenger. IM windows stay open all day, regardless of whether or not you're using them. This gets at one key facet of why time spent is an imperfect measure: You can visit a site for hours without actually, um, visiting it. Also plumping AOL's results is e-mail, which isn't much of an ad vehicle. AOL's nabbing the top spot may not bring a flood of ad dollars.

So the change doesn't matter, then, to AOL or anyone else.

No, that's not right, either. The real action here is how this plays out in specific categories, like news or sports. If a media buyer wants to divide up ad dollars among, say, the top 10 sports or entertainment sites, and this changes those ranks, it means that ad dollars may well shift within those categories. AOL Sports, for instance, ranks #6 in time spent but doesn't crack that category's top ten in page views. If time spent becomes the metric by which media buyers cull top sites, well, AOL Sports' prospects just got a lot brighter. And AOL News jumps up to #2 in that category's time-spent top ten, after being #3 in page views. Of all the big players, AOL looks like it has made the most incremental gains in category rankings. Sorry, AOL-haters, the long-derided Time Warner (TWX ) unit's vampiric ways persist, which is to say it will take a stake through AOL's heart to finish it off.

There must be ways to game this new metric.

Sure. There always are. There's an incentive now to actually slow down your site, although making it too poky may exasperate surfers all the way into the arms of your competition. It's likely that you'll see more sites ramping up video--Sony just launched its video portal, Crackle!, in mid-July--and add all sorts of "widget" add-ons to glue viewers to their page. Once there was an arms race over getting site visitors to click as many pages as possible. Now there's an arms race to make them sit still.

For Jon Fine's blog on media and advertising, go to www.businessweek.com/innovate/FineOnMedia

By Jon Fine

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