USC Annenberg Online Journalism ReviewUSC





Google News Finally Makes the Grade

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Site draws more than 3 million unique visitors a month, but Nielsen and Media Metrix have excluded them from news site rankings. Now both say they are looking into ranking them with the other top news outlets. 

MSNBC, CNN, Yahoo News, BBC, AOL News, Washingtonpost.com, Google News. These are some of the top sites for news and information online. But some people might view them as apples and oranges.

Washingtonpost.com is based on newspaper content, CNN is based on cable TV content, Yahoo is based on aggregated news feeds, and Google News is a digest that links to stories offsite.

Google News is not ranked in Nielsen//NetRatings' Current Events category along with other top media sites, such as CNN.com and MSNBC.com, and it isn't in comScore Media Metrix's General News category for July 2003. A recent Reuters report on aggregators noted Google News' omission but posited that it was because Google News doesn't have an original reporting staff -- something missing at Yahoo News and AOL News, too, though they are in both rankings.

A Google spokesman said the company had no comment on the matter, but my inquiries with Nielsen//NetRatings and comScore already have brought results. comScore analyst Graham Mudd said the company will include Google News in next month's General News rankings. comScore would have ranked Google News at No. 18 in July, just below LATimes.com and above Netscape News, SFGate and the Guardian. Not too shabby for an upstart in beta with essentially no editorial staff.

I spoke to Greg Bloom, senior Internet analyst at Nielsen//NetRatings, about how the ratings service categorizes sites, why Google News was missing, and how its measurement service stacks up to comScore. For the record, comScore's Mudd touts his service for having a larger panel of at-work users -- which is crucial for news sites -- along with a sample of users at universities. Also, comScore said it measures 1.5 million people worldwide, while Nielsen's panel is in the 40,000 to 50,000 range -- at home and at work.

OJR: How do you decide which sites go into the Current Events and Global News category?

Greg Bloom: I'm not one of the people who makes that decision, but basically it's common sense rules. We get some feedback from the client community or people in the press who think things should be put someplace else. We try to put one thing into one place, and that can be kind of tricky at times. Someone might say, "Is this thing e-commerce, or is it sports?" Some people might get frustrated if something's listed somewhere, because they think, "oh, this is a company that doesn't fit into our space properly."

OJR: What about Google News not being in the Current Events and Global News category?

GB: We should have Google News in that category. I'm surprised that we don't. If we're going to show Yahoo News, for instance, then we ought to put Google News there as well.

OJR: Do you have any idea where it would rank if it was in there?

GB: Google News is a channel within Google, which has enormous reach. We have Google News with 3.4 million unique users in July. In this category, we have CNN at 21 million, MSNBC at 20 million. ... So 3.4 million would place it about 20 spots down the list. We also have subcategories below that.

It does get to be a little confusing. People have to be careful how they look at this. We have a category called News and Information and then a subcategory called Current Events and Global News. When you ask where does something fit within a category you need to have a good understanding about what you're being told if you talk to companies like us, with a number of hierarchies and how we organize our information.

OJR: So what comes under News and Information? Is that something broader?

GB: It's much broader. The subcategory that's more applicable is Current Events and Global News. Google News is pretty far down the list. It's comparable to BBC News [at No. 17].

OJR: You would consider putting Google News in there if people brought it up?

GB: Google is a client of ours. Maybe they've never brought it up, perhaps there's a reason. We place Google News in a subcategory called Multicategory News and Information. It doesn't go into the same subcategory of Current Events right now. Somebody along the way made a decision on how to put it into our hierarchy. But the way that we do it does not work for everybody, their personal view of all the content that's out there.

OJR: So if Google News came to you and asked to be in the rankings, you would consider it?

GB: We would consider it. We consider any feedback from a client or someone in the press that uses our stuff. If they think something should be moved, we would consider it. We are objective.

OJR: One difference between Google News and Yahoo News is that Google News is just the front end. When you go to read a story, you have to go to the site -- the stories aren't actually there like on Yahoo News.

GB: Right. I've worked with some of our clients in the online news industry, and AOL News and Yahoo News are very fierce about their value on the Web. They're huge disseminators of news. For me, when I think of news, I think of The New York Times, CNN, but Yahoo News and AOL News are important. They don't have big teams of reporters in the field but they do have a lot of eyeballs. Just for myself, I use My Yahoo, and the main way I learn about breaking news is My Yahoo page. So they're important but they're not primary news sources.

The big three portals -- Yahoo, AOL, and Microsoft -- the interesting thing about Microsoft is the creation of MSNBC. They are really different, because MSNBC is essentially MSN News, and that's a "real" news organization. That's an interesting differentiator that MSN has when compared to AOL and Yahoo. But some people believe that AOL News is the biggest online disseminator of news. Depends who you ask.

OJR: Tell me about the methodology that goes on behind the rankings.

GB: It's really pretty simple. We recruit people into a market research panel. We use a statistical process that Nielsen has used. The phrase is RDD -- random digit dial. We recruit people very fairly into a panel. Then they install software on their computers, and we can collect data in real time that tells us what they're doing.

We don't collect credit card information and that sort of thing. It's all anonymous, but we know that this is, say, a male aged 18 to 34 from Seattle. Then we match that up with census information on how different demographic groups are spread across the country. We have weighting models, and based on what we measure and what the country looks like, we're able to extrapolate projections -- like 25 million people using Yahoo.

OJR: You used to work at Media Metrix (now part of comScore). How do you see them differing in measurement methodology?

GB: It's similar. It's the same thing. That's a company that's been through a lot of changes. I came from a company they acquired called RelevantKnowledge. But still, it's the same principles. My comparison is to Media Metrix in the late '90s when I worked there.

OJR: Some publishers will say that their internal numbers show different traffic than your ratings. How do you counter that perception?

GB: It's very hard. We have a panel of randomly collected people, and the publishers are looking at their server logs. It doesn't surprise anybody that what they look at is probably going to be bigger. Generally, they're looking at unique cookie IDs or unique computers, and we're looking at unique people. It's different. People could use multiple computers, they could get new computers, they could erase their cookies, or re-install Internet Explorer -- one person could be seen on the server seven times, and they think it's seven people.

Generally, when we talk to a publisher and they talk about how many people they have compared to how many people we projected, usually [their number] is bigger. What they think they are is almost always bigger than what we see. It could be by 50 percent or even 100 percent. They also have a difficult time filtering out foreign traffic, and we just measure U.S. usage.

There could be some other subtleties as well. We're not saying that we measure shared computers, we don't measure Internet cafes or university dorms or computer labs.

OJR: If they're a client, and they see a difference in numbers, is it sometimes a battle to explain the difference?

GB: It can be. One thing we urge people to do is to look at things relatively. Everyone's got competitors. The demographic data we provide [the client] doesn't have that. So if we say it's 40 percent female, does it matter if it's 15 million or 18 million people? You might be skeptical of the grand, absolute number, but they really do need the underlying detail. The intelligence that's below that is very, very useful.

They'll say, for the record, "Yeah, I use it [Nielsen's ratings], but we believe we're much higher." They appreciate being able to see them in context of their competitors.

OJR: For publishers, the concept of getting the most eyeballs seems antiquated by now. Are they starting to realize that demographics is more important, and having a smaller, more targeted audience is more important now than being No. 1?

GB: Sure, it depends what they're trying to do. Companies like Yahoo have done a very good job [of monetizing traffic]. Many millions of people are registered Yahoo users. I've been registered and using it for years. They've got this great, active database of very high-frequency users and they know your ZIP code, and they probably know you're a male in the San Francisco area. And they're able to sell against that, to sell targeting against all the registration information they have.

I used to live in Chicago, and they had a great campaign with Crain's in Chicago. They were able to sell to people who defined themselves as Chicago-area professionals. And they can come up with a lot of people. So if you're a marketer, and you say, "Give me Chicago business professionals who are online, I want to reach them." If you're an agency, you can make a lot of phone calls. When you get to the Yahoo rep, the rep says, "I've got 70,000 of them coming to me every day." It's a very powerful advertising proposition. Yahoo's good for broad campaigns or targeted campaigns.

OJR: You did a press release recently about the huge traffic to a site about a Weapons of Mass Destruction error message. What would that mean for someone building a business, getting a brief big spike in traffic?

GB: You don't want people interested just once, right? You need people interested multiple times. That's a little fad that goes around. It's not really a business, it's just a joke.

OJR: But they do sell T-shirts and mugs.

GB: But look at a Classmates.com, for instance. It's a huge audience; it's not a fad. It keeps on giving, because you're going to go back and put in information about yourself or look up other people. So that is playing out to be a real business

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OJR: Are there any improvements being planned for your rating system?

GB: We're coming out with a lot of products. We're cross-tabbing Web use to consumption of consumer-packaged goods, through our relationship with AC Nielsen. That's very exciting. It's cross-tabbing online activity to offline product consumption. We're also branching out with more specialty panels. We'll have a lot more people under measurement. These specialty panels will be in the areas of media and e-commerce. We're going to have some greater capabilities in the online survey space as well.

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