Staking out newspaper survival in Web analytics

This is part two in a two-part series on Web analytics and the future of news. [Part one]

The news industry is caught in a destabilizing position – each newspaper is going to have to come up with its own unique algorithm to give advertisers a sense of their audience.

The new metric that advertisers increasingly care about is something called “engagement” – how users are actually interacting and spending time with the site. But because each newspaper website offers unique content, there’s no blanket measure for creating a uniform “engagement” score for the news industry from different points of comScore or Ominture data.

“We can’t boil it down to X percent of unique users plus your time on site plus page views,” said Alan Segal, director of audience development at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

He explained that the formula in Atlanta would be different from elsewhere. “Engagement for us looks different for us versus the New York Times,” Segal said. “It depends on your market and what the goals are and how you interact with your community.”

Why engagement? Because it’s a more robust way of looking at the world than just uniques, page views, visits, or clicks per minute.

As Alex Langshur, president of the Web Analytics Association, said, “Measures that reflect audience engagement are more valuable than metrics that just measure raw numbers.”

He explained to me that looking at something like unique visitors alone would be a comparable analogy to looking at Lehman Bros’ balance sheets – everything looks the way you want it to, but it doesn’t tell you what’s really going on.

“In the media space just looking at things like number of visits or number of page viewed don’t tell you a lot about the level of engagement that people have,” he said.

The other problem, as we addressed here, is that unique, page views, and visits can all be, as Segal said, “gamed.” Here’s a closer look.

Unique Visitors: Messy for a number of reasons. As USC Annenberg lecturer Dana Chinn said, “It’s a deeply flawed metric. It counts computers and not people, so it’s over counted and under counted.” That means that, for instance, one person can check the LA Times on three computers – still one user, but it registers as a unique visitor from each computer. Meanwhile, computers from Web cafes or libraries that are used by multiple people are likely to undercount.

Uniques also require that users install a cookie into their computer. “All the research shows that people delete cookies or on a regular basis reject cookies,” Langshur said.

Page Views: Also problematic but absolutely crucial for advertisers. Page views are literally the number of times someone loads a single page of an Internet site.

Langshur said page views are difficult to standardize because of the variety of ways of presenting content. In addition, newspapers could create artificially inflated page view counts by breaking up text, or deflated counts by having a special project’s features all loaded on to one page.

Nonetheless, page views are important for advertisers, so news organizations need to understand how to reconcile with the fact that page views are not standardized with the fact that advertisers want to know how many people are seeing their ad.

“From an advertiser’s perspective, page views are important as this is tied to the number of impressions they might generate for their ad.” Langshur said. “Impressions are important, and depending on the type of ad space used and the ad type served, the first critical step to generating click-throughs.”

Visits: This is another confusing term, but the Web Analytics Association has tried to provide a clear definition to help people understand exactly what this means. This is their definition:

“A visit is an interaction, by an individual, with a website consisting of one or more requests for a page. If an individual has not taken another action (typically additional page views) on the site within a specified time period, the visit will terminate by timing out.”

At this point, 30 minutes seems to be the agreed upon standard – especially by the Interactive Advertising Bureau, which is attempting to create consistent definitions for advertisers. However, you can also change your analytics software to change this time.

But here’s where things get complicated, according to the Web Analytics Association:

“However, in the case of sites where interaction consists solely of file downloads, streaming media, Flash, or other non-HTML content, a request for this content may or may not be defined as a ‘page’ in a specific Web analytics program but could still be viewed as a valid request as part of a visit. The key is that a visitor interaction with the site is represented.”

Content using Ajax, Flash or widgets isn’t captured as page views by most Web analytics programs, either.  This leads to undercounts in page views – which is definitely a problem for ad-supported online publishers.

Visits, according to Langshur, may get closer to engagement, but “a visit on its own does not define engagement,” and visits need to be taken into account with everything else a user does on the site.

Problems with the reporting agencies: A crop of agencies, new and old, have rushed to the Web analytics market for newspapers – some common names include Omniture, comScore, Nielsen, and Google Analytics.

Segal and Chinn point out some problems with the data collection. comScore and Nielsen rely on panel data — a really sophisticated sampling method of the behavior of a selected group of individuals. This is problematic for news organizations for few reasons, but primarily because most businesses aren’t particularly keen on having their employees set up trackers on work computers, and that’s where lots of online news reading takes place.

Then, these numbers don’t match up with Omniture or Google Analytics data – which don’t use panel software – and these companies in turn may not take into account the idiosyncrasies of individual websites.

What’s a news organization to do?: If the answer lies in engagement, as we have suggested, this means that news organizations are going to have to come up with their own specific measures for tracking audience behavior and making a valid claim that resonates with advertisers. Gone are the days when a single measure could account for it all, and gone are the days when newsrooms could take a single snapshot of the industry all at once.

Engagement is only a starting point. But it gives news organizations and advertisers a sense of how people are actually using their sites – and it’s a uniquely customizable opportunity that allows news organizations to sell their strengths.

Chinn said, “The Web is trackable.  Audiences are knowable. It is up to each advertiser and to up to each Web publication to know what their audiences are and what to provide for advertisers.”

Engagement, then, will be a “measure of myriad things based on the kinds of products that a website has,” she said. “There’s all kinds of talk on what is the algorithm for engagement and the truth is that ‘It depends.'”

About Nikki Usher

Nikki Usher is a doctoral student at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California.


  1. Great article and alot to think about. I feel newspaper is dying a slow death. Advertisers are no longer going to use them in the future due to consumers using the internet to search for their needs.