Gordon MacMillan studies the possible pitfalls of an audit system that
will help quantify Website impacts
Advertising on the Web has been an unknown quantity to date. Advertisers
used to detailed audience measurement systems in mainstream media have
so far accepted there is no objective way of quantifying impacts on the
However, with an international audit agreement on its way, this is about
Agreement was reached in early October by the International Federation
of Audit Bureaux of Circulations to establish an international standard
for monitoring Website activity (Campaign, 11 October). It is an
important step that has come at just the right time.
Such an agreement will give the Internet legitimacy as an advertising
medium. It offers the chance of delivering a level of credibility,
accountability and comparability with traditional media that will be
warmly welcomed by those developing content for it.
For the Internet, a global standard is crucial because, unlike the
majority of magazines and newspapers, it operates on a global basis.
Distance is no barrier. A Website that sits on a server in San Francisco
is no more difficult to access than a Website in Glasgow, and it is on
this global basis that they compete.
A standard developed country by country would therefore be less
effective for the Internet than an international standard.
But why is it so important to develop a global standard now? Internet
commerce in Europe is growing so fast it will be worth pounds 1.25
billion by the year 2000, according to the research group, Data Monitor.
Advertisers are therefore crying out for auditing and, if a global
system isn’t arrived at, individual countries will be forced to come up
with their own.
Richard Foan, the deputy director of the ABC UK, says: ‘If we leave it
another year, it will be too late. I think the Web as a medium has one,
and only one, opportunity to create a single global standard of
measurement and now is the time to do it. Otherwise, we will end up with
different data and audits. The UK will agree one thing, the US another,
and so on.’
Jane Ostler, the head of digital communications at the Network, agrees.
‘At the moment, we just buy numbers, impressions, which isn’t
However, in an uncertain world one thing is clear - it won’t be an easy
process. There are a number of potential sticking points.
The mathematics alone of the 32 audit bureaux working together, not to
mention the politics, is likely to be a serious stumbling block. It is
a case of imagining the European Union and doubling the number of chairs
around the table.
On top of that, there are obvious technical difficulties. The Internet
is a young medium but it is quickly evolving as technology enables fresh
and more exciting evolutionary developments. This year, the issues are
Java and Frames - next year they are likely to be completely different.
The respective ABCs will have to keep track and take account of all of
In practice, what an ABC audited Website will offer is a range of
information from the basic number of visitors to a site through to more
complex data that will allow advertisers to target sites with the kind
of precision that is currently only available to direct marketers. An
audit will offer, for example, information about exactly where the
visitors are located and what it is they do.
The comprehensive nature of an ABC Web audit will be an inducement that
could well pave the way for a great many more advertisers to use the
Nigel Sheldon, the head of Thompson Interactive at J. Walter Thompson,
says: ‘You only have to look at the advertisers in the UK using the Net
to see it is still about pioneers - brands such as Barclays and
Vauxhall. Anything that lends credibility and authenticity will be an
Perhaps more importantly, a proper audit should do away with the bogus
claims that are made by some sites about the number of people who
regularly use them.
A site claiming 100,000 visitors a week or a month has, until now, gone
unchallenged, leading advertisers either to part company with large
amounts of money to have a presence on the site, or stay clear of it
It is the chance to put a stop to this kind of practice that Robin Hunt,
the head of the Guardian New-Media Lab, particularly welcomes. He says:
‘Certain online publications have been able to make wild claims about
how successful their sites are, which creates a very distorted picture
of the world.’
Furthermore, Hunt predicts that it will spell good news for the best UK
Websites which, armed with an international ABC audit, will be able to
compete with the best sites from the US and South-east Asia, among
‘I think the recently launched magazine from the New-Media Lab, Shift
Control, is a global brand,’ he adds. ‘It just happens to come from
Britain. If we do good sites that people come to, it makes our job
easier. With this kind of initiative we know exactly where we are, which
is what a newspaper circulation manager or magazine publisher knows
The internet auditing process
1 First, a standard certificate will be issued demonstrating the level
of traffic through a site.
2 Further certificates will follow showing:
* Who is visiting a site
* Where they are from
* What type of people they are
* What the most important part of a site is
* It may also be possibile to show how many times ads are accessed