What Nielsen's Metric Shift Means - And What It Doesn't Mean

Nielsen’s decision to stop tracking page views and focus instead on time-spent has the blogosphere in a tizzy. And to be sure: the metric shift immediately generates some eye-popping factoids: AOL, for instance, becomes the top site on the web, due to its still-dominant IM platform, while Google drops to fifth place (If that isn’t an indication of the limited relevance of web ratings, nothing is). Yahoo’s embrace of Ajax, meanwhile, helps lift it above News Corp./MySpace. 

These are great tidbits for cocktail chatter.  But the instant consensus that this measurement change will create a paradigm shift in web site design is silly, for a couple of reasons:

1)    First, sites that manipulate their design to bump up page views will just do the same thing with time spent. In fact, some of the same techniques should still work: Automated slide shows that serve images whether or not a user asks for them, for instance, will still provide an artificial ratings boost. The metric change also won’t affect alternate distribution methods (RSS feeds, podcasts etc) that haven’t been able to generate much in the way of ad dollars yet.

2)     Second, the truly significant change in Web design is yet to come, and will be spurred by even more ad dollars moving to the Web. As hard as it is to believe, the Internet ad business is still nascent. Strip out dollars spent on search marketing, and the Internet represents just a few percentage points of marketers’ overall ad budgets.  This means that marketers are actually still not paying close attention, relatively speaking, to how those dollars are being spent.

Power follows money, which means that at most marketers, media buying companies, etc., Internet campaigns are still overseen by junior staff, while top execs still concentrate on traditional media. When those execs start paying closer attention to the web – or when today’s vps become tomorrow’s senior vp’s, you’ll start to see real change in web design. Like what?  No firm ideas, but perhaps web pages with multiple advertisers, all fighting for eyeballs at the same time, may go away, replaced by pages with a single sponsor.  In the meantime, consider the to-and-fro over today’s metrics a warm up for truly significant changes in web design.

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