Who is counting clicks and how

There are lots of ways to measure Web traffic. Here’s a glance at some of the more common approaches

By Catherine Holahan (Business Week)

A host of companies are doing their level best to keep tabs on how many people are visiting a given Web site, and what those users do while they are there. Some use tags installed on a user’s Web browser, while others extrapolate surfing habits from a sample audience. A handful use a combination of several methods. Here’s a glance at a range of approaches, with a look at what each has to say about one popular online video site, Metacafe.

Alexa Internet, owned by Amazon (AMZN)

What: Provides Web-site traffic rankings based on page views and users, and data on site “reach,” the percentage of total Internet users who visit the site
How: Monitors sites visited by Web surfers who have downloaded its toolbar, which provides safety data and other information for Web sites

Strengths: Includes country-specific numbers and data on trends; information is free and publicly available

Weaknesses: Panel may be weighted in favor of those who visit affiliated sites such as Amazon; tends to favor sites popular in countries where its toolbar has taken off, such as China; excludes users who surf using Opera or AOL/Netscape (TWX); count can be skewed by technologies such as Ajax that let parts of a page change without reloading

What It Says About Metacafe: Three-month average traffic rank is 148; average reach is 0.37%; site fell 15 notches in rankings over three months, and reach declined 5%.

Compete Inc.

What: Monitors surfing behavior of a panel of 2 million consumers

How: Culls panel from people who have downloaded its toolbar in exchange for information on site safety, traffic, and financial deals; randomly surveys panelists on Internet use; buys data from Internet service providers; devising an approach that uses tracking tags, which sit on a site and monitor visits from IP addresses

Strengths: Large panel; supplements toolbar data with survey data, making it less vulnerable to bias; statistically balances panel to better reflect U.S. population; snapshots free and open to the public

Weaknesses: Traffic reported for smaller sites may differ from those sites’ own measurements if Compete’s panel fails to include enough of the site’s audience

What It Says About Metacafe: 2.5 million unique visitors in March, up 35.6% from the prior month; rank is 602, up 263 notches


What: Tracks the behavior of more than 2 million people

How: Panel made up of people who have downloaded its monitoring software in exchange for security software and the chance to win prizes

Strengths: Lage panel; statistically balances panel to reflect U.S. population; can provide detailed demographic analysis on user behavior

Weaknesses: Traffic reported on smaller sites may suffer if the panel does not reflect enough of that site’s members

What It Says About Metacafe: 5.6 million unique visitors March, 2007, up 40% over the previous month. Site rank by unique visitors: 171.

Google Analytics (GOOG)

What: Measures traffic of participating Web sites

How: Uses JavaScript tracking tags

Strengths: Tracks number of hits, unique visitors; can tell where users are and whether they performed certain tasks, such as clicking on an ad; free to site publishers, though data not publicly available

Weaknesses: It does not provide detailed demographic data such as gender, age, or income; unique visitor numbers can be inflated if a large number of people delete tracking tags on their machines by erasing cookies

What It Says About Metacafe: Not available


What: Measures Web traffic for general public

How: Uses a census-based approach, using data culled from 25 million Web users worldwide, including 10 million in the U.S.; obtains data by purchasing anonymous information on IP addresses from a variety of ISPs

Strengths: Very large panel, closer to a census

Weaknesses: Doesn’t release source of IP addresses; critics say users of certain ISPs may be biased towards or against certain sites

What It Says About Metacafe: Not available

Omniture (OMTR)

What: Monitors Web traffic and site usage for paid subscribers

How: Relies on cookies and JavaScript tracking tags embedded on Web pages to monitor IP addresses that visit Web sites

Strengths: Like Google Analytics, deduces geographic location of users, what sites they are coming from, and what users do once on a page

Weaknesses: Cookies don’t provide the detailed demographic analysis that panels produce

What It Says About Metacafe: Between 10 million and 15 million visitors per month, according to Allyson Campa, Metacafe’s vice-president for marketing

Nielsen//NetRatings (NTRT)

What: Tracks computer behavior of a panel numbering roughly 550,000 people, about 400,000 of whom are in the U.S.

How: Panelists selected via random telephone surveys

Strengths: Software sits on panel members’ desktops, tracking everything they do when on the computer, including the sites they visit, how much time they spend on particular pages, and what they are doing while on those pages; NetRatings collects detailed demographic data on all its panelists; plans to include data from tracking tags and cookies into measurements

Weaknesses: Panel is small, compared to some others; audience of smaller sites may not be reflected in its composition

What It Says About Metacafe: Roughly 3 million unique visitors in June, the last month for which the information was publicly released


What: Tracks Web surfing habits for general public

How: Uses cookies and tags to track IP addresses that visit unique sites; buys information from ISPs; has a panel of registered users, though it is unclear about its size; rates traffic and provides demographic data for more than 20 million sites

Strengths: Relies on variety of methods; provides detailed demographics including income, gender, age, and ethnicity; lets Web sites install tracking tags enabling it to better record the traffic to smaller, less statistically significant sites

Weaknesses: Data on U.S. Internet users only; launched in September, site is relatively new

What It Says About Metacafe: 2 million unique visitors a month

Internal Server Logs

What: Used by individual companies to track traffic to own sites

How: Registers IP addresses that visit the site, how long each computer spent, and whether any actions were performed on the site, such as clicking on an ad

Strengths: Server logs can elucidate where people are coming from when they visit the site, where they go when they leave, who is linking to the site, who has bookmarked the site, and which search engines have found the site. They also will mark each and every IP visit

Weaknesses: Don’t provide demographic data about visitors; numbers are often not trusted because they come from the companies themselves

What It Says About Metacafe: More than 10 million unique visitors per month, according to Metacafe’s own logs