Nielsen Alters Web Ratings, Favoring AOL Over Google

By Kendra Marr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Nielsen/NetRatings has changed the way it rates Web sites and in the process has upended the rankings of the top online destinations, vaulting AOL and Yahoo over rival Google.

The research service announced yesterday it would measure popularity by how long users linger on sites, not by how many pages they view, a move that could affect how online advertising works.

This new measure will report the total time spent for all visitors and provide a better understanding of users' total engagement of Web pages and volume of traffic, Nielsen said.

Use of programs such as instant messaging and e-mail propelled AOL, Yahoo and MSN/Windows Live to the top three rankings.

Making the biggest leap, AOL moved to the No. 1 U.S. site, logging 25 billion minutes, according to Nielsen's May data. If ranked by Web page views, AOL would be No. 6.

Google dropped to fifth from third by page view ranking by minutes of use, at about 7 billion minutes.

"AOL has worked very hard to increase user engagement," said spokeswoman Amy Call. "This new rating is validation."

The change in audience measurement comes as the frequent use of online video and streaming sports scores and stock quotes make the number of page views increasingly irrelevant to a Web site's popularity.

New technology has also altered the way consumers engage sites. For example, a system called Ajax automatically refreshes Web page content without the user clicking to reload the page, which reduced the number of page views in the old rankings. Now new e-mails also appear without pressing the "check mail" button. Nielsen rival ComScore addressed these changes in March by measuring the frequency with which users return to sites.

"It's a step forward in reflecting the changing technology and needs for the business," said Lynn Bolger, vice president of Yahoo's advertising and sales research. "It's a better indicator of what the audience is actually doing."

Google said it does not comment on third-party research.

Jennifer Simpson, a senior analyst for Yankee Group, said the new rankings may prompt advertisers to change they way they present and place ads. It could also hurt search engines like Google that generally serve as pit stops for users looking for something else.

"The longer eyeballs are on a Web site, those pages potentially have more engagement with individual," Simpson said. "And that's more time to see advertising displayed."

"Social networking sites versus search sites have very different levels of engagement," she said. "You might spend a minute and a half doing a Google search and spend five to 10 minutes on a friend's MySpace page. It'll be interesting to see the shift in advertising dollars."

Measuring how long visitors spend on a site benefits pages with online gambling and other Internet applications.

Electronic Arts Online broke into the top 10 thanks to the amount of time users spend on its gaming site Nielsen reported. And Microsoft and Apple benefited from the popularity of Windows Media Player and iTunes.

Sheryl Draizen, senior vice president of Interactive Advertising Bureau, said this measurement method isn't definitive. While tracking the time spent on Web pages is important in measuring volume, there are other methods to explore.

"We have to be cautious that not everyone leaps to the conclusion that the time spent metric is the replacement to page view metric," said Draizen, whose group represents online media companies. "We're not sure what the industry agrees to at this time."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company