My Guardian column this week is a sanded and polished version of recent posting and linking about the death of the page view and, with it, the mass. (Nonregistration version here.)
Just when we were getting used to it, the page view has been declared dead. There are many reasons for its passing, having to do with how web pages are now made and how web content is now distributed. But there is one seismic implication to this – in media, mass is over. Size doesn’t matter.
It was only about a decade ago that I sat on a dreadfully boring committee of the American Audit Bureau of Circulations debating how to define a page view (rather than a hit) as the elemental measurement of new media. This body, which blesses the circulation counts of print products, tried to replicate its world-view online, verifying the circulation – that is, the audience and traffic – of internet properties. But as it turned out, no advertiser or publisher wanted these audits. All marketers cared about was verifying whether they got what they paid for: views, people, clicks. You see, overall circulation mattered only when you and your ads were stuck in the same pages with many other advertisers and you all got the same audience, whether that audience gave a damn about you or not. But now, online, you could find better ways to reach just the people you wanted or who wanted you. Thus, travel advertisers needn’t care about the circulation of Guardian Unlimited, only about who saw their ads on travel pages.
In recent times, the situation has grown more complicated because, on the web, a page is no longer a page. Video can be served on a page, but it is measured in time, not space. Flash and Ajax technology can make any individual page many levels deep, allowing users to interact with content – navigating maps, ordering merchandise, viewing slideshows, chatting – without ever leaving the page. So the activities that once would have added up to a dozen page views will now count as only one. This is having a significant impact on businesses such as Yahoo, which are using these technologies to improve the user experience, reducing clicks in the hopes of increasing time on the site or satisfaction or loyalty. But this reduces page views and with that, bragging rights and, in some cases, revenue.
Now add to this the widgetisation of the web. Content may be displayed not only on your pages but also in widgets – boxes, gadgets and applications – that are embedded in pages elsewhere. This is how much of MySpace is built and how YouTube spreads video all over the internet. The audience becomes the distributor. How do you count that?
And consider Google AdSense modules that are spread all across the web, from NYTimes.com to my humble blog. Shouldn’t each of those be counted as Google page views since Google revenue is attached? Doesn’t that make Google look even more gigantic than it already is? What this really means is that in the new distributed media economy, owning a site doesn’t matter so much as enabling a network. This, in a nutshell, is why Yahoo, the centralised media property, is at a disadvantage versus Google, the distributed network.
Things get even crazier when you consider that if you make a good commercial, the public will distribute it for you on YouTube – advertising becomes content. Now that is really an upside-down world.
Finally, consider the impossibility of the old means of measurement. TV ratings were based on a sampling that determined the proportion of the audience watching, say, channel 2 or 4. But in this new niche world, no sample can possibly be large enough to measure millions of blogs or online TV shows.
But more fundamental than all this is, again, that size doesn’t matter anymore, not in media. Oh, yes, the movie with the biggest box office or the book with the biggest sales still makes the most money – for now at least. But in more and more of the media, mass measurements are obsolete because we are now fragmented into the mass of niches. And the truth is that we, the audience, never cared how many more people were watching what we watched. And advertisers don’t care so much what we’re watching so long as we’re watching them.
In a world of so many choices, the audience care about trust, taste, relevance, usefulness, not ratings. And advertisers care more about targeting, efficiency, engagement, branding and return on investment. These are better measurements than print circulation or broadcast ratings or online page views. And so now, publishers, advertisers and technologists must catch up and change their yardsticks for success yet again. It is time to measure quality over quantity.