For now, no Web-site operator really knows what her true traffic is. Neither the panel nor the census system is perfect, but by going back and forth between the two, publishers and advertisers can make relative comparisons within their market. That’s how the industry has continued to push forward.

“Sites do come to us with their own internal information, but we are still going to use the syndicated [panel] tools available,” says Julian Zilberbrand, the associate director of digital ad operations at MediaVest, a major online advertising buyer. “The truth will lie somewhere in between.”

But there is some hope for reconciliation between the two standards of counting traffic.

That’s where George Ivie, executive director and CEO of the Media Ratings Council (MRC), comes in. The council is a not-for-profit trade association formed in the wake of the 1960 Harris Committee Hearings. The committee investigated the business practices of radio and television and concluded that the broadcast media would self-regulate, including performing independent audits to determine the size of its audience. The ratings council was created to set standards for measuring broadcast audiences and to accredit organizations, like Nielsen, that measure those audiences. “We haven’t changed that much since the 1960s in that we have a focused mission—to try to improve for the industry the quality of media measurements,” says Ivie.

In 2002, the council turned its attention to the Internet, and has found it to be a different kind of beast entirely than TV and radio. The first thing that it did was write standards for audience census data, which include page views, clicks on a page, and time spent on a site—all the new types of audience measurement born with the Internet.

News organizations that want their traffic counts to be accredited by the ratings council must first adopt the council’s standards, which include, for example, counting only content that is accessed through an end browser. (Some organizations would count URLs sent through e-mail as a page impression, without actually verifying that the site was ever visited through a browser.)

To date, the council’s standards have been agreed to only by its 108 affiliate news and advertising organizations. And only a handful of these affiliate organizations—including Yahoo, msn, Weather.com, Univision, AOL, and advertisers like Atlas and DoubleClick—have been audited by the MRC, giving these operations an advantage when negotiating advertising rates.

More important, though, the MRC began auditing comScore and Nielsen/ NetRatings in 2006, a five-phase process that won’t be complete until later this year. Ivie says this will allow a reconciliation between panel- and census-based traffic estimates. “When we are done with the auditing, I’ll tell you how I feel about their random-digit panels,” says Ivie. “How do we know they are representative of the U.S.? Right now, I don’t.”

One concern, however, is that before the auditing of comScore and Nielsen/ NetRatings is complete, the volatile online world will produce a new silver bullet in traffic metrics.

Last July, for instance, Nielsen/Net-Ratings decided that time spent on a site was more important than total Web page views, an acknowledgment of changing online habits that include watching video (which can keep readers on a site longer) and Ajax, computer coding that allows a visitor to interact with a Web page—voting, tagging, or moving parts of the page around—without having to reload an entirely new page. At the same time, having a window open on a site for hours doesn’t mean the visitor is “engaged” the whole time—he could have simply gone to get a cup of coffee—which makes “time spent” an incredibly tough metric to measure accurately.

In a few years there could be an entirely new way to describe how news organizations measure their online relevance. If that does turn out to be the case, the Media Ratings Council and the news industry are, once again, going to have more catching up to do. But that’s the nature of an evolving medium whose future is unpredictable. 

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David Cohn is a student at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism.