Online newspaper metrics? The grey lady doth protest too much, methinks

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 29 January 2012

There’s been quite a fuss around the latest set of usage figures for news websites, with comScore suggesting that Mail Online has overtaken the New York Times as the world’s leading online newspaper. The Times has taken the odd step of both disputing the figures and the relevance - saying the inclusion of thisismoney distorted the number by adding an extra million or so. Spokesperson Eileen Murphy added

“a quick review of our site versus the Daily Mail should indicate quite clearly that they are not in our competitive set.”

The grey lady doth protest too much, methinks.

The Mail’s trajectory is such that I doubt whether the extra bit of traffic from their finance site will be the significant difference in a month’s time, and if you didn’t see them as a competitor, why comment at all?

Especially as I think we are beginning to see a fight over out-moded metrics.

ComScore are quite clear that their methodology, based on a panel and supplemented with their own tags, excludes mobile duplication. But I’m equally clear that during the course of any given month, I must register in the analytics tools of nearly every major news site in the world from a variety of mobile devices, laptops and desktop machines, as well as via some brand specific apps. And I’m not alone in being promiscuous with my use of news sources, and owning more than one device that can connect to the internet.

Predictions that mobile usage of the net would overtake fixed desktop usage have tended to suggest that 2014 or 2015 is the likely cross-over point. We are hurtling towards that faster than ever - back in February Google’s Eric Schmidt said of mobile growth “We look at the charts internally and it’s happening faster than all of our predictions.”

As news sites start saying that 30%, 35%, 40%, 50%, and 60% of their audience are connecting via mobile, it becomes untenable to sell to advertisers the idea that these people are mutually exclusive from the desktop users, and selling their eyeballs twice.

Just as “hits” died as a measure of web activity, I think “monthly unique users” is on its way out. I’m impressed with the Mail’s digital strategy and the audience growth it has brought - but they may have just won the game at the very point where the rules change.

Piling up “unique cookies” just isn’t going to be good enough to impress advertisers in a world of ubiquitous smartphone access to news.

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