Neilsen/NetRatings rocked the online world recently with its announcement that it was no longer going to rank websites based on number of page views, but rather on total time spent by users on individual websites.

This huge shift in methodology reflects the growth of technologies such as AJAX and tools such as widgets that are making it hard to even define page views these days, much less measure them. Though this shift in approach doesn't completely solve measurement problems, it does start a useful conversation about the quality of traffic on websites, putting a new emphasis on audience engagement as opposed to the raw number of visits.

Neilsen has its roots in measuring audience for broadcast media, and NetRatings uses panels and sampling to derive its rankings, so most B2B sites don't hit its radar at all. On a practical level, for most of us, this shift has no short-term significance. What makes it potentially important, however, is if this move by Neilsen/NetRatings prompts a fundamental shift in how advertisers value online advertising. Of course, in the realm of pay-for-performance advertising, the only measurement that matters is click-throughs, making this move much ado about nothing.

Interestingly, the winners in this new view of audience measurement are likely to be B2B sites with deep and useful content, and the losers will be search engines, which by design move their visitors off their sites quickly. As advertisers grow increasingly comfortable with the web as a brand-building vehicle, this could well work to shift the balance of power back towards business information publishers.

As this new approach to site measurement evolves, publishers should also be taking a hard look at their own average visits duration statistics to make sure they are as good as they can be. There are lots of website design tricks that can be utilized to lengthen average visit duration (hopefully without annoying visitors too much), and certain types of content, particularly video and user-generated content, are well- known to have a huge and favorable impact on average visit length. But gimmicks and trendy media formats (unless they really make sense for your content) only get you so far. Quality of an audience is what has gotten lost in the online advertising game, but that is what really delivers ROI at the end of the day.

PS: What's a widget? Find out all about widgets and how they can help grow your information business at InfoCommerce 2007.

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