Mine’s bigger than yours, I think

It’s billed as the most measurable medium in the world, yet ironically, for a long time internet measurement in South Africa has been in somewhat of a flux.

While there is no doubting the veracity and integrity of the readership figures being put forward by reputable online publishers, it’s been difficult to get a completely accurate picture of website readership in South Africa.

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In the early days of the wild, wild web there were very few rules and regulations in place to monitor online publications’ readerships. To date, the problem has been that websites have had their own measurement methodologies and technologies, with relatively ill-defined rules.

JP Farinha, who heads up the Online Publisher’s Association (OPA) Measurement Committee, points out that — like with any medium — different methodologies of measurement will produce different results. This means we have been unable to compare like with like. The stats have been “incomparable” rather than “inaccurate”, he says.

Online publications boast big numbers. IOL has about one million readers, with Media24 and M-Web not too far behind this mark. But in the absence of one central auditing body, how can anyone be sure these figures are completely accurate?

The issue led to a very public spat between IOL, Media24 and the Internet stats authority ABC-e, eventually precipitating the demise of ABC-e. Indeed, says Farinha, over the last two years a number of online publishers became increasingly unhappy with the way the numbers were reported. These publishers eventually ceased reporting figures to ABC-e, which then ceased reporting figures to the market.

So the question remains: How are internet sites counting their readers?

Enter the OPA. The recently formed non-profit organisation, which represents South Africa’s top online publishers, has stepped forward to sort out the internet statistics quagmire once and for all.

This means that South Africa’s major websites will use one central statistics system. It means we are measuring apples with apples. It means we will have an accurate gauge of the kind of readerships websites in South Africa are attracting in relation to each other.

In the near future, finding out who the top 20 online publishers in South Africa are, could be as simple as visiting a website that has a live, real-time list. For agencies this means access to one system telling them where the online eyeballs are blinking.

After a fairly exhaustive selection process, the OPA chose the New York and Sydney-based company RedSheriff to run the new stats system and patrol South Africa’s web traffic. It’s good to be on the same side as the Aussies for a change.

RedSheriff is recognised as the largest provider of web analytics in the world, operates in 52 countries, with an impressive list of big online companies such as Yahoo!, BBC Online, MSN, AOL, CNN, Lycos, MTVi, National Geographic, General Motors, HSBC, and Forbes. Now South African online brands such as M-Web, News24, IOL, Ananzi, Mail & Guardian Online, iafrica.com, Moneyweb, Itweb, Supersport and CareerJunction are set to join this list.

By choosing to bed with an overseas statistics body, it means South Africa will be able to benchmark itself against overseas websites that employ similar stats systems. In a very short space of time we will know with alarming accuracy where South Africa’s big online players stack up compared to the rest of the world.

The internet’s ability to form a direct one-to-one relationship with its readers means it should be able to measure its readership with far more accuracy than any other medium. As Mr Farinha puts it, in theory, internet sites are able to measure which customers look at what content, how much of it they consume, and at what times they do so. This is unlike many other mediums, which mainly rely on samples and surveys.

This kind of intelligence is the medium’s innate strength and selling point and that is why the medium needs to get it right.

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