Canadian Magazine Industry News
19 September 2008,    
Website auditing: What you need to know

As the online advertising market continues to grow and publishers focus on growing their online businesses, many are wondering whether website auditing is a sound investment.

Neal Lulofs, senior vice president of communications and strategic planning at the Audit Bureau of Cirulations (ABC), believes, unsurprisingly, that the publishing industry will greatly benefit from independent website audits.

“The trend in the marketplace today is that print publications are multimedia brands,” Lulofs says. “For advertisers, [a third-party audit] gives them the assurance that the information is correct and accurate.”

What are the basics?

There are several methods of measuring online activity readily available to any website host, including log file reports (not verified by a third party), ratings (using a sample audience) and an audit, where log files are verified through an independent organization such as ABC or BPA/Canadian Circulations Auditing Bureau (CCAB).

But there can be disadvantages to some of these measuring techniques. Polling a sample audience may not guarantee consistency. Robots and spiders (programs that run without human involvement) are reflected in a website’s log files and require filters or manual intervention to remove.

And, as Tim Peel, Canadian vice president of BPA Worldwide, points out, even the log file audit method can cost time and money.

“When you are talking about [the Internet], a current medium which is fast and efficient, it can be a very lengthy audit process in order to relay the information to the marketplace,” says Peel. “We have to let a whole month pass then get the log files, analyze them and then report that information.”

Recently, BPA Worldwide announced it is teaming with Nielsen Online to offer top-line website data on publisher circulation statements without increasing fees. The technique they are implementing is a tag-enabled census, tracking traffic using tags placed on members’ web pages. After beta testing is completed in December, this process will be available to all of BPA’s members and the log file method of auditing will no longer be practiced come January 2009. BPA will also conduct an annual audit of Nielsen Online to ensure that correct number of tags per page is being adhered to.

Where can I report this information?

Reporting top-line data on your circulation statement is one way to easily present this information. It can incorporate various website data for the period reflected, including page impressions, visits and unique users. Any other information that the publisher wishes to include can be reported on a statement that offers expanded website data and can be unique to the member’s needs.

If a publisher wants to reflect additional figures relevant to its brand – such as website, event and e-newsletter information - the major auditing bureaus offer statements that present this information alongside their print circulation.

What websites can be included?

In order to have a website reflected alongside your print circulation analysis, it must be directly related to the publication’s brand; that is, if the parent company has an additional website that they wish to have audited that is not part of the magazine’s banner, it must be reflected in a separate statement under a separate membership.

Where do digital editions fit?

For companies with digital editions, Lulofs stresses that this is entirely different from any website or e-newsletter information that may be included on an audit. If the digital edition meets certain criteria, the subscribers can be counted as qualified circulation on their ABC publisher’s statement. BPA also has guidelines on how digital publications differ from website traffic and e-newsletters, which do not qualify as digital publications.

But should I?

According to Judy Watson, group online director of the ZenithOptimedia agency, an independent audit can sometimes mean the difference between landing an ad contract and being left in the dust.

“There is a lot of choice in the marketplace. It’s the reputation of the supplier – are they audited, do they provide good customer service – that dictates whether or not we use them,” she explains. “It’s definitely one of the criteria that we look at.”

However, there are exceptions to the rule. If a website is the perfect fit for a client but lacks the third-party stamp of approval, Watson doesn’t necessarily see it as reason to shop elsewhere. Looking at the client’s needs on an ad-to-ad basis can often preempt the need of an independent audit.

The overwhelming advantage of third-party website audits is that all parties are playing on a level playing field, adhering to the same rules and allowing an equal, unbiased analysis of website activity. In the end, it is about educating your circulation and sales staff and knowing what your market expects.

— Rachel Debling
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