Yes, we know where you click now

A new technology aimed at monitoring the way we surf is set to bring TV-style rating wars to the internet

Web surfers who value their privacy will have to contend with a new measurement system launched in the UK last week that aims to make internet use as easy to track as TV viewing.

The groundbreaking system, which not only monitors which sites people are going to and how often, also tracks who is visiting and how they've got there. The company behind it claims it will be able to measure over 90 per cent of the world's internet audience in more than 30 countries by the end of next year.

The system has been developed by ACNielsen, which is 80 per cent owned by research giant ACNielsen and 20 per cent owned by NetRatings, a Silicon Valley start-up. NetRatings has developed an application, known as Insight, which allows the detailed tracking the new system guarantees.

Insight can be run on an everyday PC and tracks every click made by the user to gather a diverse selection of information which is then relayed back to the system's control centre in California via the net. As well as monitoring which sites are visited, it also gathers information on which advertising (if any) has been viewed, and whether the surfer conducted a commercial transaction via the web. "It's a very powerful piece of proprietary technology which we believe will make us the world leader in on-line traffic measurement," says Bill Pulver, president of ACNielsen

The approach is similar to the panel-based research used by TV audience measurement systems around the world - such as Barb in the UK - although on a much larger scale. A selection of internet users has been recruited to mirror the profile of the total number of surfers in each country. Each panelist is asked to install the Insight software on their computer, and the program tracks their surfing in real time.

"A number of (other) measurement techniques have been developed," Pulver admits. Some are "site-centric" - logging hits, but these are unable to distinguish between people visiting a site for the first time and those who return many times. Other systems, meanwhile, have been unable to incorporate demographic details. But, Pulver adds: "It is possible for different visitors to a single internet site to view different banner ads depending on whether they have visited that site before. Until now it has not been possible for measurement systems to distinguish between these."

The relevance of Insight is that currently, the vast majority of websites fall into one of two models - advertising and promotional, or e-commerce. Advertising is already a major business with online advertising spend expected to total $24bn by 2003, one estimate suggests. E-commerce, meanwhile, is set for massive growth - estimates for its value in two years' time range from a modest trillion dollars to between two and three trillion.

"Both [advertising and e-commerce] require an understanding of demographics, and tracking of often-common elements - including number of views, and number of transactions," Pulver explains. "The only way to track both is from the panel perspective." As a result, he is confident Insight will become the industry standard for measuring internet use.

ACNielsen was launched last year in the US where 50,000 internet surfers are now monitored daily, round-the-clock. The UK panel involves 9,000 people. The aim is to grow the survey worldwide from the current level of 90,000 people in seven countries to 250,000 people in more than 30 countries by the end of 2001. If it can meet this target, ACNielsen will be able to provide information covering 90 per cent of world internet use, Pulver claims. Worldwide, this will cost the company some $50m in investment over two years.

Latest figures taken from Insight data from the US and preliminary data gleaned by ACNeilsen in the UK during February show some intriguing differences and similarities between the two markets. In the US, 130 million people are now on the net; the UK figure is 16.5 million. In the US, the average surfing session lasts 30 minutes - the same as in the UK, but American surfers are likely to have more sessions a month - 18 compared with the UK's 12.

The busiest times for net use in the US (where ACNielsen monitors both home surfing and office-based internet use) is 7pm midweek - typically, Tuesday and Wednesday evenings. Lunchtimes are also busy. Luckily for those who value their privacy, the system is not yet able to distinguish between individuals' net use for professional and personal use - at least, not yet.

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