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That Was Then, This is Now

Dawn Anfuso
That Was Then, This is Now Dawn Anfuso
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The Web has become an integral part of daily life for more than 150 million Americans. But back in 1996 -- when Media Metrix released the world’s first ranking of the most-visited Web sites -- only about 20 million U.S. households had a home Internet connection.


To celebrate its eight-years of online consumer measurement, comScore Media Metrix (the company was acquired by comScore Networks in June 2002) re-released its January 1996 Web site rankings alongside the January 2004 rankings. 


“In the eight years since the Media Metrix service began tracking Internet use, the Web has grown from a novelty used by a minority of techno-savvy users to a mainstream medium used by the majority of the U.S. population,” says Peter Daboll, president and CEO of comScore Media Metrix. “Comparing this month’s ranking to that of January 1996 provides the numbers behind the fascinating story of how the Internet evolved to become an integral part of mainstream American life.”


The Internet has grown not only in size, but also in scope of application. In the mid-nineties, the Web was dominated by “Internet Service Provider” sites that offered a connection to the Internet (many of which evolved into “portals”), search engines and university sites. Since then, however, the Internet user base has expanded dramatically, high-speed connections have spread beyond corporate and academic campuses, and users have become increasingly dependent on the Internet’s many unique capabilities. As a result, the Internet has emerged as a uniquely powerful and holistic medium. 


Below are rankings of the top ten properties in January 1996 versus January 2004. A full comparison of the top 50 properties is available at the end of this article:




















































































































































Ranking of Top Web Sites*
January 1996
U.S. Home Audience
Source: Media Metrix
  Ranking of Top 50 Online Properties
January 2004
Total U.S. - Home, Work and University Locations
Source: comScore Media Metrix
Rank   Audience Reach   Rank   Home Only All Locations
  Total Internet Population 115 million (100%)     Total Internet Population 100% 134,227 100% 152,443
1 Aol.com 41%   1 Yahoo! Sites 67.1% 90,129 72.7% 110,120
2 Webcrawler.com 33%   2 MSN-Microsoft Sites 66.4% 89,133 71.6% 109,059
3 Netscape.com 31%   3 Time Warner Network 64.3% 86,284 70.8% 107,081
4 Yahoo.com 29%   4 Ebay 41.6% 55,859 47.6% 58,283
5 Infoseek.com 21%   5 Google Sites 34.5% 46,275 39.7% 55,102
6 Prodigy.com 18%   6 Terra Lycos 24.5% 32,841 31.7% 52,163
7 Compuserve.com 14%   7 About/Primedia 21.5% 28,917 27.1% 52,108
8 Umich.edu 10%   8 Amazon Sites 19.6% 26,278 25.0% 40,975
9 Primenet.com 9%   9 Viacom Online 13.9% 18,619 17.4% 37,130
10 Well.com 9%   10 Weather Channel, The 13.2% 17,765 16.2% 31,501




While information and content delivery have surged in popularity, e-commerce properties such as eBay, Amazon, TicketMaster, Orbitz, Expedia and others now rank among the most popular destinations on the Web. In fact, online spending (excluding auctions) is on target to break the $100 billion threshold this year -- another spectacular growth story tracked by comScore Networks.


The Web has had a major impact on a broad range of industries, from retail to entertainment to travel. In January 2004, 83.5 million Americans, or 55 percent of the Internet population, visited either eBay or Amazon, making these sites among the most heavily trafficked retailers in the country -- online or offline. Major entertainment conglomerates, such as Time Warner, Viacom and Disney, have built vast Internet networks that reach tens of millions of Americans every month. Online travel agencies, such as Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity, have revolutionized the travel industry by giving more power to consumers and driving down prices of airfare, hotel rooms and car rentals. Consumers have responded positively and, as a result, the online travel industry has grown from a fledgling business in 1996 to $41 billion in consumer sales in 2003.


A comparison of site and property rankings from 1996 to today also highlights a tremendous amount of consolidation, both in terms of media ownership and audience reach. Time Warner, for example, now controls a number of 1996’s top sites, including AOL.com, Netscape.com, Compuserve.com and Pathfinder.com. While the top three sites of the mid-nineties each reached approximately 4 to 6 million people (representing 30 to 40 percent of total online users), the top three properties of today’s Internet are massive networks owned by Yahoo!, Microsoft and Time Warner, each of which reaches more than 70 percent of the Internet population with audiences exceeding 100 million people each month. Collectively, these three leading networks reach virtually every Internet user in the United States.



































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































Ranking of Top Web Sites*
January 1996
U.S. Home Audience
Source: Media Metrix
  Ranking of Top 50 Online Properties
January 2004
Total U.S. - Home, Work and University Locations
Source: comScore Media Metrix
Rank   Audience Reach   Rank   Home Only All Locations
  Total Internet Population 115 million (100%)     Total Internet Population 100% 134,227 100% 152,443
1 Aol.com 41%   1 Yahoo! Sites 67.1% 90,129 72.7% 110,120
2 Webcrawler.com 33%   2 MSN-Microsoft Sites 66.4% 89,133 71.6% 109,059
3 Netscape.com 31%   3 Time Warner Network 64.3% 86,284 70.8% 107,081
4 Yahoo.com 29%   4 Ebay 41.6% 55,859 47.6% 58,283
5 Infoseek.com 21%   5 Google Sites 34.5% 46,275 39.7% 55,102
6 Prodigy.com 18%   6 Terra Lycos 24.5% 32,841 31.7% 52,163
7 Compuserve.com 14%   7 About/Primedia 21.5% 28,917 27.1% 52,108
8 Umich.edu 10%   8 Amazon Sites 19.6% 26,278 25.0% 40,975
9 Primenet.com 9%   9 Viacom Online 13.9% 18,619 17.4% 37,130
10 Well.com 9%   10 Weather Channel, The 13.2% 17,765 16.2% 31,501
11 CMU.EDU 8%   11 Walt Disney Internet Group 13.3% 17,841 15.8% 31,284
11 GNN.COM 8%   12 Excite Network 13.6% 18,191 15.6% 30,417
13 MCOM.COM 8%   13 CNET Networks 10.8% 14,449 15.2% 30,161
14 MIT.EDU 8%   14 Verizon Communications Corp. 9.7% 12,986 14.1% 29,813
15 TELEPORT.COM 7%   15 Real.com Network 10.1% 13,514 14.1% 28,413
16 GEOCITIES.COM 7%   16 Symantec 10.5% 14,053 13.8% 27,521
16 WEBCOM.COM 7%   17 Tickle, Inc. 8.9% 12,002 12.7% 23,807
16 PENTHOUSEMAG.COM 7%   18 Gorilla Nation Media 10.0% 13,481 11.9% 23,530
19 EXCITE.COM 7%   19 Monster Property 8.7% 11,741 11.8% 21,978
19 UIUC.EDU 7%   20 Shopping.com Sites 8.2% 11,061 11.3% 21,458
19 UCHICAGO.EDU 7%   21 InfoSpace Network 8.2% 11,017 10.9% 20,769
22 CRIS.COM 6%   22 EA Online 10.0% 13,400 10.9% 20,023
23 PLAYBOY.COM 6%   23 ORBITZ.COM 7.8% 10,480 10.6% 19,795
23 LYCOS.COM 6%   24 Expedia Travel 7.7% 10,283 10.6% 19,199
23 BEST.COM 6%   25 CareerBuilder, Inc. 8.3% 11,205 10.2% 19,109
26 CRL.COM 5%   26 Ask Jeeves 8.2% 10,990 10.2% 19,106
26 USTREAS.GOV 5%   27 Weatherbug.com Property 7.7% 10,387 10.0% 19,099
26 NASA.GOV 5%   28 SBC Communications 7.8% 10,419 9.9% 18,650
26 MICROSOFT.COM 5%   29 Cox Enterprises Inc. 7.7% 10,382 9.7% 16,882
26 WASHINGTON.EDU 5%   30 Sony Online 7.2% 9,662 9.7% 16,694
31 DIGITAL.COM 5%   31 Wal-Mart 7.7% 10,367 9.6% 15,519
31 CNET.COM 5%   32 AT&T Properties 7.7% 10,339 9.3% 14,921
31 TURNPIKE.NET 5%   33 Gannett Sites 6.9% 9,196 9.2% 14,773
34 UNC.EDU 5%   34 Classmates.com Sites 7.4% 9,906 9.1% 14,596
34 UTEXAS.EDU 5%   35 E.W. Scripps 7.5% 10,015 8.9% 14,009
34 IBM.COM 5%   36 AmericanGreetings Property 6.9% 9,285 8.8% 13,993
34 COLUMBIA.EDU 5%   37 eUniverse Network 7.2% 9,620 8.7% 13,692
34 UFL.EDU 5%   38 iVillage.com: Womens Network 6.7% 8,970 8.7% 13,434
34 GEOPAGES.COM 5%   39 Adobe Sites 5.6% 7,502 8.5% 13,374
40 USATODAY.COM 4%   40 United Online, Inc 8.1% 10,856 8.5% 13,059
40 TAMU.EDU 4%   41 Dell 6.2% 8,286 8.4% 12,841
40 ONPROD.COM 4%   42 Travelocity 6.2% 8,318 8.2% 12,564
40 ELECTRICITI.COM 4%   43 Vivendi-Universal Sites 5.7% 7,688 8.0% 12,550
40 RPI.EDU 4%   44 NFL Internet Group 6.2% 8,291 7.6% 12,500
40 NETCOM.COM 4%   45 MyFamily Network 6.0% 8,066 7.6% 12,361
40 IGC.NET 4%   46 Trip Network Inc. 5.4% 7,185 7.5% 12,350
40 INFI.NET 4%   47 Comcast Corporation 5.9% 7,888 7.5% 12,325
40 UMN.EDU 4%   48 News Corp. Online 5.4% 7,247 7.5% 11,682
49 HOTSEX.COM 4%   49 Womensforum Sites 5.5% 7,357 7.4% 11,608
49 PATHFINDER.COM 4%   50 Hewlett Packard 5.2% 7,042 7.3% 11,571
49 IOS.COM 4%              
49 WWA.COM 4%              
49 PSC.EDU 4%              
49 OHIO-STATE.EDU 4%              
49 SUPERBOWL.COM 4%              


*Based on best available research at the time

Overall site traffic trends


I'm often surprised to see that most companies aren't paying attention to this simple metric, which is offered by pretty much every analytics package out there. Most business owners have a pretty good idea of how their business is doing based on customers walking through their doors, but they don't seem to pay any attention to web traffic.


Site visits can be a great monitor to determine the impact of your marketing efforts. For example, when I was reviewing site traffic over the past year for one of my clients, I saw that there were two significant increases in traffic to the site that directly correlated to when the client was running TV campaigns. (Yes, that's right -- digital can provide insights into your offline efforts as well). When we probed a little deeper, we also saw an increase in web contact page visits, and the client acknowledged that the phone had rung a bit more during those months.


Overall traffic trends are also greatly affected by online efforts as well. We all know that click-through rates stink; with an industry average response rate under 1 percent, it's amazing we still even talk about them. But when you look a little deeper, you can often see increases in site traffic when banners are running. No, prospects aren't clicking your ad; instead, they are coming to your site directly or searching for you and coming in that way.


Time and time again, I've been able to identify correlations to increased traffic caused by banners -- not from clicks, but from overall traffic to the site from a variety of sources. Digital marketers often tend to down play traditional media because there's no click path, but the reality is there isn't really a click path from most banner campaigns either. They do the same job of other advertising vehicles by increasing awareness and purchase intent, and the way consumers respond today is to do research and learn more online. The data is there, but you have to look for it.

Branded search volume


Search is another great indicator of marketing impact. Most people look at search traffic as a whole (e.g., I get 43 percent of my site traffic from search). But at the top level, overall search traffic can be fairly meaningless.


Search gets interesting when you start looking at it more granularly and segmenting it into branded and non-branded search. Many people are surprised at how much branded search traffic (i.e., people typing a company or product name into a search engine) they receive. This traffic is almost always discounted in a client's mind; after all, these are prospects that are already aware of its brand.


That said, understanding how people become aware is important -- and often overlooked. As I mentioned in the last section, branded search traffic is often affected by advertising. I encourage all of you to take a closer look at your search traffic. Highlight your brand terms and look at the volume the month before, the month during, and the month after your last campaign (be it online, offline, or both). I bet you'll see a difference.


A couple of years ago, I was on a panel at OMMA during which we discussed the commerce impact that Google has and how many sales are directly related to Google searches. I agreed that search does provide that last step to purchase, but it was advertising that made people search for "Snuggie" instead of "blanket with sleeves."

Conversions


People who take a desired action on your site are usually the key to finding business online. So the first step is to identify the desired action. If you have an e-commerce site, conversions are easy to define. But what if you have a B2B or local retail site?


There are a lot of other metrics that can be considered conversions. Email newsletter sign-ups and contact form submissions are some pretty obvious indicators, but there are a lot more things you can consider. For example, a visit to your contact or directions page is probably a pretty good indicator that a person is down the funnel into purchase intent. You can also look at visits to product information pages and sell-sheet downloads to help identify someone as more than just a casual passer-through.


Most businesses spend a lot of time understanding their sales processes -- what makes a customer a cool prospect vs. a hot prospect? Apply those same rules to your website, and you'll start to see how your online content can help move people through the sales process.

Converter traffic


Now that you've got your conversions identified, you've got a great opportunity to understand that audience better. Take a filtered look at your converter web habits, and you'll start to see some interesting trends. For example, take a look at your keyword phrases for all visitors to your website. Then take a look at the same report, but only looking at people who visited your contact page -- you're going to see a different set of phrases.


You might find there's a huge opportunity to grow traffic from prospects searching on terms you're not focused on. Depending on your business, you might also want to take a look at geography reports. Again, you'll likely see different patterns for people who have "converted" compared with your average visitors.


Referrer data


How do people get to your website? Referring site data not only lets you know where your prospects come from, but it can also provide some interesting insights about your audience. Take a deeper look at some of those sites. Many will be exactly what you're expecting, but some of the referring sites might have a different audience than you usually target.


By digging into the referring site list, you'll start to see some indicators of new audiences you might want to pursue. In addition, referring site data can help you understand how your latest online marketing efforts did. Track your referring sites week by week, and it's pretty easy to spot traffic coming in from a social post on Twitter or Facebook, responses to a blog you posted on another site, and even traffic generated by that new site sponsorship you launched.


This is just the tip of the iceberg. There are a lot more ways to look at digital data that not only provide business trends but also provide insights into your prospects and opportunities.


Clicks are a nice easy metric for measuring response -- but they don't tell you the real story. So stop looking at the wrong things. The right data is there. You just need to look a little harder.


Peter Platt is president of PSquared Digital.


On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.


"Financial adviser" image and "retro vector set" image via Shutterstock.

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