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:
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.
*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."
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.
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.
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.
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