Unique losers – ABCe figures not shaping up?

How do you measure the success of a news website? How do you quantify its reach and popularity for the benefit of advertisers? Maybe there is no perfect, one-size-fits-all answer.

The current ABCe measure of different pairs of eyes on a site each month – unique users (UUs) – sometimes feels like about the worst fudge you could get from a regional newspaper viewpoint. 

The trouble is, successfully attracting UUs is less about serving a community with content, more about appealling to as many different groups as possible. Fine, perhaps, for a national site which is gunning for a global audience on just about every topic going. But I have a problem with it for local news sites.

Take a non-geographical site as an analogy. Say, for instance, you run an ice hockey website and pump out quality ice hockey stories – dozens of them – you’ll have a good ice hockey site, but you’ll get rapidly diminishing returns in terms of UUs because you are tapping into the same audience day after day. If, however, you throw up a load of ice hockey stories, then slip in football, darts, wrestling and origami stories you pull in users who wouldn’t normally check out an ice hockey site. Random content = unique user glory = bad website. And that practice is common in my experience, if not in quite such an extreme form.

I’m a metrics addict and I consume any data I can get my hands on regarding my own site and those of rivals. As a result I’m aware of sites which are almost on a par with my own in terms of UUs, and yet they get half as many visits per day and one third as many page impressions. In ABCe terms these sites are comparable to www.sunderlandecho.com, but in reality they are not serving their audience – and therefore their advertisers – anywhere near as well. Not of course that I claim the Echo site is perfect.

It’s this battle between delivering big numbers and generating repeat visits from a fairly small audience in Wearside which consumes much of my strategic thinking as a digital editor. And its seems that this strategic dilemma – between capturing massive numbers to pull in CPM advertising amd thinking smaller to create ‘good’, targeted sites – which is being mulled in the boardrooms of publishing giants.

For me there’s no one media giant that is worse than another. Titles from all denominations are guilty of volume publishing for SEO reasons and scattergun user-baiting. The latter is so easy to do… I don’t pretend to possess secret skills when I say that I could – with relative ease – double the number of unique users on the Echo site, but I’d be a little shy about my most popular stories widget as it would reveal the usual litany of link bait directed at everyone BUT my core audience.

So what are the alternatives for measuring site performance? Page impressions? At least the the numbers are higher, so they are theoretically harder to fake.

Downsides? High PIs can reflect poor navigation and even these stats are easy to massage. Trinity Mirror titles – to give one example – use that horrific device of a second page of content which forces you to create another click half-way down an article to see the end of a story. Old skool and very poor, if you ask me. And there are other loopholes – for instance in how clicks on video delivery platforms are counted…

What’s left, then? Time on site? Repeat visitors? I’m willing to bet that almost every local newspaper website in the country would score poorly in these terms. What does that tell you about websites? For me it says they aren’t yet hitting the mark in terms of delivering local news for local folk. Put simply – they’re not yet good enough. And surely the only way to really make money out of local news sites is by providing a reliable, quality service that speaks to the local audience at the expense of random users – it’s almost an anti-SEO argument, I suppose.

I say let’s ditch the yolk of unique users and find a proper way to measure a site’s successs. Any ideas?

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