More about newspapers online, and more reason to doubt the worth of Nielsen Net Ratings.

Two weeks ago Nielsen released figures that showed astronomical increases in the readership of newspapers online. I expressed scepticism about the Nielsen figures in Crikey.

The Nielsen figures showed the Sydney Morning Herald’s average monthly unique browsers were up 66% to 4.4 million year on year. The Age was up 55% to 2.9 million, The Herald Sun up 145%, the Telegraph up 155% and the Courier-Mail up 142%.

Today, Hitwise, the leading provider of intelligence on how the internet is used, has released its own figures, which show that while traffic to News and Media print websites is growing strongly (as one would expect), it is not by anything like the percentage increases recorded by Nielsen.

In its newsletter released today, Hitwise says traffic to newspaper websites overall has grown by 17.6% year on year . The leading News & Media Print websites in April 2008 were Sydney Morning Herald with 14.25% share, followed by The Age (10.39%), Herald Sun (5.81%), The Daily Telegraph (3.62%), and The Australian (3.4%).

Hitwise research analyst Sandra Hanchard readily admits that Nielsen and Hitwise are not measuring the same thing. Nielsen measures unique browsers – which, as pointed out by readers responding to our earlier story, may or may not equate to individuals. Figures can be boosted when a single person uses several different computers to access a site several times during the day.

So what does Hitwise measure? Hard to say, precisely. The company uses a “patented methodology” to capture online usage, and naturally enough they are not going to release the details.

While direct comparisons with other measurement systems are problematic, there must surely be some explanation for the wide disparity. This article on similar and equally dubious stratospheric increases in English newspapers’ online readership is relevant.

Meanwhile an interesting factor showing up in the Hitwise figures is changes in the way news site brands work.

Of the traffic to print news sites, 13.34% came from Google, suggesting that a substantial number of people do not head straight to a trusted news site, but instead search for the subjects in the news, then follow the links.

For example, Hitwise says that popular search terms driving traffic to news print websites for the week ending 17 May 2008 included ‘jessica jacobs’, ‘china earthquake’, ‘sex in the city’, and ‘indiana jones’.

The significance of this is that while many searchers will inevitably end up on the mainstream media sites, a good and relevant blogger on the topic, or a specialist web-based publication, might also do well.

The sites that do best will be those with the most relevant content – whether generated by their own journalists, or aggregated from elsewhere.

As might be expected, mainstream News & Media website owners are trying to stay ahead of the game by increasingly bidding for Google’s search terms, to make sure that pay per click ads for their sites appear when readers key in popular search terms.

Another interesting emerging trend is the role of social networking sites. Hitwise says Facebook was in fifth position as a driver of traffic to print news websites, which adds to other data suggesting that in the future what we consume in the way of media may be largely governed by what our online network suggests is worthy of our attention. I’ve written more about this trend and its implications here.

All very interesting, but in the meantime while readership online is undoubtedly growing, the stratospheric numbers suggested by the Nielsen figures should be regarded with scepticism.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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