Attention businesses who advertise in major online newspapers across the country. I have some good news and some bad news for you:

The good news: Online advertising is very measurable.

The bad news: By my measure, a huge portion of the ads you’re paying for are never seen.

Here is how I came to this conclusion:

This is a ranking of the top-30 online newspaper properties in the United States according to Nielsen based on unique visitors:

Top Newspaper Websites by Visitors (Dec 2008)

As you’d probably expect, the top-5 are:

1. The New York Times	18,187,000
2. USA Today	11,420,000
3. The Washington Post	9,470,000
4. The Los Angeles Times	7,963,000
5. The Wall Street Journal	7,235,000

And here is the same list sorted by a different metric, Time on Site, which is a measure of how many minutes the average visitor to the site spends when visiting:

Time on Site of Top-30 Newspaper Sites (Dec 2008)

The NY Times leads this list as well, but the other four sites manage to beat out some of the top visited sites when measured by time on site.

1. The New York Times	0:33:03
2. Star Tribune	0:32:20
3. The Houston Chronicle 	0:19:20
4. Detroit Free Press	0:17:33
5. The Boston Globe	0:16:55

Glancing through the data, here are a few things Neilsen is essentially claiming:

1. The average visitor to the Minneapolis StarTribune spends 22 minutes longer on site than the average visitor to the Wall Street Journal.

2. The average visitor to the Detroit Free Press spends 2.5 minutes longer on site than the average visitor to the Washington Post.

3. The average visitor to the LA Times spends only half as much time as the average visitor to the Washington Post.

Here’s the deal: I don’t believe any of those statements are actually true. I think they’re statistically accurate based on how Nielsen measures website traffic but are heavily gamed by America’s top newspapers.

Auto-Refresh Hell

Many (actually, most) major newspaper websites have adopted a practice called auto-refresh where they automatically refresh/reload their website’s pages on regular intervals without their visitor’s permission. Among the top-30 newspaper websites, forced auto-refresh frequencies vary from once every 30 minutes to as often as every five minutes. This provides no added value to visitors (in fact, it makes the sites less usable in many cases) but it achieves something important for publishers: inflation of ad impressions.

Here is a breakdown of forced auto-refresh frequency: The further to the left a site is, the more often they force unnecessary refreshes upon their audiences (as high as every 5 minutes). Sites to the far right do not participate in this despicable tactic:

Top-30 Newspapers Auto Refresh Time (Minutes) March 2009

Three sites, The Washington Post, Washington Times, and Dallas Morning News, are currently reloading their site’s pages every 5 minutes. Three more sites are force refreshing every 10 minutes: StarTribune.com, LA Times, and NY Daily News.

Destroying Online Advertising One Auto-Refresh at a Time

I often hear that online advertising doesn’t work from companies who’ve experimented with it through newspaper websites. It turns out that there is a very rational reason for why it doesn’t work: People don’t see a significant portion of the ad impressions.

For example, in the case of the Minneapolis StarTribune, it’s quite common for people to keep the StarTribune open in one of their browser’s tabs overnight so they can check the weather first thing in the morning. If they do that, the StarTribune will continue to refresh the user’s browser every 10 minutes all night long, generating 48 page views over 8 hours of “Time on Site” while the user caught some zzzzz’s. Advertisers end up paying for ads that no one viewed (48 x all of those ads on the page).

By charging for ads no one sees, major media sites are diluting the value of online ads and destroying the perceived viability of online advertising. Clearly, the value of online ads is considerably higher when they’re viewed by humans.

Breaking it Down

As I mentioned above, not all newspaper sites are serving their advertiser’s ads when no one is looking. Forcing refreshes all day and night appears to be a popular way to game the stats, but destroys advertiser’s returns. Below is a ranking of time on site with the forced refresh crowd on the left and the non-refresh (people click to refresh the page themselves if they’d like to) sites on the right:

Time on Site of Top-30 Newspaper Sites (Dec 2008)

What’s notable here is that no newspaper in the country is able to generate 30+, 25+, or even 20+ minute long time on site metrics without gaming the stats with auto-refresh scripts. The Houston Chronicle leads the pack among non-auto refreshed time on site stats by this measure. Outside of Chron.com, no website breaks the 10 minute time on site barrier without gaming their stats, which makes me wonder how Chron.com did it (their auto-refresh status was checked in March 2009 while the stats from Nielsen are from December 2008).

Frankly, this makes me wonder if half the ads the StarTribune.com serves are ever seen. Heck, it may be worse than that.

Combining the above stats generates this perspective:

Top-30 Newspapers by Time on Site (with Auto-Refresh Rates)

Which shows, again, that only one of the top-10 newspaper websites in the country appears to be doing so without forcing automatic 24×7 refreshes upon their visitors.

Who’s the Most Pathetic?

If I has to label one site the most pathetic among the top-30 most visited newspaper websites in America, it would be the Washington Times. It ranks 29th out of 30 for time on site, ahead of only the International Herald Tribune. But it beats the IHT on the pathetic scale due to it’s ridiculously high 5 minute refresh interval. At that rate, one would expect them to rate higher for time on site. They must churn through many visitors in under 5 minutes who never make it to the first forced refresh of their browsers. Admittedly, the Washington Times is not as pathetic as the Drudge Report’s pathetically high 3-minute refresh rate.

What Should Advertisers Do?

Websites of large newspapers have huge audiences so it’s hard to ignore them as a potential ad publishers. However, before trusting them with your money, ask a few rational questions:

1. Are you willing to pay for ad impressions automatically served while people are sleeping with a browser open?

2. Are you willing to pay for ad impressions automatically served while people are in meetings or at lunch during their work day?

3. Will you pay for ad impressions automatically served on a user’s home computer while they’re at work?

4. Will you pay for ad impressions served in open browser tabs other than the one the user is viewing?

Do your best to figure out what percentage of your ads are actually being seen by humans, and ask for fair price adjustments. There is definitely a fair price for the ads since humans do see some percentage of them. Then measure the performance of your ads against other online marketing opportunities and re-negotiate your ad buy as needed.

Or, newspaper publishers could start treating their advertisers with respect by only serving ads that will be seen. Sadly, I don’t think that’s a cultural fit for today’s newspaper industry who has a habit of stretching the truth about circulation.