% fortune -ae paul murphy

The eyeballs war

Last week the Chicago Tribune reported the arrest of "three former employees of Tribune Co. newspapers over their alleged roles in a circulation scandal that engulfed the papers last year. ... The government charged the men with criminal fraud for helping overstate the papers' circulation, or sales."

By coincidence the report came about a week after Zdnet carried the news that Google had achieved a higher market value than Time-Warner:

With a current [June 7/05] stock market capitalisation of more than $80 billion, Google is now worth more than any other media company in the world. That includes Time Warner, created five years ago when AOL purchased Time Warner for $106 billion in a much-hyped combination of old and new media.

What these two reports have in common is the eyeball war. As the Tribune's report said: "Newspapers use circulation figures to set rates charged to advertisers" and so does the rest of the industry, including google.

Believers will tell you that google is worth more than Time Warner despite having less than 10% of the latter's revenues and no track record of profitability because it either already has, or soon will have, the ability to drive more sales, at a lower cost to the advertiser, than its more traditional competitor. Personally I expect Time Warner to be making money long after Google turns into Altavista, but that's not the point: the point is that even the most basic measure of advertising reach, eyeballs on the page, isn't terribly credible.

If you run a personal or organisational website you're probably familiar with a special form of this problem. Consider, for example, this apache log entry from my Winface server: - - [16/Jun/2005:11:08:30 -0400] "GET /any/tips_11.html HTTP/1.1" 200 1458 "http://www.winface.com/any/index.html" "Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 6.0; Windows NT 5.0; .NET CLR 1.1.4322)"

I generated that page hit myself using a PC belonging to a school and then went to another PC in same school and did it again - but I only got the one log record. That happens because the school district has a little internal network and uses a proxy server to minimise traffic on its external ISP connection. That server cached the first request, and served the second one without linking to my site at all.

The HTTP 1.1 protocol includes HTTP header directives telling cache holders like the SQUID open source proxy server how long they can hold a document. Apache's mod_expires module, for example, lets you set cache expiry dates far into the future for infrequently changed objects like background graphics and in the past for text objects. This causes graphics to be cached locally while text will refreshed for most new readers -meaning that you will get a log record for most reads, but traffic volume will still be minimised.

People have come up with other measures, but they all have weaknesses. For example, the obvious idea that you should ignore page reads to concentrate on change in product sales doesn't apply in PR advertising and doesn't let you test one ad against another while both are running. Using cookies or client-side javascript sounds good, but not all proxy servers handle cookies predictably and both javascript and cookies can be turned off in the client. You can do panel studies, get big ISPs like AOL to meter hits for you, or expire everything on service and dynamically tinker with each page to force cache reloads, but those solutions cost dollars. Other solutions cost eyeballs: for example, uncacheable redirects, like doubleclick's, or forcing readers to login on your site, can be so annoying that a lot of readers simply go elsewhere.

There's a simple bottom line to all this, and a very unsimple consequence. The bottom line is that organizations whose technical staff plan services around both their own measurement issues and the needs of proxy cache users can do much better on counting and verification than organizations whose staffs treat measurement as something that happens after they've done their jobs.

The unsimple consequences are likely to be unpleasant for all involved. The legal action against the three former Tribune Co. employees, for example, adds weight to the arguments of those in the news businesses who want to restrict web access to paid subscribers because that turns the web access measurement problem into the traditional one they believe they understand. That may seem fair, but their actions will reduce the value of the web to the rest of us by making some news reporting and interpretation inaccessible again.

More tenuously, continuing improvement in world wide network performance may gradually reduce the advantages offered by sophisticated content distributors like Akamai to the point that the measurement advantages of directly controlling your own server dominant decision making -eventually putting them out of business and raising everyone's infrastructure cost by reducing sharing.

Paul Murphy wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 25-year veteran of the I.T. consulting industry, specialising in Unix and Unix-related management issues.