Online Time

According to a report released this month by the Online Publishers Association (OPA) online content has trumped communications and now takes up more of users’ online time than anything else. Communications, via email and instant messaging, is still the second most popular online activity, but time spent doing it has dropped significantly. Coincidentally, there is an increased interest in measuring more precisely how users’ online time is spent; both comScore and Nielsen/NetRatings are adjusting their metrics. Nielsen/NetRatings will be taking into account the amount of time users spend on sites rather than looking simply at the number of page views, and comScore will be offering an expanded view of search to include more detailed activity outside of the five major U.S. search engines.The OPA’s report examines a four-year period of the organization’s Online Activity Index, “a monthly gauge of the time being spent with e-commerce, communications, content and search.” (Incidentally, Nielsen/Net Ratings conducts this work.) Pam Horan, OPA president said, “The index indicates that, over the last four years, the primary role of the Internet has shifted from communications to content.” This shift has been, “fairly steady in the last several years, growing 10 percent from 2003 to 2004, remaining even between 2004 and 2005, growing 13 percent from 2005 to 2006, and growing 13 percent from 2006 to 2007.” Overall the report says that users now spend 47 percent of their online time with content; communications is at 33 percent and is followed by commerce and then search. These numbers represent a virtual flip from the snapshot four years ago when 46 percent of users’ time was spent with communication and just 34 percent with content. Contributing factors to the change include wider access to a faster Internet, more content, and the rise in use of instant messaging which is seen as a more efficient means of communication. Two other factors which bear special note are the rise in online video and improved search.

That online video has contributed to the increased time users spend with content may seem obvious; video is everywhere. But what the video users are turning to may be a surprise. Net users are well aware of YouTube and Media companies are working toward digital distribution for their programming. (Both ABC and CBS have recently made headlines in this area.) However, while growth in both user- and studio-generated full-length content are on the rise they do not define ‘content’, or even video content for that matter. Another report, by Optigence, states that, “Study results indicate that the majority of consumers are viewing video online, at 62 percent of survey respondents. Contrary to popular opinion, these viewers are not simply young adults viewing user-generated videos, but are in fact comprised mostly of those ages 35 and older viewing news clips online.” The relevance of news, both in print and video format, to the increased time spent with content is also noted by the OPA, “The dominant role of content is driven by several important factors. The first is the online transition of traditionally offline activities, such as getting news, finding entertainment information or checking the weather.” While the news, entertainment information, and the weather may be delivered via online video, the report suggests that the shift is somewhat attitudinal. Users may turn to the Web for video, but they must first turn to the Web; and in turning to the Web the first stop is often search.

Simply put content requires search: in order to engage with content online, text or video, it must first be located. Therefore, search continues to ride on the coattails of content. According to the OPA report, while communications dropped significantly (and commerce shrank) time spent with search grew. “The 37 percent gain in share for content is followed closely by a 35 percent gain in share for search.” At the same time, while content mandates search and thereby secures its existence, search is not without challenges. First of all, stating that time spent searching has jumped 35 percent over four years ago makes the growth in this sector seem on par with that of content. However, search growth in some ways has pretty much remained flat; the time users spend searching only moved up by 2 percentage points and now only accounts for 5 percent of online time. Also, of the four channels the OPA looked at, search came in last: 80 percent of the time market still belongs to content and communications. Search with its five percent comes in fourth, after commerce’s 15 percent.

Furthermore, while the OPA notes that search is getting better, “The improvement in search allows consumers to more easily and quickly find the exact content they are looking for,” this is cited as a reason for the increased time spent with content. Improved search results increases “the likelihood they [users] will engage more deeply with that content.” Interestingly enough, search’s increased effectiveness may end up being somewhat of a detriment. In addition, while search may be required in the online landscape, visits to search sites are typically of short duration. Search companies, such as Google, could see their rankings slip with the introduction of Nielsen/NetRatings’ new metric which will measure how long users spend at a site. “It is not that page views are irrelevant now, but they are a less accurate gauge of total site traffic and engagement,” says Scott Ross, director of product marketing at Nielsen/NetRatings.

A more complete version of this post, including links to market research, can be found at the website of Analyst Views Weekly.

More information on this topic can be found in Northern Light’s Internet & Information Services Market Intelligence Center.

And in the following articles:

New Web Metric Likely to Hurt Google, Help YouTube
PC World, September 7, 2007
In a nod to the success of emerging Web 2.0 technologies like AJAX and streaming media, one of the country’s largest Internet benchmarking companies will no longer use page views as its primary metric for comparing sites. Nielsen/NetRatings will announce Tuesday that it will immediately begin using total time spent by users of a site as its primary measurement metric.

The Hubbub over Hulu
BusinessWeek Online, August 30, 2007
In March, News Corp. and NBC Universal made an announcement akin to an end-of-season cliffhanger. The media titans were teaming up to bring the best of prime-time TV and other high-quality programming to a new Web site they would develop together. The site didn’t have a name. The shows it would feature were not yet known. The launch date was to be determined. But, if all went according to plan, executives promised the site would change the online video landscape. Just stay tuned, they said.

Half of Web Time Spent Viewing Content: Study
Reuters, August 13, 2007
Content online is king. Internet users spend nearly half their time online viewing news or entertainment content, surpassing activities such as sending e-mails, shopping or searching for information, according to a study released by the Online Publishers Association on Monday.

OPA: Web Users Spend More Time with Content Than Communication
MediaWeek, August 13, 2007
Despite the ubiquity of e-mail and instant messaging, and despite the huge growth in social networking, surfing the Web has become more about reading and watching than it is about staying in touch with friends and co-workers. Based on a four-year analysis of consumers’ Web activity conducted by the Online Publishers Association, users now spend 47 percent of their time online with content, versus 33 percent of their time with communications.

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