Last Tuesday, Nielsen/NetRatings, "a global leader in Internet media and market research" (the company's words), announced a key change to its Top Web Brands rankings. Dropping the page view as its chief criterion, Nielsen is now focused far more on the time visitors spend on the site ("total minutes") to measure site engagement.
And for good reason. With the proliferation of Ajax technology -- around in various forms for over a decade, but now something of a new Web norm -- visitors can have deep online experiences without leaving a single page. A gamer can conduct hours of online play, and a rich media consumer can watch endless amounts of video, without ever clicking a link. The more you can do on one page, the less jumping from one page to the next becomes a relevant measurement of brand affinity -- which is why Nielsen has made time spent, not the number of pages looked at, into the new key metric of a Web brand's popularity. That's bad news for search engines, and for Google in particular. The search engine business is one of quickly farming users out to millions of other sites as efficiently as possible, a service that's rich in page views but poor in time spent with the engine. It's a page view play, not an engagement one, which is why Tuesday saw Google drop from Nielsen's No. 1 Web brand down to No. 5.
Is Nielsen's new ranking approach the right move? Yes and no. As a way to understand the value of Web brands, time spent is certainly a metric that's gotten short shrift until now. Even without considering Ajax, it makes sense that users would spend more time on the sites they like more. Which is why time spent on the site is a crucial factor in determining brand affinity.
But what Nielsen is missing lies in what it's looking to rank -- the "Top Web Brands." That's a ranking of brand equity rating. But on the Internet, brand equity only goes halfway for making brands valuable. It's not how powerful your brand is that matters; it's how you leverage that brand to interact with customers.
A large brand affinity relies on striking a common ground among a wide section of the population; millions of people like Coke and Mickey Mouse, and so Coca Cola and Disney are masters of brand equity. But in today's media universe, where the plethora of choice means that everyone is looking for personally tailored results, the keys to winning financially don't just lie in brand equity alone.
Brand attracts the customers, as brand is the packaging that allows users to understand a product and, afterwards, to evangelize it to friends. But in the end, it's personally tailored results that will get users to stick. A good brand pulls people in; a personalized product keeps them coming back.
That, for example, is the genius of the iPod. The little white device is the most popular piece of fashion equipment around, which is a brand experience. But the iPod's function is to deliver whatever specific music its users care to hear -- which is a customized experience. Ditto e-Bay and Amazon, the brands considered the best places for everyone to find whatever they want, and which visitors use to find the specific items they're looking to buy.
The converse is also true. Take MySpace's recent challenges from Facebook. MySpace has fashioned itself into the Web's biggest meet-and-greet; Facebook, meanwhile, has become the place for current and aspiring yuppies to meet the like-minded. By offering a more focused experience, Facebook, the smaller brand, has been able to pose problems for its broad-appeal competitor with the larger brand.
Of course, it's that combination of brand appeal with targeted service that makes for the best of search engines. Everyone who goes to Google.com gets pretty much the same experience: they search for an item and they find it. That makes Google an easily explained, easily packaged brand. But at the same time, the individual results will change from search to search -- or, in Google's ultimate vision, from searcher to searcher. Google (or any good engine) can pull its users in with the brand, and make them into loyal customers with personally tailored results.
Which is why Google remains the king of the Web. It may not be the most treasured brand, and it may not be the place where users spend the most time. But for combining a huge brand following with targeted results, no other business on the Web -- and perhaps no other business in history -- can match it.
Of course Google won't stay on top forever. But for the foreseeable future, its users will be coming back to it for much, much longer than the duration of a page view.