Divining the Statistics

Tracking politics as it's practiced on the Web.
July 10 2000 9:30 PM

Divining the Statistics

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Slate, the Industry Standard, and washingtonpost.com join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000.  

It should come as no surprise that as political campaigning has moved online, so have the squabbles over which campaign runs the most effective Web site.

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The Gore campaign recently questioned the Web site statistics recorded by PC Data Online (and also quoted by the Standard in its Net Election coverage) that showed the unique visitors to George W. Bush's Web site in May outstripped those to Al Gore's Web site by a sizable 94,000.

Ben Green, Gore's director of Internet operations, said the unique visitors he counted to the Gore site were slightly more than 300,000, compared with just 89,000 counted by PC Data Online.

Green's definition of unique visitors is different than that of PC Data Online. "We define a unique visitor as someone who goes to your site once in a 24-hour period," Green says. "I know that is different from how other outfits may define a unique visitor." Green calls the 30-day period provided by PC Data Online "purely arbitrary" and notes that the company does not have access to the site's logs to count visitors.

PC Data Online gleans its numbers from the activity of 120,000 PC users, who download software that tracks their Web surfing. This excludes Apple computer users and people using PCs at work. To fine-tune its numbers, PC Data Online weighs the results against a quarterly telephone survey that gathers demographic information on the home Internet user.

Green joins a growing chorus of political strategists who say campaign Web sites require their own set of metrics to measure success—different from the statistics typically used for e-commerce sites—because the sites' goals are unique and their life spans are much shorter.

"To date, the Internet is being used to raise money, to fire up volunteers, to help register people," says Michael Cornfield, a Democracy Online Project professor of political management at George Washington University. "By that theory, the number of people who visit a Web site in a given day is a crude indicator of the number of people interested in participating," Cornfield adds, referring to the Gore campaign's 24-hour measure of unique users.

The preferred metrics for a full political-site portrait would include contributions received through the Web site, size of the site's e-mail list, and average time spent on the site. But Green defends his 24-hour count of unique visitors, saying, "We've got a mission to accomplish here and a fairly small window in time to accomplish it." He adds, "We're trying to have people coming to our site on a daily basis."

Tom Yeatts, co-founder of online political-consulting firm VirtualSprockets, which worked on the McCain 2000 campaign for Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the PC Data Online figures also are better than counting unique visitors in a 24-hour period. "That's completely misleading," Yeatts says, pointing out that the number of unique visitors can spike after a debate or a major speech. A spike might prove that the speech worked, but it provides only a snapshot, rather than a more sweeping view of how the site is doing.

Cliff Angelo, e-campaign manager for Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush, said even a month-long figure can be deceptive, depending on what's happening on the campaign trail.