Alexx Cass

The Real Impact of Auto-Refresh Page Inflation

It's no secret that some Australian websites continue to report traffic from their automatically refreshed web pages, even though the inclusion of this traffic is condemned by sectors of the industry because in most cases it significantly inflates the figures used in the market. To this point, the MFA have recently sent a letter to their media-buying members warning them about wasting money on auto-refreshing websites that could be serving ads that are never seen.

Within the local debate, there have been many ethical and commercial arguments for and against the practice but little empirical evidence to shed light on what actually happens to traffic figures when auto-refreshing pages are counted towards market metrics. This article will explore the real impact of auto-refreshing, not only on Page Impressions, but also on other key engagement metrics such as Session Duration which contribute to the commercial appeal of a website.

The problem is bigger than you think

You may hear that auto-refreshing pages is not a problem, "what's an extra 10% or 20% here or there ... media-buyers discount for that anyway, so it all comes out in the wash." The reality however is that impact of auto-refresh inflation on audience figures is severe. The addition of this simple line of code can double page impressions and more than quadruple session duration.

It's possible that the impact of auto-refreshing was relatively minor when it was first introduced, but the online landscape has changed significantly since then. Given the take-up of multi-tabbed and always-on web browsers, it's important for the industry to understand the full impact on market metrics when publishers count a web page constantly refreshing in the background, regardless of whether it's being viewed by human eyes or not.

The smoking gun

To understand the true before-and-after effect of auto-refresh inflation I analysed the traffic changes to two ad-supported websites that have previously experimented with auto-refreshing every 15 minutes and then have subsequently removed the auto-refresh code from their pages. This analysis uses 2008-9 data available to the market from Nielsen Online Market Intelligence. As you can see below, the impact is enormous, with page impressions essentially doubling and session duration being so vastly inflated to the point of being unusable as a meaningful metric.

Auto Refresh Inflation Figures

Auto Refresh Inflation Graph









Protect Yourself

Media-buyers in particular should be aware of the risks associated with buying on unaudited web audience figures, in particular from sites that employ auto-refreshing. The Audit Bureaux of Australia (ABA) and Media Federation of Australia (MFA) have been closely working together to protect their agency members and ensure they can easily identify websites that have passed the ABA measurement rules audit with a green tick. An ABA green tick is your assurance that your advertising investment has a greater chance of reaching eyeballs.

Publishers can demonstrate their commitment an open and transparent relationship with their advertiser clients by ensuring that they are compliant with all industry-agreed web audience measurement rules. Don't let these issues such as double-tagging, undercounting and flawed rich media measurement catch you by surprise; quite often your web developer implementing the tracking tag isn't aware of the industry-agreed measurement rules.

No leg to stand on

In addition to the empirical evidence above proving extreme auto-refresh inflation, it's important to note that there is also very little international support for the practise of including auto-refreshed traffic in web audience measurements so any publisher engaging in this practise is putting themselves at odds with the global online advertising community. Following is a collection of various industry standpoints on auto-refreshing:

1.     In the US, the IAB's Audience Measurement rules do not allow the measurement of auto-refreshed pages on normal websites (but gives some leeway for rich media applications).

"only those pages in which user interaction occurs can contribute to calculations of Time Spent, or to counts of additional impressions beyond the first measured impression."

2.     The ABA Digital Watchdog committee (which includes the MFA and audited publishers) unanimously outlawed the practise of including auto-refreshed traffic in market metrics. Publishers using this practise are non-compliant with the ABA measurement rules and will therefore fail the audit:

3.     Expect more attention on this issue from the MFA in the coming months in addition to the letter they have sent to their members encouraging them to demand audited figures.

4.     This practice does not comply with the W3C Accessibility Guidelines: because it discriminates towards people with vision impairments.

"let the user control if and when content is updated, in order to avoid confusion or disorientation caused by automatic refreshes that cause a change of context"

5.     There is very little public support either, according to a recent local CBS Interactive survey, only 9% of respondents thought it was acceptable for publishers to use auto-refresh:

Publishers can take immediate action to correct it and reaffirm their commitment to their advertiser clients; simply remove your tags from auto-refreshing pages before your advertisers revert to other F words to describe what they are buying. Remember, you can still refresh your pages; just exclude them from your market metrics so that they are not inflated.

Follow the ABA Watchdog on Twitter for important reports and industry rules updates:


Posted by John Lynch, 20 January 2010

It’s interesting to see that there has not been a rebuttal from any publishing quarters, or a counter argument proposed.

Posted by dody, 18 February 2011

As per the point above, the way people are watching programming is changing. Take the UK phenomenon the X Factor and look at its YouTube channel which has been viewed more than 250 million times - people are using it to catch-up and share the content. However, what's more interesting is when consumers are watching TV at the same time as being online. News Articles Nielsen stats suggest nearly 50% of TV viewers in Australia also use a laptop at the same time. We are seeing the emergence of panel based TV shows setting up hashtags to create viewer conversation/debate or taking questions from viewers via YouTube. Thinking about this in marketing/media terms, we don't just want to have an ad in the 1st break of Packed to the Rafters but one that links with or incites online discussions.


Alexx Cass Audit Bureaux of Australia Alexx Cass
Company: Audit Bureaux of Australia
Position: Digital Watchdog

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