Wednesday, October 18, 2006

CNET's Traffic Decline: An Alternate Explanation

There has been a lot of buzz recently about how CNET's traffic numbers are way down year-over-year. By some reports, CNET's traffic has been cut in half in just the last year. By any measure that's a big decline and certainly CNET should be worried, but I'm not yet writing off a company who has stuck around since the earliest days of the web.

CNET's traffic decline has been widely attributed to the upsurge of tech-related bloggers, though no one has given any evidence whatsoever that this is the true cause. Yes, there are more blogs than ever, and yes CNET's traffic has declined, but this doesn't mean one caused the other.

In fact, although CNET's page views have declined in the last year, I have not seen any data that suggests unique users have declined. So the same number of users are viewing fewer pages. Is this cause for worry? Probably not and here's why: CNET is getting more efficient at serving users.

What has been widely overlooked is that CNET's pages have been redesigned, for the better, over the last year. Each of CNET's product reviews - the heart of CNET's business - are now on one page rather than spread over 4 or 5 pages. So the user who goes to CNET researching digital cameras may have been generating 4 or 5 pages views last year, but is now generating one.

Here's why this is actually a good thing:
  • CNET holds on to the user. Keeping all the product review info on one page makes it less likely to lose the user along the way and more likely that a user will click to buy the product from one of the merchant's who advertises on CNET. CNET is a sales lead generating machine and making it faster and easier for users to click through to merchants is only a good thing.
  • A decline in page views does not necessarily mean a decline in revenue. Like almost all online media companies, CNET sells only a fraction of its overall page views at high CPM rates. The rest is excess inventory which is monetized by ad networks and other remnant ads with much, much lower CPMs. I don't know what CNET's advertising sell out rate is, but I would be surprised if it were more than 50% for all their sites combined. So lopping off 50% of CNET's page views only cuts out the remnant ads - not the high CPMs, for which CNET gets some of the highest rates in the industry.
CNET reports quarterly results on October 23. This will be a good opportunity to see how much, if any, declining page views have had on the company's top line. CNET has a lot of challenges ahead of it, but I think it's premature to write off the company's prospects on just one piece of potentially misleading data like page views.

Full disclosure: I am long on CNET. I used to work at CNET several years ago, but have no inside knowledge of the company at this point.


Anonymous said...

James I had no other way to contact you. Your take on CNET is good. I have a live program that I would like to interview you on
the site is My name is andrew Coffey lets talk
you can erase this after you read
thanks and in haste I go on at 9am CST

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