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Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company
The New York Times
April 17, 1996, Wednesday, Late Edition - Final
SECTION: Section D; Page 1; Column 5; Business/Financial Desk
LENGTH: 940 words
HEADLINE: In a Recount, Cyber Census Still Confounds
BYLINE: By PETER H. LEWIS
Millions of Internet users have vanished without a trace since last summer. Millions
more have reappeared since December. And a couple of million disappeared
again just yesterday, when Nielsen Media Research revised its estimates of
Internet use among adults in the United States.
More than half a year after the most ambitious attempt to count the number of
people using the Internet, Nielsen and its academic advisers -- looking at the
same set of data -- appear to be hopelessly split on how to interpret the
numbers. Depending on whom and when one asks, there were 22 million adult Americans on
the Internet last August. Or 19.4 million. Or 16.4 million.
Meanwhile, no one knows for sure what the population of cyberspace is in
And after months of a surprisingly rancorous dispute over the normally dry
science of statistical weighting, the companies that commissioned the survey
have come up with their own conclusion: The results of last summer's head count
simply do not matter any more. The companies intend to keep on doing what they have been, pumping
billions of dollars into the Internet and its World Wide Web on the assumption that
if they build it, the multitudes -- whatever the number -- will come.
"At this point, we don't want to be involved with the bickering over which
statistical technique is accurate," said Asim Abdullah, acting executive
director of Commercenet, a consortium of more than 130 high-tech companies
interested in Internet commerce, which commissioned Nielsen's original report. "Our members
have other things to worry about."
"Yeah, we're in a hurricane, and they are arguing about whether the wind is
blowing 150 miles an hour or 120 miles an hour," said Mark Resch, general
manager of advanced technology business services for Xerox Business Services in
Palo Alto, Calif. "The argument is intellectually interesting, and it totally misses the point.
Activity on our Web site is up 10 percent a month, steadily."
Based on an ambitious telephone survey last August that was designed by
Nielsen Media Research and Profs. Donna L. Hoffman and Thomas P. Novak of
Vanderbilt University in Nashville, the researchers initially reported that
there were 22 million adult Internet users in the United States.
The numbers, which more than doubled previous estimates of Internet users,
were quickly embraced by companies hoping to strike it rich in electronic
But in a departure from the normally staid realm of academic debate,
Professor Hoffman in December publicly disavowed the Nielsen report, saying
that its conclusions were invalid. She said her own analysis of the survey data
indicated that that there were fewer than 10 million Internet users in the United States
and Canada combined.
Professor Hoffman said she went public only after Nielsen officials did not
respond to her concerns.
But Jack Loftus, a Nielsen executive, said the company was surprised and
stunned in December by what he described as Professor Hoffman's "brutal,
bitter and unprofessional attack on us."
"That really hurt us," Mr. Loftus said. "It caused us all kinds of trouble.
Sales came to a screeching halt." Nielsen had been selling the report for $5,000
Last Friday night, after a more detailed analysis of Nielsen's raw numbers
and methodology, the Vanderbilt professors, joined by William D. Kalsbeek, a
researcher in biostatistics at the University of North Carolina, posted a report
on the World Wide Web, calling Nielsen's analysis "seriously flawed" and "grossly inflated."
A more reasonable estimate of Internet users, the professors concluded, was
16.4 million. While significantly higher than the 10 million figure Professor
Hoffman proffered in December, it still represented 5.6 million fewer users
than Nielsen's count. The discrepancy, the professors said, was due to fundamental mistakes
Nielsen made in interpreting the raw data.
Further, she and the other professors contended, Nielsen's estimate of 16.9
million American users of the World Wide Web should have been 11.5 million.
And Nielsen's conclusion that 1.97 million people had purchased something on the
Web should have been 1.51 million, the professors said.
Nielsen, a unit of Dun & Bradstreet that is best known for providing
advertisers and broadcast networks with estimates of television viewership,
responded with its own Web posting over the weekend, accusing Professor
Hoffman of deliberately misrepresenting the company's research and "jimmying the numbers."
And yet, shortly after the professors' posting, Nielsen officials sharpened
their pencils and took another look at their own numbers. Yesterday, explaining
that it had analyzed the data using a more complex weighting system -- placing
more emphasis on age, for instance, and somewhat less on income -- Nielsen released a new
While insisting that the original count was also accurate, Nielsen officials
said that this new interpretation of the August numbers would yield the
following results: 19.4 million Internet users, 14.6 million Web users, and 1.9
million people who had bought something on line.
Sunil Gupta, a business professor at the University of Michigan who also had
access to the Nielsen raw data, said it appeared that both sides had made
mistakes in their first attempts to measure the size of the Internet.
"Nielsen did a great job in the way they conducted the survey, but they got
really sloppy at the end in how they analyzed the data," Professor Gupta said.
"Still, whether you agree with Donna Hoffman or with Nielsen, it is probably
the best survey among all that have been done."
GRAPHIC: Chart: "Splitting Hairs Over a Head Count"
Using the same survey data, Nielsen Media Research and its principal
academic adviser have arrived at different estimates of Internet use in the
United States last year. A heated debate began in December, when the adviser --
Donna L. Hoffman, a business professor at Vanderbilt University -- said the Commercenet/Nielsen
Internet Demographic Survey may have "significantly inflated" its findings.
On Friday, Professor Hoffman and others released their latest conclusions. Nielsen lowered its estimates yesterday. Chart compares findings of Professor Hoffman
with those of Nielsen in currently and formerly. (Sources: Nielsen Media Research;
Professor Donna L. Hoffman) (pg. D5)