This is the first article in a two-part series detailing changes in the use of the Web and what they mean for online real estate.

The Web is changing. Sure, it has always been changing, but this is more than the addition of a few more websites or the falling away of others. What’s changing isn’t even really that measurable in terms of websites added or subtracted.

We’ve suffered through years of Web 2.0 and social media cheerleading, most of which is all-too-simplistically boiled down to a list of 10 great apps (later in this column you’ll see that I’m certainly not immune to the 10 great apps phenomenon) and some charts and graphs about the growth of the Facebook audience.

I think that’s the sideshow — it’s missing the real change.

What’s changing is what people use the Web to accomplish. It’s what the geeks call "use case." When people change the way they use a tool or the thing they want to accomplish with the tool, then the tool has to change as well.

The Web currently is a pile of documents: Web pages. Every page has an address, called a URL (uniform resource locator). The way people have used the Web has been sort of like a giant filing cabinet or other big reference collection. We want some information and we go look it up.

Businesses have been using the Web more or less like a mashup of the Yellow Pages and their product brochures. In real estate, other than the delivery mechanism, there isn’t an especially significant difference between the classifieds or Homes & Land publications and most real estate websites: property data converted from paper documents into digital documents.

The temptation when standing at the cusp of any change in use case or technology is to ridicule the previous generation as old-fashioned or laughably out of date. The bravely myopic usually go so far as to predict the death of an entire way of doing things.

History usually rides over these views: Live theater continues to exist amid a world of movie theaters, radio continues to exist amid a world of television, the newspaper continues to exist amid a world of Web documents.

Certainly the business models change and some of the prominence changes. But the technologies and media rarely disappear entirely. A form of media typically only becomes popular and widespread because there is a human need to experience things in a certain way.

We, as humans, like to gather in places with one another and see real people pretending to be people they’re not, and so there is still an audience for live theater. We like to hear other people tell stories while our eyes and hands are free to wash dishes or drive the car or eat dinner, so radio still has a place in our lives.

The way people use Web technology is definitely changing, but keep this in mind as we discuss the death of the document-driven Web.

Metrics and technology

As a data geek, I am constantly aware of Mark Twain’s classification of lies: "There are lies, damn lies and statistics." There are, of course, many ways to end up at wrong or non-useful conclusions through the use of numbers.

When there’s a shift in how we use stuff, the old ways of measuring use rarely pick it up. So new ways of measuring use arise. But also, since people in decision-making roles tend to be slowest in adopting new measurements, the old measurements linger.

For example, in the initial shift from traditional media to online media the way use was measured changed a little bit. We went from "impressions" in television or print to "page views" in the online world. This was a pretty simple adjustment, and reflected the targeting advantage that online media distribution has over print and other traditional media.

"Page views" also related to how we used the Web: as a big pile of documents. Knowing how many of those documents were looked at or how many times any particular document was looked at made some sense.

Finally, the most prominent business model was advertising. Since ads were attached to pages, knowing how many times a page was viewed has a meaningful relationship to how many ads were viewed (and how much money was being made).

So page views, as an important metric, embodied the change: it was relevant to a technology that was focused on documents, it was relevant to advertising business models, and it wasn’t so different from the previous generation of metrics.

Changing metrics, changing technology

In the past few years, "unique visitors" and "registered users" have gained prominence among online metrics. This has accompanied the increasing use of social networking sites, social media sites and other Web apps.

These metrics work because they have a relation to the actual people who are using the Web. While certainly not a one-to-one relationship, they at least point in that direction. For online businesses that charge a subscription for membership, this metric also relates pretty directly to revenue.

But many popular Web applications aren’t based on subscriptions. They’re free to use — like Facebook. The number of registered Facebook users is a statistic that relates to cost (maintaining the hardware and infrastructure of the social networking service), and not a direct revenue source. So a different metric is needed.

The old page view won’t work for Web applications like Facebook. The reason: all that fancy auto-updating interface stuff that came along with Web 2.0 resulted in fewer page views than the first-generation Web.

Lately, the metric I hear a lot about tends to relate to the amount of time people spend on a site or using the site. This one is probably going to stick. It is a proxy for meaningfulness of an app in the lives of its users, based on the current cost of use vs. value gained. Advertisers remember it from TV and radio.

Mixed metrics

There can be a problem, however, when using new metrics to measure prior technologies. And that is what I am starting to see happen. This is where we go from statistics to "damn lies."

The change in use of the Web that we’re seeing now — from a document-based search experience to a social-interaction application experience — is real. However, in terms of what we do in coordination with or in response to that changing use, we need to take some care — especially in understanding how measurement is being used.

If we use "engagement time" to show that the document-based Web is not being used as much, we’re telling the truth. People are using social sites and other Web apps more than they are reading documents online. This should be a surprise to no one. Bars and nightclubs are more popular than libraries, after all.

If, on the other hand, we use "engagement time" as a proxy of relative value of the two experiences — reading documents vs. using an online app — we’re not being honest. The two experiences are different — done for different reasons at different times, and to resolve different needs.

The truism of "fish where the fish are" is sort of true. But "fish where the fish are hungry" is probably more true. The trick is in figuring out where the fish are hungry.

For real estate, discovering an online model that involves more than property documents is important going forward. We’ll explore that in the next article. Meanwhile, here’s a top 10 list to help you honestly evaluate technology usage:

10 great apps for understanding how people use technology
1. Your hands
2. Your mind
3. Your ears
4. Your eyes
5. Your feet
6. Your stomach
7. The hair on the back of your neck
8. Your mouth
9. Your muscles
10. The size of your pockets

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