Marketers monitor dot-gov sites
- By Judi Hasson
- Apr 17, 2000
NASA's World Wide Web site has seen such an increase in visitors that it
seems like everyone got a new computer for Christmas, said NASA Webmaster
Brian Dunbar. These days, on any given week, the space agency's site receives
about 2 million hits.
Dunbar is not the only one who has noticed a spike in government Web
site visitors. Other agencies are seeing a big increase in popularity, and
marketing companies are keeping track of it, too.
For the past year, Reston, Va. -based PC Data Inc. has been tracking
the reading habits of 120,000 Web users and the sites they visit, including
The company reports that the most visited sites are usually big portals
such as Yahoo, but government sites are not far behind.
In March, the Census Bureau's site was the most popular
government site, registering number 238 on the company's overall list. The
next two top government sites were those of the U.S. Postal Service
and the Internal Revenue Service.
Other government sites came up frequently as well, including FedWorld, a federal government clearinghouse for jobs and information.
"If you look at it month by month or week by week, you can see how seasonal
it is, and where people are going," said Jim Carey, a spokesman for PC Data
Online Reports, a division of PC Data Inc.
The company charges clients $9,500 a month for access to the data, which
enables them to learn where a typical Web viewer is going.
"Our clients are all over the lot. They want to know where the traffic
is going on a week-to-week basis," Carey said. "They use it for tactical
A Web surfer who visits the popular clothing store the Gap
may also visit the IRS and NASA sites, giving the retailer a profile of
what a potential customer is interested in.
"Obviously, there is such a commercial element to the Web," said NASA's
Dunbar. "This kind of information is going to become useful to everybody."
The NASA site, for instance, has seen a spike in visitors every time
there is a high-profile mission. In December, the Mars Polar Lander and
Hubble Space Telescope service missions attracted more visitors than usual.
But the interest in NASA's Web site has not died down. A year ago, the
site was receiving about 725,000 visitors a year. Last week, 2 million visitors
were counted. "In the past, the traffic spikes, then drops off. This time,
it spiked and kept going," Dunbar said.
Federal agencies increasingly have been using Web sites to communicate
policy and issues with the public as government moves toward the Digital
Age. But probing the habits of consumers may raise privacy questions.
The Agriculture Department, for one, does not keep data on who visits
its site, said USDA Webmaster Vic Powell.
track of individual URLs. If you do nothing but browse through the Web site,
we gather and store information about your visit, but the information does
not identify you personally," Powell said.
Nevertheless, PC Data has figured out a way to track consumer interest.
Although it knows the ages, genders, and income and education levels of
every one of its 120,000 participants, the information is tightly held.
They find their participants by advertising on cable TV, and although they
don't pay them, each Web traveler is eligible to win prizes in weekly sweepstakes.
prior consent," Carey said.
But John DiDuro, deputy CIO at FedWorld, said government sites were
set up to give the public information, not provide marketing data about
"I'm not going to say it's an improper use of the Internet for these
companies to do some pioneering profiling," DiDuro said. However, "certainly,
I don't think [marketing] was on anyone's mind when we were setting up these
sites," he said.