Marketers monitor dot-gov sites

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 government sites.

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 marketing stuff."

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.

"We have a privacy policy, and our privacy policy says we don't keep 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.

"Our privacy policy is pretty tight. We don't release anything without 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 consumers.

"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.

MORE INFO

Rank Overall rank Web site

1. 238 www.census.gov

2. 258 www.usps.gov

3. 267 www.irs.gov

4. 310 www.ustreas.gov

5. 329 www.nasa.gov

6. 424 www.nih.gov

7. 426 www.ed.gov

8. 463 www.fedworld.gov

9. 492 www.loc.gov

10. 530 www.ca.govSource: PC Data Online Reports

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