The Confusion over Internet 'User' Stats in India

Posted by Rahul Sethi on 12:19 PM

(The Confusing World of ‘Internet User’ Statistics)

The recent ICube Report released jointly by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) and IMRB International states that number of active Internet users in India had reached 32 million in September 2007, up only 10.9 million from 21.1 million in September 2006.

This means that as of September 2007, only 3.2% of the Indian population actively uses the Internet. On one hand these figures are extremely heartbreaking for Internet based businesses and start ups. There is a Silver lining – with a miniscule active user base, online ad revenues are steadily growing (Rs. 218 Crore for 2007 according to IAMAI). Therefore possibilities are immense.

This article however, is not about that – its about the reports that are generated by generally very reputed companies that create a haze of doubt in the minds of Internet consumers, advertisers, and commentators alike.

Consider the IAMAI report for 2007.

It states that the claimed user rate is 46 million. Claimed users are those who have used the Internet at least once.

Notice here that last year (2006’s) claimed Internet user base is 32.2 million.

Here is a link to Internet World Stats which compiles data of Internet penetration over the World. It quotes an IAMAI report which says that last years claimed user base is actually 40 million (as of November 2006) and 37 million (as of September 2006) and not 32.2 million as the recent report claims.

There are obvious data consistencies.

It seems like the IAMAI has adjusted last years picture to create a rosier picture this year. Although the IAMAI does not attempt to profess that this kind of growth is impressive, it quite clearly is adjusting figures to make it sound like the Indian Internet space is achieving 40% growth year on year. Subho Ray, President of the IAMAI sounds worried, saying that 40 percent year-on-year growth (of ever Internet users) is not satisfactory: “If the broadband targets are not met in the Year of the Broadband there is a possibility of missing out on creating a virtuous cycle of better connectivity, better content and more users.”

As I said, the 40% growth picture may not be entirely accurate because according to a study by Internet World Stats estimates the claimed users at 42 million (as of November 2007) . Remember again that it quotes an IAMAI report for 2006 which says that claimed users in November 2006 were 40 million. So technically according to them it is a 5% growth. Even more depressing is the fact that the actual % penetration of the Internet has increased only by .1% from 3.6% to 3.7%. So much for India – the ‘technological superpower’.

Keep in mind that the IAMAI is an industry body that represents Internet and Mobile companies.

Further, if you notice the Internet World Stats site more carefully, you will notice that in 2005, the claimed users were actually 50 million+ (according to a report by CI Almanac). So obviously there is something that does not match. Claimed users are those that have used the Internet at least once. So how can there be such a drastic difference between the claimed users, that too a fall in 2 years? All this only indicates that figures can be fabricated – and viewers mislead.

I am not a data researcher and making no attempt to judge which report is more accurate. I am merely pointing out data inconsistencies that can give have a big impact on statistics and %’s. This can directly affect the amount of investment and expenditure that is poured into the Internet in India by people who are shown flashy presentations.

Lies, damn lies, and statistics.

A positive from the IAMI report is that it is based on a survey of 65,000 households in 24 cities. This is a big step up from surveys on TRP’s done by TAM India which has a representative sample of 500 people! The IAMI can learn from TAM in the sense that they can make their sample representative as well and provide as much accuracy as possible.

Anyway, the ‘claimed user’ figure would not seem of any Interest to me especially if I was an advertiser. I would be far from interested in sporadic hits that will not generate any value for my brand.

So maybe then I should look at ‘Active Internet Users’ – yes that seems like a category that can be leveraged.

“Active users” are those who’ve accessed the Internet at least once a month. Well that does not seem like an audience who will be actively engaged either!

The report should thus have statistics on how many people user the internet daily, weekly, fortnightly, monthly etc. It should probably have statistics on how many people user the internet twice a week, three times a week etc. This gives advertisers more scope and accuracy while planning Internet media.

I would also like to draw you back to a report in the Economic Times which states that ‘the total internet connections in the country declined to 9.22 million in April-June from 9.27 million’.

One can only hope that better measures are put in place in order to validate reports released by bodies that are industry representatives. It is ironic that the Internet is supposedly known for transparency but reports on Internet penetration are as hazy as Mumbai on a December morning.

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